The Feminist Case for Wearing a White Dress When You Get Married


Queen Victoria wore white because she's fabulous, not because of the patriarchy

bride in a white dress

When I first got engaged, I had certain ideas about what my wedding dress should look like.

I decided it wasn’t feminist to wear white. Instead, I thought I’d go for a blue gown like Blair Waldorf when she married Chuck Bass on Gossip Girl, the greatest television show of our time. I also flirted with the idea of sporting big florals down the aisle, because floral patterns are basically as much a part of my body as my right arm. Then my mom took me to Kleinfeld’s and everything changed.

Within forty-five minutes of going dress shopping for the first time, I tried on a white Grecian style gown, and completely forgot about my feminist opposition to wearing white. By the time it was paid for, I don’t think I even remembered the dress was white. It didn’t actually occur to me that it was a traditionally white wedding gown, as such; it was an exquisite dress I adored, and it just happened to be white. That dress made me look as close to Christina Hendricks as I am ever gonna get, so I fell almost as hard for it as I did for my fiancé (I kid, I kid).

RELATED: The best and worst parts of living with your partner

As I have already written about, I found wedding dress shopping a surprisingly body-positive and empowering experience. Then, a few weeks later, when staring idly at a picture of my wedding dress on my phone, it finally hit me: the dress was white! White like the conservative wedding gowns they make Barbie dolls and princesses of small European countries wear. My feminist sensibilities were offended by old-fashioned wedding dresses like that, weren’t they?

Patriarchy is why we can’t have white things

In search of answers about exactly how anti-feminist it is to wear white to your wedding, I began doing what any self-respecting academic would do: researching the hell out of the question instead of going out on Saturday nights. What I discovered is the custom of wearing white to one’s wedding didn’t start out as a manifestation of sartorial sexism. The white wedding gown actually became popular in 1840, when Queen Victoria wore the hue to her nuptials. While white is a color that has historically symbolized purity and virginity, that’s not the reason Victoria chose it. The truth is, she had some prized white lace she wanted to show off on the big day. Because she was the goddamn queen, Victoria got what she wanted. And so a style of wedding dress that has subsequently become a symbol of patriarchal oppression was popularized by the most powerful woman of her era. Yes, the history of wedding dresses is ironic.

RELATED: How pop culture turned me into a feminist

Despite its pretty non-sexist origin story, the white wedding dress was subsequently co-opted by a patriarchal society that decided to use white gowns as a symbol of women’s sexual purity. That’s why they’re customary in church weddings. It’s also why comedians make jokes about reality stars who’ve been married four times wearing white to their fifth weddings. The implication is the right to wear the color white is something women are meant to earn. It’s not any old color like green or purple. You have to work for the privilege to wear it by keeping your legs shut the way your male elders want you to.

Of course, despite its sexist associations, I do know a lot of progressive people who wore white on their wedding days. They just held their noses and ignored the sexist associations. However, I like to literally wear my feminism on my sleeves. I strive to make my feminist identity clear by what I wear, which is why I started boycotting American Apparel when it turned out Dov Charney was a total tool.

A NICE DAY FOR A (FEMINIST) WHITE WEDDING

When it comes down to it, part of me worried that by wearing a white gown, I’d be buying into patriarchal symbolism. I worried I’d be aping virginity to appease a patriarchal tradition. I worried about mansplainers with nothing better to do seeing a picture of my dress on social media and declaring me a sellout. I also worried a bit about what would happen if I spilled red wine on it at the reception.

RELATED: Stop asking me if I’m losing weight for my wedding

After much reflection, however, I’ve decided I don’t have to wear a non-white wedding dress to look like a feminist. It’s time to reclaim white. Why should feminists be limited to only wearing certain colors, because patriarchy decided to co-opt the look a freaking queen wore on her wedding day?

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I believe reclaiming the white wedding dress can be a fabulous feminist act. I call out slut-shamers who argue wearing short skirts is “asking for it,” so why would I allow sexists to dictate how I feel about clothes culturally associated with sexual purity? I’m re-appropriating the white dress for feminist chicks who just happen to like the color.

