History of Marriage & Wedding Clothes

Two wedding rings tied together with a satin ribbon

What to wear to a wedding? If you are the lucky couple, you will already know, having bought all the wedding magazines on the shelf. As a guest, there are a few faux pas that you need to be aware of. Don't wear all white or any all-cream variations, all black, red, gold, or be over sparkly. Check the invitation carefully, for the dress code. If formal, a long evening dress or cocktail dress with smart shoes for the women, a tuxedo, white dress shirt, bow tie and dress shoes for the men. For the less formal, the cocktail dress is an easy option - it's smart to wear and fairly comfortable. For men a suit with a tie, or a sports jacket without a tie, chinos or smart trousers.

If you are attending a wedding where the reception will extend into the evening, a shawl or pashmina will give you reassuring warmth and flexibility to see you through the night.

Marriage through the ages 

Marriage is a cultural and mainly legally recognised union between two people and its history goes back a very long time. It sets out rights and obligations, extending beyond just the couple, but to their children and wider family. It was seen as a strategic way of achieving stability for the community, protecting bloodlines, establishing diplomatic and trading bonds, mutual commitments and also personal and family advancement.

It is now accepted that marriage is universal in one form or another in every civilisation.  


5th Century Statue of Ancient Egyptian Couple

Statue of 5th Dynasty Egyptian man and wife

Marriage dates back at least to Ancient Egypt around 3100 BCE, probably earlier, with many statues, artefacts and stone reliefs that attest to this. In Ancient Egypt, marriage was a pragmatic affair. There was no verb for marriage or even a ceremony, but a woman was ‘married to a man as she entered his house with chattels agreed upon’. Marriages were often arranged by the bride’s parents and gifts were handed to the bride’s family from the groom’s family. There were even trial marriages to test for fertility. If after a year if the bride-to-be became pregnant, they wed. The purpose of marriage was to have children but it was also essential that the couple were to love one another and be honourable.

Barbara Watterson, an Egyptologist says; 

Taking a wife appears to have been synonymous with setting up a house. A man was expected to love his wife, as the following exhortation from the sage, Ptah-hotep, makes clear: "Love your wife, feed her, clothe her, and make her happy...but don't let her gain the upper hand!" Another sage, Ani, proffered a recipe for a happy life: "Don't boss your wife in her own house when you know she is efficient. Don't keep saying to her `Where is it? Bring it to me!' especially when you know it is in the place where it ought to be!" (15)  l'm loving that last sentiment…

Marriage was expected to last for a lifetime and would also be expected to continue into the afterlife. Tomb paintings and inscriptions show couples together in the Field Of Reeds, the Egyptian’s vision of the afterlife, going about daily activities as on earth. 

Romantic love appears to have been as important as it is today. The Chester Beatty Papyrus 1, dating to c.1200 BCE records a romantic poem for his ‘sister’ but this would not have been for his relative, as women were commonly referred to as one’s sister. The poem praises his beloved and at the same time indicates the Egyptian ideal of feminine beauty.

My sister is unique - no one can rival her, for she is the most beautiful woman alive. Look, she is like Sirius, which marks the beginning of a good year. She radiates perfection and glows with health. The glance of her eye is gorgeous. Her lips speak sweetly, and not one word too many. Long-necked and milky breasted she is, her hair the colour of pure lapis. Gold is nothing compared to her arms and her fingers are like lotus flowers. Her buttocks are full but her waist is narrow. As for her thighs - they only add to her beauty. (Lewis, 203). So, not much has changed then…

14th C BCE Golden throne of Tutankhamun with his wife Ankhesenamun

The nearly universal tradition of the engagement ring was seen in both Egypt and Roman times. These evolved over the ages, with various religious and cultural influences. Interestingly, it was thought that the ‘ring’ finger had a nerve or vein that ran directly to the heart, which is rather lovely... 

Gold Roman Wedding Ring Circa 5th Century with Blue Agate

4th/5th C. Roman gold wedding ring with Blue agate 

It is widely accepted that the first documented marriages took place in ancient Mesopotamia, known as the Cradle of Civilisation, in around 2350 BCE.  Ancient Iraqi King Hammurabi’s code laws declared that an unwritten or undocumented marriage wouldn’t be acknowledged.

The first step to marriage was the proposal, followed by a contract and then the ceremony (research paper written by professor Sabah Hassem Hammadi, Faculty of Education, Baghdad University.) The contracts documented the rights of both parties and were witnessed and dated. These first registered marriages were rarely based on love. It was far more a transactional arrangement. Men were generally in their late mid- to late-teens and the woman needed to have reached puberty, so were often married as young as 12 or 13. 

Medieval Wedding. Couple leaving large cathedral with minstrels and crowds.

Newly wed couple leaving cathedral

Religion became involved in marriage around the 12th Century when the Catholic Church became a powerful institution in Europe when they referred to marriage as a sacrament tied to experiencing God’s presence. The priest was required to conduct the marriage ceremony and also to legally recognise the marriage.

Although women had very few rights at this time men were taught to respect their wives by Christian teachings: “The Twin shall be one flesh”. THis gave each other exclusive rights to each other’s bodies and put pressure on men to stay faithful.

Love came into the picture at this time, with advice that instructed men to woo their object of desire by praising their eyes, lips and hair.  

The Christian wedding vows a couple recite today date back to 1549. Thomas Cranmer the architect of English Protestanism laid out the purpose for marriage in his Book of Common Prayer. Cranmer had taken much of his inspiration from Catholic Medieval rites, including the Sacrum marriage liturgy.

When the colonists first landed in America, the husband’s dominance was officially recognised under a law called ‘coverture’ under which the bride’s identity was absorbed into this. The bride gave up her name to show that her husband was now more important. 

