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White in history of fashion

05 March 2021 • Filed under history of fashion

“White makes you seem larger.”
How many of us have heard this phrase? I think almost everyone.
Where does this belief come from? From the fact that white, reflecting light, enlarges the images in our perception, while black, absorbing it, reduces them.
All right, so there is some truth to this belief.
Yet perhaps it would be appropriate to go a little beyond the simple perception of the figure and to study the great historical symbolism that binds clothing to this color.

We all know that white dresses have existed since ancient times. The Egyptian robes painted in the tombs of priests and pharaohs were white, probably a symbol of purity and royalty.
Many tunics were white in ancient Greece, and in Rome the white toga represented Roman citizenship.
In the Middle Ages, after the spread of Christianity, the white dress assumes a symbol more linked to religion than to society: certain virtues were identified with it and it was used for outer garments mainly by monks and priests.
In the Renaissance it assumes the color symbol of the divine Transfiguration: it is used in painting both in a religious key and as a reference to the past in works that want to outline historical figures of antiquity, used for allegorical purposes (see Botticelli with the Spring)
Curiosity: in Europe, white was also the color of mourning for widows until 1600.


Speaking purely of fashion, the first white dress with its own identity, unrelated to religious meanings and symbols is the “chemise à la Reine.” Launched by Marie Antoinette who, after having admired and studied a painting from her Pinacoteca with her painter, decided to pose in the same way as the subject of that painting: natural, without too many ornaments. Here is an excerpt from the story:

“The queen asked me if I thought there was a mysterious message in that portrait; I thought, and I told the queen, that the painter was probably showing a new, more natural style: that model was first of all a woman, and later she represented her role; and that smile, which starts from the eyes, revealed to us that she was the true artist: her charm had guided the painter’s hand. So it was that, later, the queen posed in a less regal, more natural way and I painted that portrait of the queen which, when it was exhibited, caused a great sensation and a lot of backbiting: the critics said that the queen appeared indecent and not royal at all.
But in reality I was just trying to show a new style that is now emerging, a more natural style that I think I have helped to popularize.”

That painting was “La Gioconda” by Leonardo Da Vinci.
Despite the initial stir, the new dress was a huge success and became hugely popular.

It is likely that it also influenced the following decades, with the advent of the Napoleonic era and the Empire style (the one we admire in almost all films based on Jane Austen’s novels.)
This style made extensive use of a material hitherto considered more humble: cotton muslin. It was also in this period and because of this new style that the silk industries of Lyon, in France, took a hard hit and risked failure.
Napoleon, to compensate for this problem, promulgated a law that obliged those who participated in official public ceremonies to wear silk clothes.
The next moment of glory of white dresses, probably the most important one and which is still well rooted in our customs today, is when it became the dress par excellence for brides.
It happened at the marriage of Queen Victoria to Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
Yes, that Queen Victoria.

It was not the first ever white wedding dress but it was certainly the one that had the most resonance and influence.
At the time it was customary to use a very precious dress to get married: silver, gold, jewelry, embroidery were the most classic choices.
Victoria, however, wanted to make a clean break with the past era (and if you know the history of her immediate predecessors, it’s no wonder) and she also wanted to show that this was not a marriage of power only, but of love.
In fact, she was really in love with Albert and this made her choose a dress that for the time was perhaps too simple.
It was the beginning of a fashion that continues today.

Since then, white has never completely abandoned fashion.
We find it during the Belle Époque, in dresses rich in flounces, lace, drapery and light silk.
In the Art Noveau era, enriched with natural motifs, imaginative applications (shells, pearls, beads …) and even later, in the wonderful draped dresses of Madame Grès and Vionnet, up to the present day.

Honorable mention goes in particular to a period of the early twentieth century, in which it assumed a particular meaning.
In those years, in fact, the white dress was chosen by the American and British suffragettes as their symbol.
They wore it together with two other colors, usually worn on a sash or as a belt: purple, a symbol of loyalty and gold or, in England, green, which represented hope.

It was an extremely strategic choice: the white made it possible to stand out in the photos of the time, in black and white, so it was evident on the pages of the newspapers.
It was also a color that symbolized purity and innocence, so it could not be criticized by those who claimed that suffragists were eccentric or rebellious.
It was a dress that almost everyone owned, of an economic color and that was well suited to all social status, which women wanted to represent in their battle.

It was a choice also dictated by previous negative experiences, such as the women who in the nineteenth century had worn bloomers (shorts) to protest and became the object of ridicule, unfortunately losing credibility.
(And here we could open an immense parenthesis on the power of clothes).
White was also later taken up by African-American suffragists, who demonstrated why the vote was only granted to white women for many years.

This was, much simplified and in short, the history of the white dress particularly in the modern age.

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