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Celebrate A Season of Weddings — Wedding Special Section Archives
The Altamont Enterprise, March 26, 2009

The bride wore black

By Philippa Stasiuk

Like most brides, I chose my dress because I deemed it perfect. It just happened to be black.

I’ll explain presently why I didn’t wear white. But perhaps first I should clear any mutually embarrassing assumptions the reader may be formulating and start by explaining what the wedding wasn’t.

It was neither a Goth affair with reams of heavy black eyeliner, nor a rockabilly spectacle with the groom in wing-toed shoes and pork-chop sideburns. And no. There were no allusions to bats, despite it taking place in a rather cave-like loft in Gotham.

On the contrary, our wedding started (at least early on in the evening) as a solemn affair, the seriousness of which did not eclipse despite our attempts to do so by having a pre-ceremony cocktail hour. People paid good money to be emotional, and teary they would be.

To avoid any unseemly gasps or inconvenient heart attacks, my fiancé and I notified our guests beforehand of our intentions to snub tradition. On top of the dress, there was also no wedding cake (we served a variety of desserts instead), no garter or garter dance, and the aforementioned pre-ceremony cocktail hour. But otherwise, it wasn’t so different from any of the handful of weddings I’ve been to before or since.

Well wait. In retrospect, maybe it was. For instance, there was the ticklish incident of my father’s speech, ostensibly given to thank those traveling from overseas who attended the wedding.

Dad comes from a long line of colonial southern Africans and we moved to America from Zimbabwe when I was 5. He decided to use the speech to give the groom’s family a tongue-in-cheek lecture about what would be expected for “Lobola,” which is an African tradition of wedding payment of either livestock or money by the groom’s family to the bride’s.

Dad explained that, if the bride had large buttocks, she would be valuable to the groom’s family because she was a “good worker who could withstand long periods without much food in years of drought.” As such, she would command a large Lobola of at least several cows.  However, my dad continued, since it was obvious by my under-endowed derriere that I would add little value to the groom’s household, he would be satisfied with a “goat and one or two scrawny chickens.”

But, back to that black dress — there may have been some feminist motivation and perhaps just a splash of cynicism at an institution that is having trouble finding its feet in modernity. But answering why I spurned white lies closer to the question of what tradition is. 

Why do brides wear white?  Its association with purity is a bit of an empty gesture these days. Marrying at 28 and living with my fiancé for the year prior to marriage should lead the reader to lay pretty robust odds on whether or not I entered the matrimonial state, shall we say, naive.

People say it’s tradition. Brides wear white because other brides do it. But many are surprised to find how recent a tradition it is. Brides wearing white began in England after Queen Victoria’s 1840 marriage to her first cousin Albert. When she married in ivory, which was the 19th Century’s pre-bleach equivalent of white, it was considered a bold and unconventional act. This was not only because white had been symbolically associated with death, but also because white was extremely unpractical in an age without dry-cleaning.

Before Victoria’s wedding, even brides who could afford such luxury instead chose to be married in colorful evening dresses that they could wear again, including black. But Victoria’s wedding set in motion the wheels of flattering imitation that are still spinning today.

In a fad that spread faster than the plague, all brides suddenly wanted to look like the queen. White fabric became the symbol of class and wealth through which marrying women could show society that, like royalty, they could afford to buy an expensive dress for just one occasion.

What is amazing is how one woman’s decision to wear white in London is still reverberating around the world today. (And I don’t just mean the looks askance I receive when I tell people that I wore black at my own wedding.)

For example, only recently in countries like Korea and Japan, a phenomenon is occurring whereby hordes of brides are abandoning their traditional wedding colors in favor of the westernized white.

My husband and I taught school kids in Seoul, Korea just over a decade ago and at the time, the idea of a white bride was so bewitching to Korean girls that the most popular doll was “Wedding Peachy.” Peachy was an anime stylized superhero figure who flew around the world saving people in a white balloon gown and tiara, begging the question for me at least, of what people saw when they looked up.

Since the tradition of wearing white began with nothing more than imitation, all it took for me was two excruciating phone calls to my mother and soon-to-be mother-in-law to abandon it.

The calls went something like this: Hi. It’s Philippa. Yes, plans are going well.  Listen I have a little question. Um. Do you remember how I said I’d like to do something a bit different at our wedding? Well, how would you feel if I showed up in black?” (Wincing while I wait.)

But while both might have paused, it seemed at least that nary an eyelash was blinked and I was delighted to be able to remain true to myself on such a memorable day.

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