Two White Dresses: The Fashion of Lesbian Weddings

Legal marriages between women may be new in many countries, but lesbian marriage in all but law has existed for hundreds of years. I say lesbian because this blog focuses on the specific clothing experiences of lesbians; I do recognise, however, that most women historically would not have had this terminology, and that many women who get married to women in the present day (and even who may be pictured in this post) identify as queer in different ways. I am coming to this post as a lesbian with a specifically lesbian analysis, and the naming of marriage between women as “lesbian marriage” is not meant to be exclusionary, but political. It is also personal to me – I’m posting this on the 11th December 2020, and my own lesbian wedding is in 3 days time. When I get dressed on that morning, I’ll be walking in the shoes of the women who I write about below. 

There are historical records and evidence of various marriages – both real and symbolic – between women in the UK and the US from centuries gone by, and in other parts of the world marriages often occured between two women. As Faramerz Dabhoiwala writes in her Guardian article, ‘The secret history of same-sex marriage’: “It depends on what you mean by marriage. The history of many Native American, African and Asian cultures includes same-sex and transgender conjugal unions.”1 The history of the white wedding dress (or outfit) begins in Britain, however, so that is where this post’s fashion narrative begins. 

Fig. 1: This photograph appears to show two women being married. One is dressed in a white dress and one in a suit, with an officiant (whoever official or not they may be), a possible friend or relative, and a child. Historic photographs of women getting married are, for obvious reasons, hard to come by (and evidence that they were actually a couple even harder), so this photograph is just an illustration for this post. Probably France, c. 1910. From Sebastien Lifshitz, Les Invisibles (France: HOEBEKE, 2013).

Until 6 years ago in 2014, when same-sex marriage was legalised in the UK, real marriages between women could only happen if one of them was disguised as a man. This probably happened far more than we have evidence for, as if they were successful they would go unnoticed. One example is from the 1680s, when Cornelia Gerritse van Breugel and Elisabeth Boleyn married, with Cornelia disguised in men’s clothes. They were, according to Dabhoiwala in her article, “only found out years later, when Cornelia tired of wearing men’s clothes.”2 In Rebecca Jennings’ A Lesbian History of Britain she documents how: 

Marriage registers [around Fleet prison in London] contain a number of references to possible female husbands. On 15 December 1734, a marriage certificate was refused to John Mountford, a tailor, and Mary Cooper, a spinster, both from Soho and the clergyman noted ‘Suspected 2 women, no Certif.’ A few years later, on 20 May 1737, a clergyman married another two Londoners, John Smith and Elizabeth Huthall, but recorded his doubts regarding the groom.”3

Undoubtedly, some ‘female husbands’ are part of trans history, and if they were alive now in the 21st century, would probably be trans men. Others, like Cornelia Gerritse van Breugel, were probably only taking up the male role in order to get away with a lesbian relationship. 

As marriages became more regulated, fewer women would have been able to find loopholes. In the 19th century, marriages between women often existed in more symbolic formats. The close relationships between women at this time are often known as ‘boston marriages’ or ‘romantic friendships.’ The history of these relationships is complicated and diverse, and not what this post is about, so I won’t go into too much detail. Romantic friendships were and are, however, too often seen as only friendships – but in the case of Anne Lister (of Gentleman Jack fame), the partnership between two women was very much intended as a marriage. The evidence here could not be clearer: on the 12th February 1834, Anne Lister wrote in her diary of her partnership with another heiress, Ann Walker: “She is to give me a ring & I her one in token of our union as confirmed on Monday.”4 Two weeks later, on the 27th February 1834, she wrote that Ann “put [the gold wedding ring] on my left third finger in token of our union – which is now understood to be confirmed for ever tho’ little or nothing was said.”5 Lesbian marriages are nothing new. The fashion of lesbian weddings, as they are mostly recognised today, have much shorter roots.

Fig. 2: Probably France, c. 1920. From Sebastien Lifshitz, Les Invisibles (France: HOEBEKE, 2013).

White wedding dresses did not even start their life as a tradition until 1840, when Queen Victoria married Prince Albert. Some women have been recorded as wearing white to marry before that, but it was certainly not a must-have. White wedding dresses were initially popular among the upper classes as, to quote Summer Brennan’s article ‘A Natural History of the Wedding Dress,’ “white dresses did not symbolise virginity or even purity, but rather were costlier and harder to keep clean, and thus communicated the status and wealth of the wearer.”6 Due to new technologies such as photographs, however, their popularity quickly grew. Their meaning changed, too. Ideas of purity and innocence seem enmeshed with the ‘tradition’ of the white wedding dress, but this was because – In Brennan’s words – “Victorian ideals of weddings, romantic love, and purity were projected backwards to rewrite the white dress as a symbol of innocence and virginity rather than wealth.”7 The British Victorian age overlapped entirely with British colonial power, and the ideas and fashions of the British upper class were quickly spread across much of the world. The white wedding dress as a world-recognised phenomenon is a product of colonial control.

