The Way We Wed

A Global History of Wedding Fashion


By Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

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For fashion buffs, romantics, and brides-to-be, a fascinating collection of wedding garb and glamour through pop culture and history.

The Way We Wed: A History of Wedding Fashion presents styles and stories from the Renaissance to the present day, chronicling evolving fashions, classes, and expectations. And because all wedding attire has a tale to tell, The Way We Wed also reveals fascinating personal stories of those who wore it.

While the book is a rich source of bridal inspiration for all seasons, it’s far from a monotonous parade of white gowns. The Way We Wed showcases wedding gowns of all colors and styles from around the world, as well as going-away dresses, accessories (shoes, veils, hats, and tiaras), and clothes worn by flower girls, bridesmaids, mothers of the bride, and grooms. Same-sex weddings are represented along with royal weddings, wartime brides, White House weddings, remarriage, Hollywood weddings, and more. The book features celebrity and historical couples as well as everyday people. A few of the included names:
  • Angelina Jolie
  • Frida Kahlo
  • Elizabeth Taylor
  • Princess Diana
  • Martha Washington
  • Solange Knowles
  • Ellen DeGeneres
  • Meghan Markle
Illustrated with 100 gorgeous photos, The Way We Wed is a rich celebration of the art of wedding fashion across time and cultures, and those whose style and circumstances made a statement.




THE WAY WE WED EXPLORES THE HISTORY of wedding clothes from the Renaissance to the present day. The objects and images highlighted in this book celebrate the art of fashion while revealing how tastes and traditions have changed over history. Far from being immutable, wedding clothes reflect changing fashions as well as changing customs, lifestyles, and values. They tell intimately personal stories, but they also illustrate broader societal narratives.

The history of weddings is, in many ways, a history of clothing. Wedding rituals have always revolved around the exchange and display of garments and jewelry, from trousseaux and luxurious wearable gifts—which were put on public view or symbolically exhibited through itemized lists published in newspapers and fashion magazines—to the clothes and rings worn on the wedding day itself. In the Middle Ages, guests took home pieces of the wedding gown for luck, a custom that survives in the tossing of garters and bouquets. The Jewish huppah was originally a shawl or scarf draped over the heads of the bride and bridegroom. Wedding guests have traditionally received wearable favors like gloves, sword knots, and fans—a practice reprised today, as couples distribute fans and umbrellas for outdoor weddings or slippers for reception dancing. Pre- and post-wedding ceremonies and celebrations have their own dress codes. In many cultures, clothing and textiles play a role in the wedding ceremony itself, and there is a fine line between tradition and superstition: something old, something new. Weddings are rites of passage—particularly for women—and changes of clothing symbolize the changing status and identity of the participants.

While wedding clothes are often thought of as being bound by tradition, however, many of these “traditions” are, in fact, relatively recent innovations. Veils, for example, have long symbolized modesty and transformation in Jewish weddings, but they did not become part of Christian wedding rites until the nineteenth century. Similarly, though diamonds have been used in engagement rings since the Renaissance, it was only in the twentieth century that advertising slogans like “a diamond is forever” and “diamonds are a girl’s best friend” made diamond rings synonymous with getting engaged.

The long, white wedding gown was popularized by Queen Victoria in 1840, and solemnized with the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX in 1854. Since then, it has been largely reserved for the upper classes and frequently abandoned in times of war, economic hardship, or mourning. Furthermore, it was originally associated with young and elite brides; older brides or widows wore gray, lavender, and other colors, while women who could not afford an impractical white gown wore their best dress, regardless of hue. And not even well-to-do brides wore their wedding gowns just once; they became part of a woman’s wardrobe, often her “best dress.” Today, however, bridal gowns may have little in common with everyday dress; indeed, they might incorporate elements of Victorian style, like long, full skirts, and come from specialist bridal shops, having been made by dedicated bridal designers, who have their own fashion magazines and their own Fashion Week.

In White Weddings: Romancing Hetero-sexuality in Popular Culture, sociologist Chrys Ingraham observed that the “traditional” or “white” wedding—“a spectacle featuring a bride in a formal white wedding gown, combined with some combination of attendants and witnesses, religious ceremony, wedding reception, and honeymoon”—tends to enjoy a resurgence in popularity at times when heterosexuality is perceived as being under siege. “We hold up the institution of heterosexuality as timeless, devoid of historical variation, and as ‘just the way it is.’” This tradition is “white” in more ways than one, often precluding both sexual and racial diversity.