I’m going to wear a white freaking dress to my freaking wedding, and it doesn’t make me any less of a feminist.

Originally published on She Does the City.

Sarah Sahagian

Sarah Sahagian is a feminist writer and academic living in Toronto. Her work has appeared in such publications as She Does The City, xoJane, The Beaverton, and The Huffington Post. Her feminist-friendly young adult novel, Good Girls, will be released by Inanna Press this fall.

Staff Picks

[Read comment policy before commenting]

  • savannnah

    I’d like to think that 2016 feminism has the capacity to hold a lot of concepts and feelings and thoughts together. As my AP US history teacher said “grab both concepts by the arms and squeeze them tightly to your chest” (be it wanting to wear white at a feminist wedding or deciding if the civil war was about ending slavery or states rights) I think that a lot of wedding tradition can be explained away or highlighted or re-appropriating or reclaimed if you want it to be and if it feels right and authentic to you at the time. That’s not a static head-space either- today I am concerned with the implications of wearing a veil, even though it makes me feel bridal as fuck and it wont be covering my face. Last week it was is breaking a glass at my wedding too Zionist or is it just a lot of fun, IF both the man and woman get to do it. Who knows what I’ll be reexamining next week. I do know that reexamining all traditions and choices makes sense as we attempt to mainstream intersectional feminism. I also know that feminist can make non-Feminist choices that are right for them without having to turn in their F cards.

    • Alanna Cartier

      I just want to give you a round of applause. THIS.

    • Eenie

      I didn’t agonize over the color choice (I happened to like a dress that was white). I did agonize over the veil. I was lazy and didn’t wear one because that seemed easier. So even “feminist choices” aren’t always inherently feminist.

      • Alanna Cartier

        This is also so true. I won’t be wearing a veil because I have short hair so it seemed too hard. Also I decided I’d rather spend the money on fancy gold earrings. Not an inherently feminist choice, just one based on my own personal preferences.

        • Eenie

          I bought bad ass pearl earrings that cost almost more than my dress.

          • Totch

            That’s the thing to do! I am so excited to buy myself the best pair of shoes I’ve ever owned.

            (Also not doing a veil, unrelated to shoes)

    • Bandy

      I have to ask : why would you think breaking the glass could possibly be too Zionist? It is a Jewish tradition that has nothing to do with Zionism.

      • savannnah

        There are a few meanings behind breaking the glass, as with any old tradition. One of the most prominent is to commemorate the destruction of the 2nd temple in Jerusalem. In this reading the glass represents both the idea that you were born half a soul and are reconnecting with your other half and that some day the temple will be rebuilt and Jerusalem will be reunited as well. The call for the temple to be rebuilt is historically Zionist. While other explanations have come up over the years that are less religious but this one remains very much at the center of that tradition and it is not necessary something I wish to include in my process of getting married.

      • Mooza

        I was wondering the same…

  • Lisa

    One of my biggest pet peeves is hearing people talk about women who have “earned the right to wear white” for their weddings. Haven’t we all earned that right by being humans? Thank you for this interesting post!

    • PW

      Ugh YES. This is the grossest.

      I also hate when people try to pressure women wanting to choose a non-white dress into wearing one by saying “he deserves to marry a woman in white”. um. WHAT.

      • Another Meg

        “He deserves to marry a woman in white.”

        I almost choked on my sandwich. That is gross.

        • MDBethann

          Agreed. If a guy “deserves to marry a woman in white” doesn’t a woman “deserve to marry a man in white?” So tired of these double standards!

      • Lisa

        Ew, that is so awful. Because everything is obviously about pleasing men and their needs.

    • sofar

      I always respond to those people by saying, “My grandmother wore pink on her wedding day. What, exactly, are you implying?”

    • Sarah Sahagian

      Thanks. Glad you enjoyed it, and I agree about the gross idea of “earning the right” to wear white!

  • Melody Christine

    I wanted to wear black when I first started thinking about my wedding. Partly because damn the man, but mostly because I wear black all day every day and it makes me feel beautiful and sexy and my hair looks awesome with it. But as I began planning and realizing that I wanted to make a lot of less traditional choices, I realized that wedding dress color was not the hill I wanted to die on. I will fight to the death for other issues that matter much more to me, and I will give my mother and grandmother a (really beautiful, makes me feel awesome) white dress. And I will roll my eyes at anyone who tries to make it a statement for me.

