It’s often assumed that the title of Billy Idol’s 1982 pop hit “White Wedding” refers—in spite of the song’s angry overtones—to a timeless cultural convention. The fact of the matter is that white weddings are actually a fairly recent tradition, and date back to the mid-19th century.
Scholars cite Phillipa of England as the first princess in history to have worn white on her wedding day, in 1406. A daughter of Henry IV, Phillipa was married off to Erik of Pomerania (in modern-day Sweden) as part of an alliance between England and Scandinavia.
But it was another more recent and more famous English royal, Queen Victoria, who is credited with popularizing white weddings. For her marriage to Prince Albert in 1840, Victoria eschewed the silver gown traditionally worn by British monarchs and opted instead for a white satin dress overlaid with lace. Victoria’s was the first British royal wedding to ever be photographed, and as pictures of Victoria in her wedding dress circulated the tradition took firm hold on both sides of the Atlantic.
Previously, brides tended to get married in their best clothing or the nicest dress that they could afford to buy for the occasion. White is an unforgiving color that shows dirt and stitching flaws easily, and for most brides was not a smart choice for a dress that they would need to wear again.
Theories abound for Victoria’s choice of white for her wedding gown. Was it to symbolize purity? Virginity? Or was the monarch simply trying to promote sales of lace, which were in steep decline at the time? While the answer will never be known, by today’s standards Victoria actually had an “off-white” or “cream” wedding: chemicals that produce the brilliant white fabrics we know today hadn’t been invented yet.
According to an old poem, white (including Victoria’s not-quite-there variety) is an auspicious choice of wedding dress color:
Married in white, you will have chosen all right.
Married in grey , you will go far away.
Married in black, you will wish yourself back.
Married in red, you’ll wish yourself dead.
Married in blue, you will always be true.
Married in pearl, you’ll live in a whirl.
Married in green, ashamed to be seen.
Married in yellow, ashamed of the fellow.
Married in brown, you’ll live out of town.
Married in pink, your spirits will sink.
While wedding dress styles have changed over the years (more on that in a future post), Queen Victoria’s white wedding gown set a precedent that is likely to remain for many years. The woman sometimes referred to as the “Grandmother of Europe” could just as easily be known as the “Mother of White Weddings”.
And that makes one wonder how much Billy Idol knew about exactly whose footsteps he was following as he strut his stuff back in 1982.