It is not possible to determine from archaeological evidence whether or not prehistoric societies celebrated marital unions in a specific manner or marked those celebrations through the use of special garb. Information is nearly as scarce for the first great urban societies, where nothing is known of the wedding dress or practices of the bulk of the population and only dynastic marriages survive in the written record. However, it appears that even at the dynastic level, dress for weddings was less occasion-specific than a matter of showing off one's best garments and accessories.

The first clear references to specific wedding apparel, in the form of bridal crowns and veils, come from the Hellenistic period of Greece. These too, while specified for use in weddings, and ranging from simple flowers to elaborate metal tiaras, were accessories. It is not until many centuries later that most cultures adopted recognizable ensembles to mark the occasion. This stems, in part, from simple economics. In pre-industrial times, the idea of ceremony-specific clothing, particularly for a one-time event, was beyond the means of the vast majority of the population. Even at the court level, wardrobe inventories discuss the fact that royalty and courtiers alike tended to wear their most fashionable garments, with no real consideration of one-time use or symbolism of color or style. Again, it is the use of accessories that gives the garments their meaning.

It was during the long rule of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) that the Western notion of what the bride and her party should look like solidified, first in Britain, and subsequently the rest of the industrialized world. However, certain aspects, such as identically dressed attendants, appeared in many other cultures for more symbolic reasons than simply to honor, support, and, perhaps impress. The generation previous to Queen Victoria's introduced the white wedding gown, when Victoria's cousin, Crown Princess Charlotte, was married in 1816. According to reports, and a controversial garment in the collection of the Museum of London, her bridal gown consisted of a silver tissue and lace overgown worn over a white underdress. That this probably had more to do with the Regency fashion of white dresses than any symbolic intent did not stop it from exerting the same fashion influence of twentieth-century "royalty" such as Princess Grace of Monaco; Diana, Princess of Wales; or Carolyn Bessette Kennedy. The ideal of a white wedding dress was codified in 1840, when Queen Victoria wore a creamy white Spitalfields silk satin and lace gown. It was endlessly reproduced in fashion journals, setting a fashion standard for some appreciable time.

With the advent of industrialization in the West, the combination of readily available and comparatively cheap fabric meshed with the aspirations and needs of a no-longer self-sustaining population to acquire more garments, particularly those for festive occasions. Improved communication, in the form of newspapers, magazines, and their delivery methods of roads, railroads, and improved shipping speeds, as well as the establishment of dependable rural postal delivery at the turn of the twentieth century, allowed even isolated or working-class women to aspire to new fashion trends. However, economics and practicality continued to play a significant role, particularly among these populations. Societal norms decreed that appropriately formal dress be worn for significant occasions, from confirmation, to weddings, to church attendance, to funerals. Frequently, such a dress was presented to a young woman at her coming of age; if funding permitted, another was obtained for her wedding. However, this dress would be expected to serve, not only for the festive occasion for which it was purchased, but also for all others in the foreseeable future, including funerals. It tended toward a conservative cut for this reason, and often had large seam allowances that could accommodate pregnancy and possible weight gain. With the long-standing tradition of black for funerals and mourning, most of these "good" dresses were black, and often worn for the first time at the woman's wedding. This tendency continued into the late nineteenth and even early twentieth century among rural women. Women of the higher classes wore colors; frequently, but not invariably, white. After a death in the family, when the period of strict mourning was over, marriage could take place, but the bride would wear either gray or lavender. Among the working classes, as soon as it was economically feasible, colors were adopted, although the white, one-time only dress was still a rarity. Even the more affluent often assumed their gowns would see use more than once, and colored wedding dresses were still common into the first decade of the twentieth century, after which the ideal of a white, often anachronistic gown, meant to be worn only once, was only supplanted by extraordinary conditions, such as war.

With nods to changes in silhouette and length, the now-immutable tradition of the bride in white, surrounded by equally formally dressed family and attendants, became the norm, not only in Western culture, but wherever Western fashion was emulated, and frequently in the face of centuries-old local tradition. Occasional vagaries of lifestyle, including nude hippie weddings and thematic concoctions ranging from period or folk evocations to camouflage in honor of a deploying soldier, did not dislodge the basic formal make-up of the wedding party, or its concentration on white or off-white and a fairly conservative cut. However, in the 1980s, this began to change, first among the attendants and guests, who began to wear colors such as black, previously considered taboo for twentieth-century weddings. New materials began to appear, including leather, sequins, and even tattoos, as part of the wedding ensemble which itself frequently displayed significantly more flesh than had previously been considered appropriate. Now even brides were sporting colors such as red and black, and indeed, even getting tattoos for the occasion.

The symbolism of both color and cut for the wedding party, solidified over the nineteenth century and even earlier in the case of many of the accessories, is accepted in the early 2000s with no understanding of origin or is ignored by many modern brides. The idea of wearing a one-time only dress is more prevalent, as most medium-priced gowns have their beaded or pearl decoration glued on rather than sewn. Alternatively the bride simply rents her gown, a tendency common in Japan, but that is making inroads in Europe and the United States.

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