At the same time, many of the wedding clothing rituals that are now thought of as modern or trendy have ancient roots, such as the practice of wearing several special outfits in the course of a wedding ceremony, reception, or “wedding weekend.” For much of recorded history, wedding rites did not begin or end with the vows, and neither did the clothes they required. Depending on her social status, a bride’s wedding clothes could consist of anything from a new hat to a lavish trousseau intended to last for years. Clothes often formed part of a bride’s dowry, or a groom’s wedding gifts to his bride.

In many cases, wedding clothes—not just gowns and veils but shoes, suits, vests, undergarments, and “second-day” or “going-away” dresses—have survived in museum collections and within families. This is partly for sentimental reasons, and partly because the clothes were too specialized or too expensive to wear frequently. Indeed, this material record has distorted our perception of the fashion history of weddings as much as has informed it, as have stereotypical depictions of white-clad brides. As curator Cynthia Amnéus has pointed out, “it is likely that the dresses that were most recognizable as wedding gowns—those that were white—were preserved by descendants, creating the impression of a preponderance of white wedding attire in the period.” Though colored wedding gowns may have been just as plentiful, they have not been identified as such by later generations and, thus, preserved.

While films, fashion magazines, fiction, and the fantasies of the runway have all helped to craft our cultural notions of “traditional” or “historical” wedding dress, this book will focus on real clothes worn by real people—and not just brides, but the wide cast of characters that makes up any wedding: flower girls, bridesmaids, mothers of the bride, guests, and, of course, grooms. Same-sex weddings and second (or third, or fourth) marriages are also represented. Royals and celebrities appear alongside ordinary or anonymous couples. This book does not claim to be a comprehensive survey of wedding fashions throughout history, or even a part of history. Nor is it a catalogue of one collection or designer. Rather, it approaches wedding fashion as fashion, reflective of and relevant to wider trends in morality, technology, and aesthetics.

Until relatively recently—that is, within the past century or two—single men and women were largely kept segregated from each other, and marriages were often arranged, especially among the fashion-conscious upper classes. Weddings were financial transactions, not love matches. Despite (or because of) this, appearances mattered, and wedding clothes were chosen with careful deliberation to communicate one’s social and financial status and family connections. Before the Industrial Revolution, clothing was, proportionally, much more expensive than it is today; as a form of wearable wealth, it played an important role in marriage negotiations and rituals. It functioned as not just social currency but as actual currency.


The transactional nature of marriages was made manifest in an additional ceremony, the signing of the marriage contract—an event many considered to be more important than the religious ceremony that followed, and one that was frequently depicted in paintings and prints romanticizing the lifestyles of the rich and famous. The contract was not a prenuptial agreement between the bride and groom in the modern sense—outlining the division of assets in the event of a divorce—but a combination bill of sale and will, specifying the terms of the dowry, property rights, and inheritance. The Marquise de la Tour du Pin—an apprentice lady-in-waiting to Queen Marie-Antoinette—recalled of the signing of her own marriage contract in 1787: “This ceremony was conducted with all the usual solemnity. The parents, the witnesses, the notaries, the costumes, everything was very correct.” The marquise deliberately chose a colored habit d’accord (“outfit of agreement”), explaining: “The white gown was reserved for the wedding day.” Though white was not yet de rigueur for wedding gowns, it was the most fashionable color at the time, as well as an expensive and, thus, prestigious one. Similar formal engagement rituals—such as the Jewish erusin (betrothal) or the Indian ring ceremony—have taken place in many cultures and time periods, followed more or less promptly by the wedding itself.

The formal public announcement of the engagement might require an entirely different outfit, particularly in royal contexts, where the choice of a spouse affected the fate of the entire nation. The pink gown Princess Caroline Amalie of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg wore to announce her engagement to Crown Prince Christian of Denmark in 1815 survives at Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen; it was a gift from her fiancé, made in Denmark, and thus a suitable garb in which to introduce herself to her future subjects.

A fashionable French couple hold hands while their parents haggle in The Marriage Contract (1633) by Abraham Bosse.

In 2010, Prince William—grandson to Queen Elizabeth II—and his girlfriend, Kate Middleton, announced their engagement to the public via a press conference attended by a throng of reporters and photographers (see Chapter 10). Middleton’s blue silk jersey wrap dress was chosen for the cameras to match her twelve-carat blue Ceylon sapphire engagement ring. It was the same ring Prince Charles had presented to William’s late mother, Princess Diana, nearly thirty years earlier; Diana reportedly chose it from a selection of rings because its vivid color—and enormous size—made it easily visible to the public. The ladylike, knee-grazing style of Middleton’s British-made Issa dress—paired with nylons and closed-toe black suede heels by Episode—declared her transition from commoner to queen-in-waiting, and set a precedent for her chic but conservative wardrobe as Duchess of Cambridge. In another harbinger of things to come, Middleton’s dress sold out within minutes, while cheap, hastily produced knockoffs flooded shops.

