The Origins of the Wedding Costume

by Juneaux, the Duchess of Netherwaullop and Duke Shadow


During the medieval and renaissance periods, wedding dresses were basically just more elaborate versions of contemporary styles, displaying a wealth of intricate embroidery, beading, expensive fabrics, and dyes. The white wedding dress as we recognize it today is actually a tradition started by Queen Victoria who wore white to her own wedding. In fact, up until the late 19th century, brides wore just about any color for their wedding gown, including black if the intended bridegroom was a widower. For example, in early Celtic cultures, red was the bridal color of choice, worn to invoke fertility, as evident in Elizabethan silk weaver turned balladeer Thomas Deloney's description of a German bride's attire as a "gowne of sheepes russet, and a kirtle of fine worsted."

Although many peasant brides of the 13th and 14th centuries wore gowns dyed with woad (a herb of the mustard family which produced a vibrant but easily-faded blue dye), green was also a popular wedding gown color, as shown by Madame Arnolfi in Jan Van Eyck's Wedding Portrait, painted in 1434.

Although bridal white, as a token of the bride's purity and innocence, is a relatively new concept, there is historical precedent for it. Henry IV of England's daughter, Princess Phillipa, is reported to have worn a tunic and mantle of white satin, edged with velvet and ermine, at her marriage to Eric of Pomerania (Denmark), in 1406. Anne of Brittany, daughter of Francis II, wore white at her third marriage in 1499 to Louis XII of France while in 1527, Marguerite of Valois is said to have married Henri of Navarre robed in white ermine and covered by a blue coat with a five-foot train.

Additionally, Mary, Queen of Scots, wore white to her wedding with the Dauphin of France in 1558, deliberately flouting the French custom that white was only to be worn in mourning for French royalty. (Ironically, her husband died two years later.) Similarly, Queen Elizabeth I is painted in her later portraits wearing white, many believe in "mourning" over the death of the Duke of Alençon, one of her proposed husbands-to-be, in order to prevent the presentation of additional suitors.

When England's 16-year-old princess Elizabeth married Frederick of Bohemia in 1613, all the maids and the princess were robed in ephemeral white and silver tissue trimmed with silver lace. Princess Elizabeth's train of silver and sleeves, solidly encrusted with diamonds, were worth a princess' ransom. She wore her hair loose, hanging to her waist, with a crown of gold. The wedding, with gowns and dowry, cost her father £95,000, or over $5 million in today's currency!

Lavish royal weddings were paid for (until the 1550s), by marriage taxes levied on landowners. Homelier weddings resorted to less elaborate dress and accoutrements. A witness in 1597 recounted the wedding of a middle-class bride:

The bride...was led to church between two sweet boys with bride laces and rosemary tied about their silken sleeves. There was a fair bride cup of silver gilt carried before her, wherin was a goodly branch of rosemary, gilded very fair, hung about with silken ribands of all colours. Musicians came next, then a groupe of maidens, some bearing great bride-cakes, others garlands of wheat finely gilded, and thus they passed into the church; and the bridegroom finely apparelled, with the young men followed close behind. The ceremony ended in a riotous manner: the young men tore ribbons, garters, and bridal laces from the bride as souvenirs, later the crowd raucously escorted the bridal couple to their bedchambers.


"Bold Coats" come into vogue

By the 14th century, the cotehardie, or "bold coat"--a close-fitting dress-like garment with a train--had become the traditional wedding gown. Laced up the back or front, the cotehardie had long, tight sleeves, and a full slit up the front to show the underdress, which also carried a train. Cotehardies were made from precious fabrics such as silk brocades and for the wedding, a cotehardie was worn with a belt of gold, encrusted with jewels.

The bride's trousseau included three dresses: her cotehardie, which could be worn again for special occasions, a good dress for Sundays, and an everyday dress. Regardless of fortune, she traditionally wore only three ornaments: a ring representing eternal vows and true love; a brooch as a token of chastity and a pure heart; and a crowning garland, worn over loose, flowing hair, symbolizing virtue.


This period also saw the popularity of the jeweled cap and the linen coif, a short, opaque headdress worn over conical spirals of hair. But by the next century, a long, conical headdress known as the henin was in vogue. Worn tilted back on the head, the henin featured a long, sheer veil which cascaded from the point to the ground. But during the 16th century, veils had gone out of fashion, and women began sporting small, brimmed hats.

For the bride planning a period wedding, authentic fashion choices are many and varied. Bridal garb has taken so many forms over the centuries that there is a precedent for almost any color or style one chooses.


© 2001 Renaissance Magazine

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