These days, more brides are saying no to the traditional long, lavish, white dress.
They’re forsaking the bridal standard in favor of attire that better exemplifies and embraces their style and personality, with diverse cuts, colors, styles and silhouettes. Think well-tailored separates, slim-fitted jumpsuits, even skin-baring slips.
Eye-catching colors and dramatic hues, once reserved for bridesmaids and flower girls, have started showing up on the runway, with shades ranging from blush to blue to black in recent designer bridal collections. A wider variety of pastels, metallics, florals and prints, both subtle and bold, also are popping up on the bridal market.
For many brides, it’s out with the elaborate — and expensive — frothy meringue fantasy and in with unique, bold takes on the conventional white standard.
Sarah Novick, for instance, was never one to dream about her wedding day, let alone a white dress.
“It never made sense for me to wear one. I never felt connected to it, and it was never something that I wanted,” the 33-year-old D.C.-based community organizer says. “For me, it was ‘I don’t buy the reason we wear white’ and ‘I don’t feel like one needs to wear that color in order to feel like a woman getting married.’ ”
Instead, Novick ordered about 30 colored dresses online and narrowed it down to one — a short, sleeveless red party dress by Adrianna Papell, with an A-line cut and illusion neckline — for her August nuptials in Westwood, Mass., last year.
The dress was cheery, casual and comfortable, and, most important, well suited for dancing. “I felt good in it and I felt like I could party in it,” Sarah says. “It just felt right.”
For Abby Boor Holden, a 35-year-old District-based consultant, it was about style and aesthetic. She gravitates toward brighter colors in her everyday wardrobe, so it was natural to explore non-white dresses as an option. She selected a vibrant coral strapless ball gown, with floral beaded embroidery, from Vera Wang’s Pink bridal collection for her September 2014 wedding in Columbus, Ohio.
“I tried the dress on, along with some of the traditional white dresses, and it just looked so much better,” Holden says. “Once I put it on, I knew it was the one I loved the most.”
She discussed it at length with her older sister, but waited until after she had bought the dress to tell her mother, who has a more conservative style, as she did not want her reaction to influence the decision.
“Society has an image, right now, of how a bride should look, and it’s not ‘the lady in red,’ ” Holden says, laughing.
“When it seems kind of like you’re removed from it or haven’t experienced it, it seems like, ‘Oh, it’s just a dress! Why is it so stressful?’ But it was,” she adds. “Everybody had a point of view about it, both negative and positive. And it was much stronger than I would have expected.”
Holden remained tight-lipped about her choice, even to her fiance, until their wedding day. “Some people would ask me for pictures, and I had to say no. I think a good analogy is when people don’t tell you the name of their baby when they’re expecting, because you don’t want them to influence your decision,” she says. “I wanted everyone to react in the moment and have it be part of our day.”
When choosing her wedding dress, Katie Gordon, 36, a sociologist and women’s and gender studies scholar at Stony Brook University in New York, was influenced by her undergraduate studies. She had learned that many wedding traditions and customs were, at their core, bizarre, sexist or superstitious, and the white bridal color had several dated associations that didn’t fit her views on marriage.
“The white dress is supposed to represent virginity and purity,” Gordon says, “and that wasn’t in line with my feminist ideologies.”
She and her partner, Arnie Gehrke, even toyed with the idea of having him wear a thrifted white wedding dress over his outfit, to poke fun at the tradition, but ultimately decided against it.
Instead, Gordon chose a royal blue Alfred Sung bridesmaid’s dress, which she embellished with a long, custom-made train, for her June 2015 wedding in Petaluma, Calif. The veil was swapped for a colorful, floral headpiece inspired by Czech artist Alphonse Mucha. For the reception, Gordon changed into a black tulle tutu skirt, a comfy black-and-white striped shirt and flip-flops.
‘Everyone tells you, ‘It’s your big day! It’s your big day!’ But they still kind of want you to act a certain way,” Gordon says. “To them, I said, ‘Screw it! This is my day, and if I want to be comfortable and wear a blue dress, I will.’ ”
A century ago, her choice wouldn’t have been considered nontraditional, but rather in vogue, because most brides in the Western world didn’t hanker for white until the mid-20th century. Before that, women simply wore the best, or most expensive, dress in their closet. Bright colors, especially blues and reds, as well as floral motifs, were popular in bridal wear, as wedding dresses weren’t then considered one-off purchases.
Queen Victoria has been credited with starting the white dress tradition. When she married her cousin Prince Albert in 1840, white was an unconventional choice, because it was considered a color of mourning. But Victoria didn’t care. She bucked tradition, designing and wearing a cream-colored satin gown trimmed with orange blossoms.
Wealthy brides wanted to emulate “the royal look” (think Lady Diana Spencer’s extravaganza in 1981, and Kate Middleton’s in 2011), and soon “bridal” became synonymous with “white.” The look gained momentum in 1842, when Godey’s Lady’s Book, the Vogue of its day, declared white “the most fitting hue” for a bride and “an emblem of the purity and innocence of girlhood.” The growth of mail-order catalogues and large department stores in the late 1800s brought the trend to the public.
Today, most brides still continue to favor white. But, in true Hollywood fashion, some high-profile brides have chosen to break from tradition. Actresses Anne Hathaway, Keira Knightley, Kaley Cuoco, Portio de Rossi and Jessica Biel all donned various shades of pink for their big day. Amber Tamblyn and Alison Pill wore yellow vintage-inspired looks, and fashion icon Sarah Jessica Parker went with black. Singer Solange Knowles wore an ivory, capped jumpsuit to her New Orleans nuptials, and burlesque performer Dita Von Teese chose a corseted purple gown for her wedding to rocker Marilyn Manson.
It’s easy to forget yet another white dress; it’s much harder to forget a purple one.
“I still have people who will bring up the [coral] dress to me, unsolicited,” Holden says. “It is a special and unique memory that I’m always going to have.”
And all three brides say they have no regrets.
“If the dress is meaningful, important and makes you feel special,” Gordon says, “that’s what counts — whatever that looks like.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the year of Lady Diana Spencer’s wedding. It was 1981, not 1982. The error has been corrected.
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