By the beginning of the 20th century, white was synonymous with women’s wedding attire. The two pictures that have been included in this post up to this point were taken in France (probably) in the first decades of the 20th century. The couples in both photographs are wearing outfits that imitate a typical bride and groom – with one woman in a white wedding dress, and the other in dark colours, trousers and a tie. I argue that these couples aren’t imitating a heterosexual relationship, only the traditions that were and are associated with marriage. Their marriages were probably never made legal, unlike some of the examples from earlier in this post. The outfits that they wore, therefore, were symbolic of their union. To wear the ‘appropriate’ wedding outfits was to suggest to each other, and perhaps their friends or family, that they were in a committed, life-long relationship. It is one step further from the rings that Anne Lister and Ann Walker exchanged symbolically in 1834.

Fig. 3: You Ya-ting and Huang Mei-yu’s symbolic wedding at a Buddhist temple in Taoyuan county, Northern Taiwan. August 2012. Via Insider

The symbolic characteristics of the white wedding dress have not disappeared when it comes to lesbian weddings. While in some parts of the world, women are free and able to marry each other, in others it is still impossible. The above photograph is from Taiwanese couple You Ya-ting and Huang Mei-yu’s symbolic wedding in 2012. Same-sex marriage was not yet legal in Taiwan, though it became legalised last year in 2019. It’s interesting, in the context of this post, that the couple both chose to wear white dresses and veils in the style that is now considered traditional for weddings. Unlike the earlier photographs in this post, they both felt able to wear white dresses, rather than having the dark suit/white dress combination. This is possibly related to the shifts in the legality of same-sex marriage; by this point, in 2012, various countries had already legalised same-sex marriage. This symbolic wedding was not imitating a heterosexual wedding, because that was no longer the only option. It was an imitation of a legal wedding that is entirely and unashamedly between two women. 

Symbolically, it makes sense that many lesbian weddings are attended by brides both dressed in white, formal attire. This is obviously not always the case – as I outlined earlier, the white dress has a lot of problems, from its branding as a symbol of innocence and virginity to its legacy being spread through colonial violence and oppression. Some women now choose to wear completely different outfits on their wedding day, whether in opposition to patriarchal, colonial pasts, or simply individual style and preference. I think, though, that the white wedding dress (or suit, or jumpsuit) holds an important place in the context of legal lesbian marriages because it is claiming marriage and its symbols as, finally, ours. 

I want to quote from a story that is told in Jane Traies’ Now You See Me: Lesbian Life Stories. It is that of Hilary and Pauline, a lesbian couple who met when they were teenagers and married in 2017, when they were seventy-eight. Hilary, in one part of their interview, says that:

From when we were seventeen, eighteen, all we ever wanted was to be married. Why couldn’t we be married like everybody else? We had the same love for each other, respect, care and consideration for others, that people had who were married. Why couldn’t we have that? One day, hopefully, we would.8

Pauline finishes their story, talking about how they feel now, after living together for forty-six years and being wives at last:

How we are together is more complete and […] I would say safe, in the sense that we know those formal aspects of marriage are there now. The rest, really, is what is between us, which has always been there, right from day one.9

Lesbian marriages are about love and they are about pride. They are about recognising the freedoms that we now have to love (though queer people are by no means fully free or liberated) and creating a space and a legacy for ourselves. They are, for those us who are able to marry our lesbian life partners at the start, rather than the end of our lives, about being lifted up by those who came before. White, when worn for a lesbian wedding, is one of the ways to affirm this. It is not sticking to traditions that didn’t include us, but reshaping them for a future that does. 

Fig. 4: Tatiana Katkova, photograph of Alexus and Aweng Ade-Chuol on their wedding day, 12th Dec. 2019. Via Vouge, July 2020.

One of the more public lesbian weddings recently is that of Aweng Ade-Chuol and Alexus Ade-Chuol, whose wedding photographs were featured in Vogue and who have recently graced the cover of Elle UK as a couple. The above photograph is of the pair on their wedding day last December. Though Alexus said that “I’d marry Aweng in sweats,” they both ended up wearing white outfits for their wedding.10 The outfits were part of their own interpretation of what a wedding should be, but they do not exist in a void. They were part of an increasingly queer social landscape – one that is restructuring marriage into something that is fueled by love and commitment, never property or patriarchy. 

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Endnotes

1: Faramerz Dabhoiwala, ‘The secret history of same-sex marriage,’ The Guardian, 23rd Jan. 2015. Theguardian.com 

2: Dabhoiwala, ‘The secret history of same-sex marriage.’

3: Rebecca Jennings, A Lesbian History of Britain: Love and Sex Between Women Since 1500 (Oxford: Greenwood World Publishing, 2007), 31.

4: Anne Lister, 12th Feb. 1834,  in Jill Liddington, Female Fortune: Land, Gender and Authority, (London: Rivers Oram Press, [1988] 2019) 93.

5: Anne Lister, 27th Feb. 1834, in Liddington, Female Fortune, 95. 

6: Summer Brennan, ‘A Natural History of the Wedding Dress,’ Jstor Daily, 27th Sept. 2017. Daily.jstor.org

7: Brennan, ‘A Natural History of the Wedding Dress.’

8: Hilary, in Jane Traies, Now You See Me: Lesbian Life Stories, (Wales: Tollington, [2018] 2019) 248.

9: Pauline, in Traies, Now You See Me, 250.

10: Alexandra Macon, ‘After Marrying at City Hall, Model Aweng Ade-Chuol and Alexus Ade-Chuol Commemorated the Day with Tattoos and Pizza,’ Vogue, 7th July 2020. Vogue.com 

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