An elegant bride drops her quill in surprise as an unexpected clause derails the ceremony in Michel Garnier’s The Marriage Contract Interrupted (1789).

Each country has its own regional pre-wedding traditions, with their attendant sartorial traditions and requirements. Elisabeth of Bavaria wore a Polterabendkleid or “wedding eve dress” to the celebrations on the night before her marriage to Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria in 1854. Poltern is a German verb meaning “to crash” or “to make a racket”; a couple’s Polterabend was (and still is) a noisy pre-wedding party, often involving smashing porcelain for good luck. The royal bachelorette’s white organdy dress and its matching shawl were embroidered in green floss and gold metallic thread with floral motifs and Arabic characters, chosen for their decorative effect rather than their literal meaning, while also reflecting Austria’s deep historic ties to the Ottoman Empire.

A Japanese royal wedding can consist of up to twenty separate ceremonies, incorporating both traditional and modern dress. When Princess Sayako—the only daughter of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko—married Yoshiki Kuroda in 2005, forfeiting her royal status, she donned the traditional jūnihitoe to visit the three imperial shrines, ritually informing her ancestors of her intention to marry three days later. Jūnihitoe—literally “the twelve layers”—was formal court dress during the Heian period (A.D. 794–1185); today, it is generally seen only in the contexts of royal weddings and enthronement ceremonies.

Several factors contribute to the prestige of this ancient garment. Its old age is, in itself, a measure of its importance; in many cultures and time periods, wedding clothes reference the fashions or traditions of the past. Its expense, as well as the time and expertise required to put on the twelve layers of robes, confine it to the upper echelons of society. The physical difficulty of wearing the jūnihitoe, which can weigh up to forty pounds, with grace is both a cause of and a comment on its high status. Only the borders of the inner eleven robes of colorful silk are visible; the choice and arrangement of colors changed with the seasons and indicated the wearer’s rank and savoir faire. The male equivalent is the sokutai: a robe with voluminous sleeves, color-coded according to rank, paired with a flat baton called a shaku—a vestigial scepter—and a lacquered black kanmuri hat. Like many Western wedding garments, these elaborate, expensive ensembles, rich in history and symbolism, reinforce the gravity of the vows being made, not only for the couple, but for their families and, sometimes, nations.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria’s Polterabendkleid (wedding eve dress) survives, although her wedding gown does not.

Princess Sayako of Japan donned a twelve-layer court costume for her ceremonial pre-wedding visit to the imperial shrines in 2005.

This is true of the clothing worn for pre- and post-wedding rites as well as for the ceremony itself. Indeed, these garments tend to survive where the actual wedding clothes have not, and may be worn repeatedly and seen by more people. Empress Sisi kept her Polterabendkleid but donated her white satin wedding gown embroidered with silver and gold to the church where she married, to be made into vestments, as was customary at the time. Only one part of it—her gold-embroidered court train, which was detachable and, presumably, reused—has survived intact. Princess Caroline Amalie’s engagement gown survives, but her wedding gown does not. Her will specified: “I wish it to be laid under my head in the Coffin.” Queen Victoria, too, had her lace wedding veil buried with her. A Polterabendkleid, jūnihitoe, or habit d’accord—much like the clothes purchased for modern-day engagement photos, bridal showers, rehearsal dinners, or bachelorette parties—might have less sentimental value than a wedding gown but represented a comparable investment of time, money, and taste. These garments mattered, not just because they set the tone for the wedding itself, but because they marked the beginning steps in the journey of marriage.



FOR CENTURIES, ROYAL WEDDINGS HAVE set styles and standards imitated by commoners. These high-profile events were historically motivated by dynastic concerns more than romantic love, with all the pomp and pageantry that implies. To this day, royal weddings feature archaic accoutrements like horses and carriages, coachmen in livery, bishops in elaborate vestments, soldiers (and grooms) in uniform, and trumpeters. Yet royal brides typically choose the same fashion-conscious styles that other brides wear, though they may be the work of exclusive couture houses and have conservative details like long sleeves, antique lace, or long trains, in deference to the solemnity of the setting (typically a grand cathedral or palace) and the gravity of the occasion.