    • Leah

      And I will roll my eyes at anyone who tries to make it a statement for me.

      THIS. I hope this idea comes around to a fully feminist choice where the color of a woman’s wedding dress is unremarkable, except that the wearer looks great and happy on her wedding day. I tell myself I chose blue because I don’t think I look good in white, but I was also pushing against traditions for all the reasons Sarah mentioned above. It’ll be great if we just choose based on what colors make us happy without any of that mental chorus of societal judgments.

      • Alanna Cartier

        “It’ll be great if we just choose based on what colors make us happy without any of that mental chorus of societal judgments.”

        THIS. and not just about wedding dresses. I dream of a future someday where the most inane choices I make in my life aren’t accompanied by that chorus of judgement. Like not changing my name, or not wanting kids…

      • Coralene

        I dream of a day when wedding dresses will truly come in different colors so a bride can wear what makes her happy. I’m not crazy about the fact that there’s only one wedding look when brides of yesteryear wore whatever color they wanted. And no one wondered which person was the bride.

        • a few

          If someone is at a wedding ‘wondering who the bride is’, then maybe they shouldn’t be at the wedding because they don’t even know the couple getting married! If they are a random +1 guest, then they could at least ask their other 1/2 who the bride is. Also, who is the groom? ‘Cause there are like 15 people in black suits! LOLOLOL!

    • Sarah

      In our household, we call these things “not wasting political capital” And for some people…a dress is a dress is a dress.

      • Natalie

        I will be co-opting that phrase to use in our household. My dress choice appeased my mother and saved my political capital for other battles that mattered more to me (not changing my name, not being referred to as “Mrs. Hisname” at the reception “so people know you’re married” – as if having gone to the ceremony wasn’t enough to clue them into the fact that we’ve gotten married?)

        • Sarah

          Ha I like your response to ‘so ppl will know you are married’

        • La’Marisa-Andrea

          LOL! Now you know people will sit through an entire ceremony and still insist you aren’t committed because you didn’t change your name. Or as my former roommate used to say, not changing your name is like leaving your bags packed by the door!

  • PW

    It stung reading this article. I’ve taken a lot of raised eyebrows and “but won’t it not feel weddingy” and other unwanted opinion-thrusting for choosing a non-white dress. Can you send your feminists over to talk to my colleagues and relatives?

    But we’re in the same boat because in my ideal world, everyone gets to choose. The central tenet of feminism, for me, is not to make a world where women don’t want to or get to do this or any other debated thing anymore, but one where they GET TO CHOOSE.

    So I guess we’re getting similar pushback for opposite reasons.

    • Coralene

      I want to wear rose-pink because it’s my best color.

      • another lady

        I wore a ‘champagne’ colored wedding dress because I do not look that great in a true stark white, and I loved how the color was close enough to white to appease everyone, but looked great on me and enhanced my pale skin tones. I love that wedding dressing are coming in a lot of ‘off white’ colors now, such as super pale pinks and peaches and blues. Also, a lot of dress shops can custom make or dye the dresses in different colors, so you usually don’t have to buy the ivory white version of the dress that is the default. I once saw a bride on the show mentioned in the article have her dress dyed red because she is of Indian heritage and it is the tradition to wear red on your wedding day in India (white is for funerals there, just like black is for funerals in the USA).

      • JLily

        I was thisclose to getting a dress that was all rose gold sequins on top. It is such a great color! If the sequins wouldn’t have been super scratchy on my armpits it would have been mine!

        • a few

          my friend just wore a dress that had a white bodice and rose gold sequins on the bottom! IT WAS GORGEOUS!!

          • Totch

            I know this dress and I nearly bought it. It’s the tits. Plug for Trouvelle Bridal, truly swoonworthy.

    • emilyg25

      I wore hot pink. :D

      • Sarah Sahagian

        Ooh, I like!

