The history of white wedding dresses tends to get a little confusing. In the modern, Western world, we generally consider white dresses to be signs of purity or virginity, since mainstream Christian values hold that it is ideal to be a virgin on your wedding day, and there are longstanding traditions and cultural associations between whiteness and purity.
As it happens, wedding dresses were not always white. In fact, white used to be a color associated with mourning. But everything changed after the royal English wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1840.
Queen Victoria was already the Queen when she married Albert; therefore, she had the freedom to use her wedding to make a statement of her choosing rather than just acting as something pretty to look at. She chose to use elements like hand-made lace and a flower crown to support the artisans of her kingdom and show them that she was "one of them." It just so happened that white was the best color choice to show off that beautiful lace.
Although she was the first to make white wedding dresses popular, the history of white dresses in weddings goes back farther than you might think – for many different reasons. Some historians believe that since white fabric was costlier and harder to keep clean than other colors, it signified the high status of its wearer. Many wealthy families throughout European history used white for wedding dresses simply to show off their money.
So before 1840, white wedding dresses were essentially about showing off your wealth. Queen Victoria's wedding inspired Europeans to instill other meanings in the color (purity, virginity, etc.), but the truth is that history was a lot less romantic about it.
Yes, there are married couples in the Bible; however, there were no weddings as we know them today. In that time, marriage was considered to be more of a formal or practical social contract, something that was contrived to economically benefit the two families involved.
It was usually done by signing an agreement. In one Bible story, a man marries a woman "by mistake" when he consummates his marriage in a dark tent, presumably with the wrong woman. It wasn't a romantic way of doing things, and it wasn't done for romantic purposes – it was simply about two people living together, shoring one another up, and making babies.
The tradition of weddings isn't as old as the tradition of marriage; the traditions surrounding particular dress colors are the most recent of all. Marriage, in Babylonian times, meant selling all of the pretty girls to the highest buyer and giving away the ones who weren't purchased.
Does that sound a bit like slavery for women? It was. The idea of romantic love and weddings didn't come around to replace this older idea until much later in history.
Before Queen Victoria's game-changing wedding, the color of the bride's dress was under a lot less scrutiny. In most cases, a woman got married wearing "whatever color their best dress happened to be." The color white, in those days, was usually only worn by the very wealthy or royal members of society. The reasons for this included the difficulty of keeping white clothing clean, as well as how expensive the fabric was. Essentially, the color white was used to convey wealth rather than purity. That latter association came along much later.
As with many other symbolic ceremonies from around the world, the colors selected for wedding dresses have meanings assigned to them. For Western brides, white is seen to represent "purity and new beginnings." For Eastern brides, however, red is more common and represents "life, luck, and celebration." The preferred color varies widely around the world, with some countries like India and Nigeria embracing very colorful clothing for weddings.