Inside the Collection

The colour of a wedding dress

Manning Valley Cooper Wedding Dress
Cooper family wedding dress, 1906 Collection: Manning Valley Historical society

Eagerly anticipated, the Australian Dress Register (ADR) went live on 21 March 2011. To date only contributors have had access to the pilot database; now it’s fascinating content is available to the wider community.

Over the next few months we will be seeking feedback on the Register and ironing out any remaining problems before the official launch of the website.

As a volunteer on the ADR project, I noticed that there are many wedding dresses on the Register. This prompted me to take a closer look at wedding dresses, in particular their colour and the way they have been used.

Whereas everyday wear is frequently discarded, a bride’s dress is often cherished and preserved. Weddings are vested with such social importance that information about wedding dresses, such as the wearer and the date they were made or worn, is often known and this can make them particularly interesting.

The ADR contains several white or cream wedding gowns, many from the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.

However, Western wedding dresses have not always been white. Roman brides wore yellow. During the Middle Ages blue was considered the colour of purity, not white, and both bride and groom wore a band of blue. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries pale green was a popular colour for wedding dresses, due to its association with fertility.

The tradition of the white wedding dress only originated in the nineteenth century. Although brides continued to wed in other colours, Queen Victoria’s white wedding gown in 1840, set a lasting trend in wedding fashion. White, symbolising purity and chastity, became the favoured colour. Interestingly, in the nineteen century many ‘white’ wedding dresses were actually cream as bleaching silk to a crisp white only became possible in the twentieth century with the use of harsh chemicals.

Prior to and well into the nineteenth century, there was no single colour that was customary for wedding dresses. Brides generally wore their best dress, whatever its colour. Bridal fashions were very similar to contemporary mainstream fashion, making it easy for brides to reuse their wedding dress for smart occasions or as everyday wear, with minimal alterations.

On the Australian Dress Register there are several examples of non-white wedding dresses which were reused, most likely reincarnated as ‘best dresses’.

Mary Ann Moore's 1855 wedding dress
Mary Ann Moore’s 1855 wedding dress Collection: Quirindi and District Historical society

Mary Ann Moore’s purple silk taffeta wedding dress, from the Quirindi and District Historical society, was worn for her wedding in 1855, but was probably subsequently her ‘best dress’. Her daughter and her granddaughter later wore the dress for their weddings.

Mary Napier's wedding dress 1880s
Mary Napier’s wedding dress 1880s. Collection: Grenfell Historical Society. Image courtesy Kate Chidlow

Mary Napier’s 1880 brocade wedding dress, from the Grenfell Historical society, is a practical coffee colour. There’s also Maria Harper’s Wedding Dress of 1883, owned by the Port Macquarie Historical Society, which was made from brown silk and green brocade.

Sideview of Maria Harpers wedding dress, 1883
Maria Harpers wedding dress, 1883 Collection:Port Macquarie Historical society

Alterations along the skirt are evidence that this dress was not worn for Maria’s wedding alone and was probably let out for her seven pregnancies.

During the twentieth century wedding fashions diversified. While wedding dresses often mirrored contemporary fashion, it also became acceptable for wedding dresses to resemble older styles, which made it less likely that a wedding dress would be worn again. Today most brides wed in white or cream and rarely wear their wedding dresses after their wedding.

Looking at dresses like Maria Harper’s and Mary Napier’s, there is something lovely about a stylish but practical dress, not only worn once for a marriage ceremony, but also worn years into the marriage and altered according to fashion and the woman’s changing life.

Rosie Cullen – volunteer, Australian Dress Register

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