    • Sarah Sahagian

      I 100% agree. People should wear WHATEVER they want. I wanted to wear white, but I support people wearing any colour they like!

    • Danielle

      I wore purple. Trust me, it felt like a MF-ing wedding <3

    • Ilora

      I wore champagne and black lace and it definitely felt like a wedding to me! Nobody said anything negative to me and if they were thinking it…well, I just don’t care! Rock your fabulous non-white wedding dress!

      • NotMarried!

        beautiful!

      • Sarah E

        HOTT

      • Sarah Sahagian

        That is a GORGEOUS dress!

      • Rebekah

        Mother of Pearl I want this dress.

        • Ilora

          Allure 9150 ;)

      • Amy Brown

        You and your dress look fabulous, like royality! Love your bouquet too!

      • PW

        Hearts in my eyes for that dress

    • Alice

      I wore purple, and I looked way hotter than I would have in white, which I look terrible in. And lovely next to my husband’s teal shirt. My mom actually wore a short white lace dress. And you know what? Not one single person got confused about who was getting married.

    • joanna b.n.

      And this is the thing… that when you opt to do the thing that is culturally accepted (as I myself did by wearing a white dress), even if you took the time to research it and make the choice for yourself feministly, you don’t get the flak. And unless you specifically say that you are rejecting the patriarchal implications, you kind of get away with pleasing everyone in their own mindset. Whereas, when you make the bold, different choice, it gets all the attention, the flak (such as I have by being childfree). And I don’t know how exactly ladies can show solidarity to one another despite being on different ends of this phenomenon, but I appreciate that this article is trying to, and I hope that we will all continue to try to find a way to make it easier for you to wear your (blue? gold? we want to see pictures!) non-white dress, and for all of us to make the choices that are right for us, cultural expectations be damned.

      • Sarah Sahagian

        Thank you for that really thoughtful comment!

      • Ema

        Agreed! Also…just wear the color you like, that’s how the cultural expectation gets changed, little by little.

    • Cellistec

      I wore a blue cocktail dress for my semi-elopement legal ceremony and a red gown for my family-and-friends ceremony/reception and got zero shade from anyone. It probably helped that after we semi-eloped, by comparison not wearing white hardly merited a place on my list of societal scandals.

    • Ashley Meredith

      I think it’s interesting that the white wedding dress is getting talked about as an instrument of patriarchy when in my experience the pressure to wear white really comes more from the matriarchy. My dad couldn’t have given a flying crap what color I wore down the aisle; it was my mom who, for many years, had stressed white. Fortunately we found this dress months before actually going dress shopping (she was paying) and both fell in love with it, and she decided white wasn’t so important. (Okay, so it’s not brightly colored, but there was also a white version of the dress which we were both bored to tears by.) Nobody has ever said it didn’t look weddingy and actually, almost five years later, people still rave about the dress and say it was the thing that really “made” the look of the wedding. So take that, PW’s annoying relatives.

  • sofar

    I looked at pink and grey and blue wedding dresses. Ended up with white, not because of the color, but because I absolutely LOVED the dress, fashion-wise.

    It’s also fun and easy to style a white dress because it’s such a blank canvas. I’m going all out with gold jewelry.

    • Sarah Sahagian

      That’s very similar to what happened to me. I looked at blue dresses online, and thought about florals too, but of the dresses I could AFFORD, the one I fell in love with was white!

      • Alanna Cartier

        I did the same! I was looking at lots of colours, but ended up with white because it was the dress I liked best in my budget.

      • BSM

        Same same same! I looooooved some of the floral dresses I saw, but they were all of the more ballgown-y persuasion, whereas I was looking for something slightly more laid back. I also was dying to wear a Frida-style vibrant flower crown, so that solved that :)

  • Coralene

    Historically, women wore their best dress to their wedding. White was rare in Victoria’s time because of the expense of upkeep for the color. Laundry was a bigger ordeal. It was a very long time after Victoria’s wedding before white became the dominant color. Women used to wear any color, even black! Even PLAID!
    The association with virginity isn’t really very old. It only happened once white dresses became the default.
    Anyway, I’m pretty certain that it’s a non-issue today except with some ultra-conservative types. Most brides wearing white are not virgins and haven’t been for quite a long time.

