June 21, 2011

{Did You Know?} No.5: "Shimmering Silver & Gold Brides"

[Did You Know? is a random series of posts highlighting facts and folklore about brides, weddings & courtship. To read other posts, click on Did You Know? in the Labels list below.]

Did You Know  that silver and gold were the main bridal gown colors in the tradition of European nobility before Queen Victoria wore “plain white silk satin” for her 1840 wedding—and launched a new custom for all brides?
British historian Ann Monsarrat writes about the opulence of court dress in the Middle Ages, especially for weddings: “For the rich and for royalty, Mediaeval weddings were magnificent affairs, splendid with all the trappings of this Age of Chivalry.” She tells of one lavish 13th wedding in the French court where “the gentlemen were dressed in scarlet and the ladies in cloth of gold embroidered and trimmed with gold and silver lace”…and where the fashion show strutting, indulgent feasting, and extravagant gift giving went on for days!

The early 17th century wedding of King James’ eldest daughter, Princess Elizabeth, to a German nobleman was “an occasion of breathtaking extravagance,” exclaimed the royal wedding chroniclers of the period. “The bride’s dress was made of ‘Florence cloth of silver, richly embroidered’…with a cloth-of-silver train. She was attended by sixteen bridesmaids—one for each year of her age—all robed in white or silver tissue, trimmed with silver lace….” The sleeves of the bride’s gown, they noted, were embroidered with diamonds of “inestimable value.”

Not all weddings of the titled classes of the Medieval era or the Renaissance were this opulent, of course, but for hundred of years, threads spun from real silver and gold were used in the wedding finery of the nobility to showcase the power and status of the court as well as the social and financial position of the bride’s father. (And there was probably also a nod to the belief in the mystical and alchemical properties associated with gold and silver, where the wearer would be emboldened by the special energy of the precious metals.)

Also during the early 17th century, and for the next 200 years as the wedding historian informs us, the wearing of silver and gold took on other characteristics for brides: “silver was looked upon as the royal bride’s badge of purity…and gold being the correct wear for second marriages.” (These “virginal” things were important to the royal courts!) Like many bridal customs, this superstitious practice of silver and gold was probably a bastardized version of spiritual and metaphysical beliefs from ancient goddess cultures.

In Irish folklore, the goddess Brigit or Brighid—the maiden goddess of springtime—“wears cloaks as if spun of fine silver mist,” according to author Richard Leviton. Brigit was also known as Bride, the goddess connected to the renewal of life, the true essence of the maiden. During these times—where people lived in tune with the wisdom of the natural world and the mysteries of the universe—it was thought that the moon, associated with the color silver, which meant reflective and revealing, represented feminine energy. The golden sun, considered transformative, represented male energy.

So perhaps many hundreds of years later, the superstitious, status-conscious 17th century Europeans used this idea to label the bride’s condition, signifying that the “pure” maiden wears silver and a wearer of gold had already been “transformed” from maiden to woman. (Hmmmm.) Of course this “virgin or not” custom got transferred to a bride wearing white—or not—once Queen Victoria started the vogue for the “white wedding” in the 19th century.

This “white wedding” was still a burgeoning trend in Europe and America in the first part of the 20th century when silver (in the form of brocade, trims and wreaths) became all the rage again! In 1906, Alice Roosevelt—“a racey young lady,” daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, and quite the style-setter—wore a gown of cream and silver for her White House wedding. Following that, “silver, having made a come-back for bridal trimming, remained popular for another fifty years,” Ann Monsarrat explained.

Many royal wedding dresses in the 1920s and 30s were “more silver than white.” In 1922, in a dress “woven of silver and sewn with pearls and diamonds,” Princess Mary (only daughter of King George V) and “all her bridesmaids shimmered with a silvery light.” Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon (who later became the Queen Mother) married Prince Albert, Duke of York, in 1923 in a drop-waist, off-white silk satin dress embellished with ornate silver braid. And in 1934, Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark—the last foreign-born princess to marry into the British royal family—wed Prince George, Duke of Kent, in a slim silvery bias-cut silk gown with a cowl-neck—the sleek fashion silhouette of the day.

“Silver lamé was another favourite of the Twenties,” continued Monsarrat, “and white lace embroidered with silver thread was popular in the 1950s.” And like the nature of all fashion, the  styles, shapes, and designs of wedding costumes continued to change in order to reflect the popular trends of the time—fitted suits, leisure pajamas, blue jeans with ethnic blouses, kaftans! But once the elegant Grace Kelly married Prince Ranier of Monaco in all-white antique lace and silk taffeta in 1956, the “proper” wedding gown (at least for the first-time bride!) was white from then on. ~

[To read other Did You Know? posts in this series, click on “Did You Know?” in the Labels list below. Another one coming soon....]

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