The white wedding dress: Showcasing the (commoditized) body
The wedding dress as body-dominant or body-subordinate
“The ‘traditional’ or lavish wedding denotes a religious setting, a bride dressed in a long, white gown, a multi-tiered white cake, abundant flowers, attendants in matching finery, a reception, and a honeymoon and is the dominant form in much of global culture today” (Iovan et al. 2011:29). A critical component of this festivity is finding the appropriate wedding gown, an aspect of the wedding that is often equally as storied and ceremonious as the actual wedding itself.
On the surface, the practice of dressing one’s self in a long, white gown in the style of a Victorian or medieval maiden might seem to be a body-subordinate practice (i.e., a practice which conceals the body). Even in the most modern weddings, many brides’ legs are concealed, with only their waists, breasts, and arms prominently displayed. However, the focus which is lavished upon the visible aspects of the female body during a wedding clearly highlights the wearing of the wedding dress as a body-dominant practice, one which is designed to highlight and display the body in a prominent fashion. Not only is a wedding dress supposed to be a unique and memorable article of finery which is worn once — the woman’s body is ideally supposed to be at its ‘most beautiful’ compared to the woman’s usual state of being.
More and more brides are intent not only upon finding their dream dress but also strive to ensure that their body is equally perfect. The emphasis in modern wedding culture is to ensure that the bride’s body conforms to the needs of the dress rather than tailoring the dress to the body. Extreme dieting, shape wear, and bridal dress-specific workouts are all reflective of this phenomenon. “A 2007 Cornell University study by Lori Neighbors and Jeffery Sobal found that 70% of 272 engaged women said they wanted to lose weight, typically 20 pounds” for the wedding with the aim of specifically fitting into their white dress (Lee 2012).
Although fad diets and ‘lose weight quickly’ schemes are usually destined for failure, an entire subset of the wedding industry has cropped up intent upon helping women fit into their dresses. A recent New York Times article chronicled the story of one woman who deliberately changed her shape to fit in her grandmother’s wedding gown: “Women were smaller back then, and there was nothing to let outâ€¦She took prescription pills, had vitamin B shots and made weekly $45 visits to a Medithin clinic in Janesville, Wis. When she married on March 18, she was back to 125 pounds [from 159]; the gown, from 1938, fit perfectly” (Lee 2012). 800 calorie diets and three-hour workouts are the ‘norm’ amongst some affluent classes of women and aggressively changing their body to fit the white dress is part of the ‘bridal sport’ of racing to the altar.
If wedding dresses were not body-dominant, this emphasis on the woman’s body would not be an issue. Instead, the woman must sculpt her body to fit the ideal of the young, untouched maiden associated with the white wedding dress, no matter how far in actuality she may be from that ideal. As more and more women marry at ages when they are unlikely to be at the peak of youthful perfection, this obsession with looking young and thin on one’s wedding day has only grown more intense. This focus upon the toned body was not nearly as intense in previous, less physically conditioned eras of course. But today, having a sculpted physique is just as much evidence of one’s affluence (the ability to hire a personal trainer or to go on an expensive juice cleanse) as one’s discipline.
The thin, youthful body in a white wedding dress today thus reveals the woman’s affluence just as much as the pure white wedding dress that would never be worn again did for middle-class Victorians. Body-consciousness has expanded in the dress’ ability showcase the bride’s ability to spend money on expensive diets and workouts to look ready for the altar. Even the sizing scale of wedding dresses virtually mandates this aspirational quality to beauty. “Wedding dresses run small, so a typical size 8 dress will be a size 10 or 12 (Lee 2012). For a woman to be an ‘acceptable’ size, she is, in effect, forced to diet.
The unique aesthetic of the wedding dress
On one hand, given the proliferation of different types of wedding dresses and weddings, it might seem as if the old type of wedding dress is no longer standard. Indeed, there have been certain gestures towards frowning at very elaborate ‘poufy’ wedding dresses, such as the comment in Three Weddings and a Funeral that a woman in a standard type of wedding dress looks like a merengue. However, although some aspects of the wedding dress have altered over the eras (for example, short wedding dresses had a brief surge in popularity during the mini skirt-mad 1960s), the wedding dress’ whiteness, its elaborate nature (using veils, trains, beads, lace and ribbons for ornamentation), and the fact that it is clearly a ‘special occasion’ dress not meant to be worn elsewhere has remained constant since Queen Victoria. While not all brides indulge in trains, veils, and elaborate beading and embroidery, a wedding dress — even a simple, modern dress — is supposed to look special in a very mannered fashion.