    • another lady

      That is what I also heard about Queen Victoria’s wedding dress and cake. They where white because it was a sign of great wealth and the showed the ability to keep her prized lace actually white (you couldn’t just go and get bleach at Wal-mart at the time). The same goes for the cake being white because they had to used expensive refined sugar and flours to make it actually be a true white. It would have been a rarity and sign of affluence at the time. It became a ‘tradition’ much later.

      • Coralene

        Exactly.

    • Keri

      This comment reminds me that I had a minor freakout after watching the wedding episode of Downton Abbey with Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson and she wore a BROWN dress that everyone made fun of but they still looked beautiful and were in love. I had just bought my big old white dress and was in the middle of planning and was suddenly like WAIT WHAT IS A WEDDING ANYWAY because watching that (fictional) historical wedding just threw me for a loop.

      • Cellistec

        When I was a kid I learned that Laura Ingalls Wilder got married in a black dress (I hope I remember that right, but point is…not white). My little kid mind was blown and decades later, that made it easier not to wear white when I got married. Role models FTW, whether fictional or real.

        • Heather

          Yes! LIW wrote this in one of her novels, I think it was “The First Four Years” that the wedding scene appears in. She did what many brides did, I believe, in the 19th century and just wore her best dress which was black or grey. If I recall the scene correctly, she would have made a special wedding dress as part of her trousseau. However, hilariously, her husband wanted to get married quickly because he was worried his mother and sister would come and take over the wedding! Yeah, that was a thing then, too! There’s an interesting thing about wedding dresses from Edith Wharton as well in “The Age of Innocence” saying brides were expected to wear their wedding dresses again within a year or two. I think she makes it a thing that May Archer wears her’s again specifically to get her husband to give up the Countess and stay married. Ah, the double-edged sword of patriarchy! It can cut back on men, too.

          • Cellistec

            +100 for awesome literary detail! Thank you!

  • Ant

    It seems like a lot of these issues arise from things “becoming a tradition”, as in people doing certain things for a long time without questioning them. Then after some time someone asks “why are we doing xyz anyway?” And someone else tries to find a deeper meaning behind it instead of admitting that they don’t know, or that people just copied other people until that thing became a “tradition”.

    For example, why is it custom in Germany to wear the wedding band on the right hand? The reason is not that the right hand is purer than the other, or because that hand has a direct connection to the heart or whatever people come up with. The reason is that the last German emperor had a disabled left hand that he preferred to disguise by wearing a glove and fixing that hand to his sabre. Consequently he wore his wedding band on his right hand, and almost every German couple up to this day has followed his example. If people knew their history they would probably ditch this tradition asap. At least we did.

    I guess what I want to say is: Do your research and then do what feels right to you ;)

  • JLily

    My dress is “bridal cream” but kind of witchy and sexy too. I’m planning on pairing it with FLOTUS-inspired arms muscles and looking anything-but-virginal. I’m a grown woman engaging in the beginning of an equal partnership and I hope my look will reflect that on the day.

    • Sarah Sahagian

      Sounds absolutely beautiful!

  • toomanybooks

    Yesss. I’ve gleefully taken down people’s arguments that brides wear white dresses because they’re virginal and pure, and I hope this article enables many more of us to do so. It’s because it’s fancy AF! (And, let’s be honest, it’s STILL a luxury to find white clothing that isn’t see-through, so even outside the “it gets dirty fast” part, not so much has changed there! Hence higher prices for “white versions of bridesmaid dresses” as I’ll put it.)

    Also, I wanted to wear white because when else am I going to wear a long white dress? I decided I liked leaning into the special/ceremonial feeling it had.

    • Sarah Sahagian

      I had a similar reaction. It feels theatrical and special because I wear white so rarely!

  • Sarah

    Thought you name looked familiar. I really enjoyed the xojane piece you wrote about Lewinsky (summer before 10th grade is where I was that year) and remember the melee in a similar fashion as you do. Also liked reading about your work on motherhood…as a new mother this also spoke to me. Look forward to seeing more from you in the future on the Interwebs!

