A history of alternative wedding dresses, from minis to black gowns

Think a white dress that is worn only once is tradition? Think again

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If the thought of having to wear a traditional wedding dress fills you with dread, you are not alone. Increasingly, women are searching for an alternative, and more personalised, approach to what to wear on their big day.

The notion of an all-white, wear-it-only-once dress is touted as an age-old tradition that every bride must follow, but in reality, it is something of a modern creation.

Scroll the gallery above to see alternative wedding gown ideas.

Until the mid-1800s, all brides, including those at the very top of the societal ladder, married in the best dress they already owned. If, for some reason, she did have a dress made for the occasion, it was understood by all that it would be worn again.

For this reason, women opted for colours and patterns that allowed maximum usage. White was too impractical to be a serious option.

The history of a white wedding

The woman to buck this trend was Queen Victoria, who is credited with inventing the concept of a white wedding. For her marriage to Prince Albert in 1840, she went against wearing silver or gold lame, as was the fashion at the time, and instead wore a gown of white Spitalfields silk, trimmed with a deep flounce of white Honiton lace.

Queen Victoria's wedding to Prince Albert in 1840. Painting by George Hayter

While she chose her gown and wrote of how much she liked it (so much so that when she died in 1901, she was buried with the veil) the materials were chosen not for aesthetics, but rather to shine a spotlight on the declining British textile industry.

As with all things royal, Queen Victoria’s dress sparked a thousand copy-cats. As the Industrial Revolution brought the cost of cloth down, women were able to have dresses custom-made for special occasions, and what better event than a wedding? It also allowed women to forgo practicality and think instead about wearing look-how-fashionable-I-am white.

And voila, a new trend began.

Today's modern wedding dresses

Fast-forward to today and, thanks to the pandemic that cancelled weddings for more than a year, the price of weddings has gone through the roof, with the average US wedding costing $28,000.

The pandemic has also shifted attitudes away from following social expectation, towards being more authentic. This has led to an increase in brides looking to rent their dress, or forgo one altogether and marry in a dress that can be worn again.

The all-white bridal gown is no longer a must-have, as women instead search for something more personal. Pinterest, for example, has reported an 85 per cent increase in searches for "black wedding dress” year-on-year, as brides look past the norm. Chic and sophisticated, black is an elegant alternative, and has some high-profile admirers.

Sarah Jessica Parker wore a black ball gown by Morgane Le Fey for her wedding to Matthew Broderick in 1997, while actress Chloe Sevigny wore a black mini dress and white veil for her 2020 ceremony to gallery director Sinisa Mackovic.

Inspiration for alternative ideas

Brides looking for inspiration on alternative colours to The Dress just have to look around the world and its many different traditions.

In Zhou dynasty China, 1050BC, for example, the bride and groom were married in black, and by the Han era (that ended in 220AD), the dress code ran according to the seasons, so that brides wore green for a spring wedding, red for summer, yellow for autumn and black in winter. The idea of wearing red proved popular and has survived to this day in China, for the colour's link with success, honour and loyalty.

Chinese brides-to-be wearing red in Beijing. AP Photo

Hindu brides also wear red, as it is considered the most sacred of colours, while in Europe in the Middle Ages, brides wore green, to symbolise the fertility of spring.

In ancient Rome, a bride wore a veil or headcovering of yellow, to represent the flame of light she was bringing to her husband's life. In Imperial Korea, white was the colour of mourning so brides instead wore robes of yellow, red and green.

However, wearing a non-conventional colour has been embraced by many famous women through the years.

When Wallis Simpson married Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor, in 1937, the bride wore blue, and when Elizabeth Taylor wed Eddie Fisher — Taylor's fourth marriage — she wore a knee-length, olive green dress.

Elizabeth Taylor wore a knee length, olive green dress when she wed Eddie Fisher in 1959. Bettmann

Marilyn Monroe wore a two-piece, chocolate brown suit with rhinestone buttons and a white mink collar as she wed baseball star Joe DiMaggio in 1954.

In a clever merging of ideas, Gwen Stefani's wedding to Gavin Rossdale in 2002 saw the singer wear a custom-made white gown by John Galliano for Dior. To better reflect her rock n' roll spirit, Galliano dip-dyed the lower half of the dress pink.

Dita Von Teese, meanwhile, went all out for her 2005 wedding to Marilyn Manson. She asked Vivienne Westwood to create her gown, and Westwood crafted a lavish, full skirted, ruched gown in imperial purple silk.

Updated: May 31, 2022, 5:05 AM
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