Forget the garter, the four-foot gauzy veil, the crash diet. Of the many traditions surrounding the event every girl dreams about, none is more hallowed than the white wedding dress. In tulle or lace, organza or silk, that hue—snowy, spotless, sparkling white—is the eternal signifier of a blushing bride.
Or is it? In fact, white has only been donned by Western brides since the Victorian era, when, for her marriage to her cousin Albert in 1840, Queen Victoria set a trend by slipping into a colorless lace confection. The notion that white represents an unsullied wife-to-be seems to be an off-the-mark urban legend as well, with the color blue taking those honors (“married in blue, you will always be true,” goes the old poem). And though the most iconic brides in recent memory—Lady Diana Spencer, Carolyn Bessette—walked down the aisle in the expected shade, designers have begun to offer alternatives, whipping up colorful gowns that some first-time brides are delighted to wear, tradition be damned.
“I think because of the challenge of doing so many collections over so many years, it’s become important to find a way to express myself in something other than white,” says Vera Wang, who has designed dresses in everything from platinum to eggplant. “It started off to keep myself from getting stale, but then it served as an inspiration to brides. It’s a woman who is probably extremely confident who is going to wear color.”
A Vera Wang gown, 2008.
Take, for instance, Sarah Jessica Parker, who wore a black Morgane Le Fay dress at her 1997 wedding to Matthew Broderick, and Gwen Stefani, who pulled off a cotton-candy pink and white ombré Dior gown at her 2002 wedding to Gavin Rossdale. “Gavin had planned the whole thing—it was a pretty major wedding—one of the most emotional I have been to,” recalls John Galliano. “It was part fairy-tale princess, part punk—just like her. We deconstructed corsets as well as played with antique lace, and dipped the hem in pink so it kind of graffiti-ed up the gown.” Jennifer Connelly chose a black Balenciaga frock for her 2003 wedding to Paul Bettany, and the ever edgy Dita von Teese wore a purple Vivienne Westwood dress when she married Marilyn Manson in 2005.
Strong, fashion-conscious women all, though Parker has regrets about her choice, which she says was made in an effort to deflect attention from herself. “I thought it was stunning,” says Morgane Le Fay designer Liliana Casabal. “I’ve been doing a lot of red wedding dresses these days, and black too. They’re a reflection of a woman who is sophisticated enough to know that her wedding is a chance to express herself.”
The evolution of the wedding as a once-in-a-lifetime party has influenced the colorful gown’s appeal; the event has become the everyday girl’s version of the Oscars, and the dress an extension of her childhood fantasies of walking the red carpet. “The more traditional bride still prefers white or ivory, but the young girls…seem to like the idea of using colors,” says Reem Acra, whose spring 2009 show featured traditional white gowns mixed up with vibrant ready-to-wear and vintage pieces, such as lavender gauze over a full skirt.
“A wedding dress is always about a certain dream, a fantasy—and that fantasy is often about being the star,” says Marie Martinez, the head of haute couture design for Christian Lacroix, who closes his couture shows with an often spectacularly embellished wedding gown. Recently, Lacroix has dressed brides in flower prints, silver and gold taffeta, and shades of pink. “I think the dress itself also depends on the place and the theme of the wedding,” Martinez adds. “Whether it happens in a church, in the country or in a ballroom, the dress will be very different.”
Katy England in Alexander McQueen with Bobby Gillespie.
Context inevitably influences the bride’s choice; 14 layers of tulle plays well in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, but how might it appear amid the glamorous dilapidation of an empty swimming pool? That’s where Melia Marden, a New York caterer and daughter of artist Brice Marden, wed musician Kid America last summer, clad in a gold sequined Zac Posen dress. “Instead of having a beautiful ‘wedding dress,’ I wanted the most beautiful, special dress that I could have,” says Marden. “I didn’t even try on any white dresses, and I kind of regret it. But I knew what I wanted, and I felt like I would just be humoring myself.”
For Analisse Bren, who works in interior design, the purchase of a Roberto Cavalli halter dress emblazoned with green vines and yellow lemons inspired the Garden of Eden theme of her wedding, in 2006, which was held at the Wave Hill estate, located north of New York City. “I wanted to wear something I felt comfortable in and reflected who I was at the time,” she says.
Alexandra Posen, creative director of her brother Zac’s company, was married in 2004 at their parents’ Pennsylvania farmhouse, which inspired the crimson, fuchsia and orange dress Zac designed for her. “It was about the color of poppies in a field; The Wizard of Oz,” says Zac. “My sister looks wonderful in white, but she’s not a white-dress kind of girl.” For the ceremony, the family let the grass grow long and cut a swath for an aisle; the guests sported pink parasols. “The dress just became a part of the whole experience,” says Alexandra. “And my family’s a little crazy—no one expected me to go traditional.”
For the betrothed who prefer to toe the line between traditional and unique—or for whom a fire-engine red gown might give dear Granny heart palpitations—designers are accenting white dresses with colored ribbon, lace and panels. “Because a bride in white is so expected, there is something instantly special about wearing a splash of color down the aisle,” says Oscar de la Renta, who last season showed an embroidered white gown lined in powder blue satin. When Amanda Peet married screenwriter David Benioff in September 2006, she chose an ivory de la Renta gown and added a black ribbon at the waist, “which made it seem more like a festive party dress and less traditionally bridal,” Peet says. “I didn’t want my wedding to be too serious.”
Carolina Herrera has also flirted with color, adding a spray of blush to a hem and designing a gown with a green and beige lily of the valley pattern, while Monique
Lhuillier has designed dresses in yellow and steel gray. “Bridal is really much prettier if you incorporate some kind of color,” says Lhuillier. “It says you’re not afraid.”
One woman who paid no heed to the wedding-dress edict set forth by her long-ago Queen is British stylist Katy England, who married Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie in 2006 wearing a custom-made corseted chiffon Alexander McQueen dress—with an English country hedgerow print atop a layer of pink and cream stripes. “I’d selected colors for the dress that I considered to be much more flattering to my skin tone than pure white, and all my guests seemed to love it,” says England, whose husband—clearly a good match—showed up in a suit embroidered with red roses. “But I’m sure that must be the same for every bride. After all, real friends can only say how wonderful a bride looks on her wedding day.”
Vera Wang: Kevin Sturman; England: Rex Usa