  • Anon for this

    I’m getting married on my 5 year sex-iversary with my future husband, and wearing white. Well, ivory, close enough. It’s a very fun little dirty secret between the two of us. But I definitely did not pick white because of my virginity, because that is long gone!

    • Also Anon

      Didn’t really think about this until now, but I got married on my 7 year sex-iversary! Go team!

  • Ema

    Why does it matter what label you conform to? Or what label you reclaim? Wear what you like because you like it. Because it makes you happy. Because it’s your love’s favorite color. Whatever works. You do not need to justify anything.

    Because when it comes down to it, the color, cut and construction of your wedding attire does not matter in the slightest. The marriage you commit yourself to while wearing whatever you wish to wear, that is what matters. The perfection of your dress will not lessen or increase the potential of your marriage.

    • CMT

      It’s okay if people think their wedding dresses are important and choose to care about them.

      • Emae

        Absolutely, @disqus_TjQsPoRI0L:disqus. I’m not arguing that. My own dress is handmade (mainly because I couldn’t find a dress with pockets). But so often I see people put the perfection of the dress above their preparation for marriage. They put the importance of the dress over the importance of what they’re promising.

        • anon

          Do you even know where you are right now? Are you lost?

          • Ema

            I don’t think I’m lost. Practical weddings are the subject here, right?

        • CMT

          I had the same reaction as anon. Emae, your comment is coming off as sanctimonious. This is a post about dresses. Of course everybody is talking about dresses. There are many, many, many articles on this site about other aspects of marriage. Sure, I bet there are a small number of people out there who care more about the dress or the wedding than the marriage and the relationship but I’ll tell you what — they’re probably not reading APW.

          • Ema

            I found this article shallow and hoped that in the comments a thoughtful discussion might form. I was adding my two cents because the post seemed symptomatic of common concern I have for modern weddings.

      • joanna b.n.

        I see where your reaction is coming from, but I actually took Ema’s comment as a gentle reminder to refocus on the core content of the wedding if the details are making you upset. Word choice – it does not matter – might be a bit loose, but I assumed that she didn’t mean nobody cares about their dresses… just that you don’t have to explain your choices to the people who might question you.

        • Ema

          Thank you, Joanna! ‘Tis the gist of what I meant. That and I wish people invested more time in preparing for their marriage rather than their wedding.

  • Bettina

    I’m a feminist and I’m totally wearing white. Why? Because I don’t usually wear it (except for the odd white blouse) and I want it to be a freaking special day. People should just be able to wear whatever colour they want to their wedding. The problem is both with patriarchy claiming white as “the wedding colour” and fetishising virginity and all that (so yay for reclaiming it!), and with judgmental idiots who think that just because it’s a someone’s wedding they’re entitled to an opinion on everything ranging from the colour of the dress to who gets invited.

  • Ebloom

    I’m designing and making both my dress, and my partner’s dress/outfit. I really like white, and off-white, and think I look great in them, and yet…the artist in me wanted to play with different color stories, and go wild, and my partner did not want to wear white. In the end we decided that I would both incorporate forest green into our outfits because it’s a color that we both look really good in. As a feminist, I feel like the most important aspect of this to me is choice. I want to have both the choice to wear whatever color I want, including white, and to not feel limited by my decision.

  • Just Me

    Not the point of the article but for what it’s worth….I totally spilled red wine all over my (white) dress towards the end of the night. Oops! (Let’s be honest though, I wasn’t really surprised since I spill lots of things all the time and no one cared. And even if they did….who’s going to say something terrible to the bride!)

    • Sarah Sahagian

      It’s a good story too!

  • joanna b.n.

    And if/when you do get let’s say a car grease stain on it from getting out of the car on the way to your wedding (yup!), I hope you will remember that as a token of wearing it in real life on the actual day you promised to love and cherish your spouse, and NOT freak out about the perfect whiteness being slightly marred. Which I mostly did.

    • Totch

      I love you for this. Thanks in advance, on behalf of me from next spring.

  • Kayjayoh

    Swinging back around to note how much I love the photo at the top, and in particular the dress.