Though white is a mainstay of modern-day bridal gown fashion, that wasn't always the case. In fact, up until Queen Victoria's marriage to Prince Albert in 1840, when she shockingly debuted a white gown, white was considered both impractical and inappropriate. For one, white was considered a color of mourning at the time. A white dress also would be painstaking to clean by hand and likely only get worn once, which easily made it an absurd color choice reserved only for very wealthy brides.
An 1850 wedding bill cited in Jennifer Phegley's book "Courtship and Marriage in Victorian England," criticized Victoria's dress for its lack of practicality: "Of what use is the costly white silk bridal dress, which in all human probability will never in its original state be worn again? It will, of course, be laid up carefully, and looked at occasionally with tender sentimental interest; but by-and-by, in a year or two, it will seem old-fashioned, and most probably be picked to pieces and dyed some serviceable color."
Victoria did end up repurposing the dress—especially the lace—for many occasions following her nuptials. And while one publication cast distain on her fashion choice, another publication's favor of it changed the course of bridal gown history.
The white gown won over Godey's Lady's Book—a popular lady's monthly publication of the time—which said, "Custom has decided, from the earliest ages, that white is the most fitting hue, whatever may be the material. It is an emblem of the purity and innocence of girlhood, and the unsullied heart she now yields to the chosen one."
Thanks to this declaration that deemed white the "most fitting hue," white bridal gowns became the norm with colored gowns suddenly being reserved only for fashion-forward brides.
Yet, for many brides, selecting a wedding gown—especially a new one—was a luxury few could afford. They often just wore the best outfit they owned, regardless of the color. For brides marrying widowers or if the brides themselves were in mourning, wearing black, gray or lavender were all considered suitable colors.
The same held true for brides in centuries past. The ancient Romans, for example, put more importance on the accessories—particularly the presence of a woolen girdle—over a gown or the color.
In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, being able to have a garment made specially for an occasion was a symbol of status. Thus, it was customary to choose bold colors like purple, scarlet or royal blue, since these dyes were difficult to procure and mix, which demonstrated a bride's family's ability to afford such a splurge.
Certain colors had symbolic significance as well. For example, in the Dark Ages, the color blue (especially a blue veil) was a symbol of purity for brides. In ancient Greece, brides wore red or yellow veils to represent fire in hopes that it would frighten away evil spirits.
Even though white continues to be the popular wedding gown choice (with the occasional purple or pink gown worn by trend-setting celebrity brides like Dita Von Teese or Gwen Stefani, for example), colorful wedding garments are still the norm in other parts of the world. In China, for example, brides wear the color red, since it symbolizes luck. In Afghanistan, brides wear green—a symbol of prosperity and paradise.