This has not always been the case. If royal marriages were arranged to create dynastic alliances, wedding clothes reinforced those alliances; appearance was everything. In some cases, brides had to undress and put on new clothes at the border as they entered their new country, symbolically shedding their foreign identities. They adopted new hairstyles, cosmetics, and languages. At the very least, they were expected to wear clothes made in their new homelands for their weddings, even if they closely resembled the clothes worn in their ancestral courts. Wedding clothes might be woven or embroidered with patriotic or dynastic imagery, or derived from regional folk dress. In 1956, Archduke Joseph Árpád of Austria wore “the robes of a once mighty nobility” for his wedding, according to LIFE magazine: a sable-trimmed mente, a jacket usually worn thrown over the shoulders. Princess Charlene of Monaco wore Armani for her 2011 wedding to Prince Albert, but her seven child bridesmaids wore the country’s national dress: flat straw hats, lace-up slippers, and dresses in a rustic eighteenth-century style, embellished with personal touches, like silk stockings and aprons embroidered with the couple’s monogram.

Depending on the country, royal weddings might last days or weeks and include a variety of different ceremonies and events, all with their own wardrobe requirements. In 1810, Crown Prince Ludwig threw a massive public party in Munich in honor of his wedding to Princess Therese; it is still celebrated every year as Oktoberfest. Royal grooms might don armor for celebratory jousting tournaments. The wedding of Caliph Sidi Muley el Hassan and Princess Lal-la in Morocco in 1949 went on for fifteen days. LIFE magazine photographer Dmitri Kessel remembered:

There were daily receptions in the caliph’s palace—lunches and dinners where men sat on cushions around low tables and consumed great quantities of roast lamb, chicken cooked with almonds, chicken cooked with green olives, chicken cooked with honey. During the celebrations the guests ate 15,000 chickens and 3,000 lambs, washed down with vats of fruit juices; good Muslims, they did not drink alcohol. No women were present except at the last dinner.… The bride-to-be was never seen.

Royal trousseaux were equally elaborate. A trousseau—from the French term trousse, meaning “bundle”—was the supply of clothing, lingerie, and table linens a bride brought to her marriage; it usually included clothes for the wedding and honeymoon, if not the entire first year of marriage. When Queen Victoria’s oldest daughter, Princess Vicky, married in 1858, her trousseau filled a hundred packing cases and included not only dozens of gowns but fabric, carpets, wallpaper, furniture, and saddles. Vicky’s niece, Princess Marie of Edinburgh, who married Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania in 1893, remembered:

Mama gave me a wonderful trousseau, a real princess’s trousseau in keeping with that time of prosperity and abundance.… I… loved clothes, furs and precious gems, but I was astonished at the masses of dresses, cloaks, hats, handkerchiefs, stockings, shoes and fine linen that I was supposed to need. All these manifold treasures were put out in a large room and I, with my sisters and many friends, used to walk about amongst them, awed by their magnitude. Getting married was certainly a stirring event.

And when Princess May, another daughter of Queen Victoria, married the Duke of York in the same year, her trousseau included forty suits, fifteen ball gowns, and five afternoon gowns, with all their accessories. Crown Princess Stéphanie of Austria—the Belgian-born widow of Archduke Rudolf—remarried in 1900. Her trousseau was so large that a special train was required to transport it from Vienna.

Royal trousseaux and wedding gifts were considered state property, to some extent, and displayed and itemized for public consumption (and fashion inspiration). When Princess Margaret of Connaught married the Crown Prince of Sweden in 1905, her trousseau and presents went on display at Clarence House in London, including gowns by Paquin and Lucile and an enviable assortment of jewelry. Nevertheless, the newspaper The Sphere complained: “It is a great disappointment that so little of [her] trousseau is on view, but with few exceptions the dresses and lingerie are being sent direct to Sweden.”

White first emerged as a popular choice for gowns of all kinds in the eighteenth century; inevitably, some women chose white gowns for their weddings, but it was because they were fashionable (and luxurious) rather than because of any symbolism attached to the color. Fashion plates of the time depict bridal gowns of red, blue, and other vivid hues. When the Magasin des modes nouvelles illustrated a white wedding gown in 1787, the editors stressed that the quality of the fabric, not its color, was the most important consideration: “One always chooses that which is the most rich and the most elegant.” It was perfectly acceptable and, indeed, expected for women to wear their wedding gowns again and again, regardless of color.