1753 marked the beginning of the state’s intervention in marriage. It was called the Clandestine Marriage Act and required a marriage to take place in a church or chapel by a minister or the marriage was void. The couple also had to issue a formal announcement, called banns or obtain a license. 

The Victorian era heralded the idea of marriage for love. The growing middle classes meant there was more social mobility and the notion that marriage was just a family arranged the event for the benefit of the family grew out of fashion.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were inspirational for the country, and their marriage was held up as a beacon to aspire to.

Painting by Goerge Hayter 1840 of the marriage of Victoria to Albert.

The marriage of Victoria and Albert 1840

It shows what a traditional ceremony marriage was, as it took until December 2005 for the Civil Partnership Act to cover Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales. 

What did people wear for the marriage ceremony? 

Wedding dresses in many eastern cultures are heavily embroidered outfits in red, traditionally an auspicious colour and representing good fortune. This is true for Hindu, B Chinese marriages In Vietnam, traditional wedding dresses were dark blue.

Wedding attire through the ages

Ancient Egypt a bride wore a tunic of white linen and a long veil of beaded netting that covered her from head to toe, together with any jewels she might own.

In Ancient Rome, on the day of the wedding, the groom would lead a procession to the bride’s home, where she would be escorted by the bridesmaids to meet her future husband. She would wear a tunica recta, a white woven tunic belted with an elaborate “Knot of Hercules”, symbolising chastity and fertility. 

Gold Hercules Knot 4th Century BC

Gold Hercules Knot 4th Century BCE

An orange wedding veil and saffron dyed orange shoes would complete the Roman bridal look. At the end of the day of celebrations, the bride would be carried over the threshold, to ensure she didn’t trip, which was an especially bad omen.

In Ancient Greece, the veil was a significant piece of the bridal outfit. On a piece of pottery from Attica, Eros can be seen adjusting the veil on the bride’s head. 

Poseidon and Amphitrite in bridal carriage drawn by a Triton 150 BCE Eastern Greece

Medieval weddings saw the bride wearing her finest dress, robe and jewellery. Most brides wore blue, the colour of purity, piety, of the Virgin Mary. Wealthier medieval brides wore red or gold. Royalty and noble people wore velvet, satin, or silk. Regardless of status, she would wear a chemise or breast band and a cloak with a long train. 

Wedding of Renaud de Montauban to Clarisse. Circa 1468 

The first white wedding dress worn by a princess was of Philippa of England in 1406 when she married Eric of Pomerania. She wore a tunic with a cloak made of white silk, edged with ermine and squirrel. Red squirrel of course.

Queen Consort Phillipa of England in crown, white veil and red velvet robes adorned with gold

Akbar The Great, third Moghul emperor who reigned from 1556, established the tradition of giving his chosen wives special gold embroidered cashmere pashmina shawls. These went on to become an important part of a (wealthy) woman’s dowry in much of the Indian subcontinent and were handed down through the generations as precious heirlooms.

In France, the Kashmir Pashmina gained status as a fashion piece by Josephine Bonaparte, who loved these shawls, in the late 17th Century. 

Empress Josephine reclining in empire line dress with luxurious embroidered cashmere pashmina shawl draped across her body

Empress Josephine with cashmere pashmina (Pierre-Paul Prud'Hon 1805)

They then went on to become a French symbol of status from the Ancien Regime through the 18th Century bourgeoisie to the current day.

Mary Queen of Scots married Francis the Dauphin of France in 1559 and wore a white wedding dress as it was her favourite colour, although at the time white was the colour of mourning for French queens. At this point it was not at all a traditional colour and the white wedding gown tradition didn't gain popularity until 1840 when Queen Victoria of England married Prince Albert, whence it symbolised a marriage of love and became a popular colour, as remains in the West today.

Queen Victoria married in 1840 and wore a heavy white silk satin dress, with matching white slippers. This look was quickly adopted by wealthy brides. This really propelled the white dress into the modern-day fashion for the white wedding dress.

Queen Victoria Wedding to Albert 10th February 1840. Wood engraving

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's Wedding 1840

Whereas, in Eastern cultures, brides often choose red or blue outfits most commonly made of silk to symbolize auspiciousness. Japanese weddings also follow the white dress tradition in the form of a pure white kimono that symbolizes purity and maidenhood. Many wedding dresses in Eastern cultures are heavily embroidered outfits in red; the traditional colour representing good luck and auspiciousness. 

Traditional highly embroidered Asian red wedding attire.

Traditional Asian wedding attire

The Wool Company sell more white, off-white, ivory, nude and cream cashmere pashminas and shawls to match with a wedding gown than any other colour.

Other accessories have become standard, some of which are mandated by religion or culture, and others of which are remnants of folk practice. The former may include specific types of headgear, for both bride and groom, and possibly all attendees. These range from yarmulkes at Jewish weddings, to crowns held over the heads of the bridal couple in Orthodox Christian ceremonies. Anglo-phone folkloric touches suggest the inclusion of "something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue," as well as a single garter, a remnant of the days when the public removal of one's garters was a significant symbolic gesture. 

Traditional Indonesian wedding procession in the village Tetebatu on the island Lombok, Indonesia

Wedding procession in the village of Tetebatu, Lombok Indonesia



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  • Author image
    Mandy Murray: May 22, 2022

    an interesting, informative article about weddings
    And marriage Thank you for going to the trouble to find out so many different things

  • Author image
    P. Maltby: May 22, 2022

    That is so informative i love to learn new knowledge but would not have thought about wedding rituals. Extremely interestingvyou have done a lot of research. You could write the book!

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