Yesterday (Sunday New Zealand time), eight young members of my parish made their first communion. They all wore white; of the five girls, two wore veils and three had coronets of white flowers.
I’ve been asked why our first communicants dress as brides. A better question would be why brides dress as first communicants.
By at least 1700, Catholic and Anglican girls approached the altar for their first communion wearing a white garment.These echoed the white robe worn by priests, which in turn symbolises the white linen garment that the priests of ancient Israel wore. And veils were shawls in a light material, worn by many women as part of their daily wear. For the special occasion of their first communion, girls then, as today, might wear a veil that had been worn by a mother and maybe a grandmother, folded away and kept since the last first communicant proudly wore it.
In the 18th and early 19th century, brides wore their best dress and bonnet on their wedding day. The dress might be new for the occasion – if the family was wealthy enough, it probably would. But only the very wealthiest could afford a one-time dress. All other brides expected their bridal gown to do service for many Sundays to come. Most also wore a bonnet rather than a veil (or a bonnet with a veil attached, which was common enough in everyday wear).
The dress could be in any colour. The poorer the bride, the more likely they would choose a darker colour, since it required less care. Wealthier brides might wear white, silver, or blue.
In 1840, Queen Victoria wore white to match some lace she wanted to use. Several others at the wedding also wore white:
Queen Victoria’s dress was of rich white satin, trimmed with orange flower blossoms. The headdress was a wreath of orange flower blossoms, and over this a beautiful veil of Honiton lace, worn down. The bridesmaids or train-bearers were also attired in white. The cost of the lace alone on the dress was £1,000. The satin, which was of a pure white, was manufactured in Spitalfields. Queen Victoria wore an armlet having the motto of the Order of the Garter: “Honi soit qui mal y pense,” inscribed. She also wore the star of the Order.
The lace of Queen Victoria’s bridal dress, though popularly called Honiton lace, was really worked at the village of Beer, which is situated near the sea coast, about ten miles from Honiton. It was executed under the direction of Miss Bidney, a native of the village, who went from London, at the command of her Majesty, for the express purpose of superintending the work. More than two hundred persons were employed upon it from March to November, during the past year.
The lace which formed the flounce of the dress, measured four yards, and was three quarters of a yard in depth. The pattern was a rich and exquisitely tasteful design, drawn expressly for the purpose, and surpasses anything that has ever been executed either in England or in Brussels. So anxious was the manufacturer that Queen Victoria should have a dress perfectly unique, that she has since the completion of the lace destroyed all the designs. The veil, which was of the same material, and was made to correspond, afforded employment to the poor lace workers for more than six weeks. It was a yard and a half square.
The Queen Dowager’s dress was of English lace with a rich deep flounce over white satin; the body and sleeves trimmed with the same material. The train was of rich violet velvet lined with white satin and trimmed with ermine. The whole of this dress was entirely composed of articles of British manufacture. Queen Adelaide wore a diamond necklace and earrings, a head dress, feathers, and diamonds.
The dress worn by her Royal Highness, the Duchess of Kent, was of white satin splendidly brocaded with silver and trimmed with three flounces of blonde. It was trimmed with net and silver. The train was of sky-blue velvet lined with white satin and trimmed with ermine. The body and sleeves were tastefully ornamented with ermine and silver with blonde ruffles. The head dress was of diamonds and feathers with a necklace and earrings en suite. The articles in the dress were wholly of British manufacture.
H.R.H. Princess Augusta wore a corsage and train of rich blue velvet trimmed with Brussels point lace and tastefully ornamented with aigrettes of diamonds. There was a rich white satin petticoat with volants and heading of Brussels point lace. The head dress was of Brussels point lace with superb lappets to correspond and a magnificent spray of diamonds.
The Duchess of Sutherland wore a dress of white satin trimmed with barbs of Spanish point lace and white roses. Included was a stomacher of brilliants, point ruffles and berthé; plus a train of white moiré magnificently embroidered in coral and gold. The head dress was of feathers and point lappets with splendid diamonds.
The Countess of Carlisle had a dress of sapphire blue velvet with a Brussels point tucker and ruffles. Her head dress was a toque of velvet and Brussels point lappets.
And brides who could afford to do so emulated her for the next 150 years. Even today, we think white is the ‘proper’ colour for a bridal gown.