Today, even in the Muslim world, the white wedding dress has become more popular. In Turkey, for example, “the big white Western wedding dress is customaryâ€¦It is hard to find a bride not dressed in white. Even in rural areas, where the guests do not wear elegant clothes, the bride will have the white gown” (Iovan et al. 2011:35). Cultures which did not traditionally associate white with marriage but with death have even slowly begun to adopt white wedding dresses because of the growing cultural ubiquity. And, along with this whiteness, certain other Westernized features of the white wedding such as not wearing much jewelry (versus in East Asia, where gold features prominently in bridal attire) have risen in popularity (Ingraham 2008: 57)
Despite the popularity of discount bridal stores, another accepted convention of the white wedding dress is its expense. Not only is fitting into the gown important — so is the act of choosing the right designer. Given the importance of Vera Wang in the eyes of many brides, many bridal shops will actually remove non-designer labels (or labels of lesser designers) for fear the gowns will not sell (Ingraham 2008: 49). Despite the ubiquity of online shopping and availability of discount bridal shopping today, the idea of a ‘bargain’ wedding dress is often frowned upon, given the emphasis that the wedding is a special day: “having the money to buy the dream bought a form of equality” (Ingraham 2008: 63). Even if a bride buys her dress at a discount venue like Filene’s Basement or David’s Bridal, she is unlikely to brag about her find, as she might getting another item of clothing on sale.
The white wedding dress: The cultural ideal
The wedding dress’ whiteness did not always symbolize purity and affluence but it has become a ubiquitous part of our culture and even women who may be uncomfortable with this concept still find themselves striving to attain it on their wedding days. “People take their bodies on as projects, and one of the times you want that project to be the most successful is on your wedding day” (Wingert 2008). Although women may not embrace the virginal ideal, wearing red or another color is making a statement profoundly against how marriage is currently conceptualized. Marriage is a social institution, and the act of marriage signifies acceptance of social norms of monogamy. Regardless of the extent to which the couple will uphold or believe in those concepts, to wear a colored wedding dress or to take a very informal approach to the wedding signifies a distinct break with tradition in a manner that is often seen as jarring and transgressive.
Although the white wedding dress may have originated with Queen Victoria, even royal brides of relatively recent memory such as Diana Spencer, Kate Middleton, and Grace Kelly were praised for their highly elaborate dresses. “Bridal magazines rely heavily on fairy-tale and storybook romance themes in advertising, articles, and organization, to sell everything that one needs to produce their own wedding spectacle” (Ingraham 2008:133).
Individualism: The wedding dress
There is a paradoxical ideal in the individuality of the wedding dress. On one hand, a wedding is supposed to be a bride’s ‘special day.’ Brides are supposed to spend an extensive period of time researching, trying on, and tailoring the wedding dress that is uniquely expressive of their identities. However, wedding dresses are almost universally recognizable as wedding dresses regardless of where and how they are displayed. There is also a kind of stultifying formality and sameness the design, the expected amount of money the dress is supposed to cost, and the accoutrements as well as the color of the dress. There are different bridal magazines such as Elegant Bride, Modern Bride, and so forth, which give the appearance of customization and appear to ‘buck the trend’ of the Victorian wedding, but at best they offer only small, cosmetic changes to the ideal. Similarly, alterations on dresses add to the cost to the dress — the relatively minor attempts by the bride are relatively homogenized and standardized.
Eicher, J.B., Evenson, S.L., Lutz, H.A. (2008). The visible self: Global perspectives on dress, culture, and society. New York, NY: Fairchild Books.
Four Weddings and a Funeral. (1994). Directed by Richard Curtis.
Lee, Linda. (2013). Bridal hunger games. The New York Times. Retrieved:
Lovan, A. (et al. 2011). Westernized weddings in Turkey. Journal for Global Business and Community, 2 (2). Retrieved:
Ingraham, C. (2008). White weddings: Romancing heterosexuality in popular culture
Wingert, N. (2009). The incredible shrinking bride. The Daily Beast:
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