But royal brides were held to a different standard. For royal weddings, brides and grooms alike frequently wore cloth of silver, an extremely expensive fabric woven with real silver threads that had been reserved by law for the nobility since the seventeenth century. A reigning monarch might even wear cloth of gold. Catherine the Great wore cloth of silver for her 1744 wedding. When she married the future King Louis XVI in the Royal Chapel of the Palace of Versailles in 1770, Marie-Antoinette wore cloth of silver trimmed with gold filigree but omitted the ermine-trimmed cloak of purple velvet, approximately thirty-three feet long, that would have been worn by the bride of a reigning monarch. One wedding guest, the Duchess of Northumberland, remarked that the fourteen-year-old bride was “very fine in Diamonds. She really had quite a Load of Jewels.”

As royal wedding gowns go, it’s hard to top the one worn by Princess Sofia Magdalena of Denmark when she married the future King Gustave III of Sweden at Stockholm Palace in 1766. With a hoop petticoat measuring six feet across and a ten-foot train, the bride was wider—and longer—than she was high. The cloth of silver was further embellished with a woven floral and lace pattern. In total, twenty-seven yards of the precious fabric were required to make the glittering gown fit for a future queen. Her husband, the Crown Prince, was equally resplendent in a three-piece suit of cloth of silver, embroidered in silver and gold.

Royal weddings required the bride, groom, and guests alike to wear court dress. For women of the eighteenth century, this meant the grand habit, loosely translated as “formal dress.” In the 1670s, King Louis XIV personally invented this three-piece ensemble consisting of a low-necked, sleeveless bodice; a skirt; and a separate train attached at the waist. Even at its first appearance at the court of Versailles, it was a hybrid of new and old, as the aging king tried to revive the female fashions he had admired in his youth. The bare shoulders and back-laced bodice stiffened with ribs of whalebone (the contemporary name for baleen, the rigid, hairlike substance that takes the place of teeth in some whales) harked back to the fashions of the 1660s. The length of the train and, sometimes, the materials and colors of the grand habit corresponded to a woman’s social status.

By 1700, the grand habit had been adopted as formal female court dress throughout Europe, from Spain to Russia, with only minor regional variations—a powerful testament to French fashion’s dominance. (Indeed, the Swedish ambassador to the court of Versailles purchased Gustave and Sofia Magdalena’s wedding clothes in Paris.) It remained in use for more than one hundred years because it was a remarkably effective vehicle for showing off costly textiles, trimmings, embroidery, and jewels, as well as elegant posture and deportment. Men, too, wore court dress, but it generally consisted of a more opulent version of fashionable dress, while the grand habit was absolutely unique to the court.

The future King Gustave III of Sweden and Princess Sofia Magdalena of Denmark married in court dress in 1766.

Due to a culture of enthusiastic preservation dating back to the early seventeenth century, several royal wedding gowns have survived in the Swedish Royal Armoury; they are rare examples of what was, at the time, an international courtly style. The 1823 wedding ensembles of Crown Prince Oscar and Princess Joséphine of Leuchtenberg illustrate the evolution in fashion from the late eighteenth century to the early nineteenth, dramatically accelerated by the social upheavals of the French Revolution, which impacted fashion all over Europe.

While retaining the rich metallic textiles and embroideries of the previous century, the silhouettes reflect the trends of the time: close-fitting coats and long trousers (instead of knee-length breeches) for men, and high waistlines, slim skirts, and short, puffed sleeves for women. Yet no one would mistake Oscar and Joséphine’s wedding clothes for everyday dress; apart from the sumptuous fabrics, they include archaic elements that would only be worn at court, such as her train (which is detachable) and antiquated gathered and slashed sleeves, and his somewhat theatrical cape, shoulder tabs, and tall boots, which recall the fashions of the seventeenth century. Gustave III had instituted a romantic “national costume” inspired by the dress of Sweden’s Golden Age as court and official dress in 1778, and vestiges of it continued to be worn at court until the late twentieth century; even today, ladies-in-waiting wear it at Swedish royal weddings.

Princess Joséphine of Leuchtenberg evoked the elegance of her grandmother and namesake, Empress Joséphine, at her wedding to Crown Prince Oscar of Sweden.


On Sale
Dec 1, 2020
Page Count
224 pages
Running Press

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

About the Author

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is a fashion historian and author of Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette (2016 Costume Society of America Award winner) and Worn On This Day (2019, Running Press). She has appeared as a fashion commentator on many media outlets, is a former People magazine fashion and entertainment reporter, and current contributor to the Wall Street Journal,, and She lives in Los Angeles, CA.

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