There is winter white, a disappointed cream just waiting to be kicked aside by linen. There is ivory, the word itself luxe, fitted for wedding gowns and trousseau satin peignoirs. But for a summer dress, simple white suffices.
The appeal is so universal, I have heard more than one man rhapsodize over seeing a woman, maybe standing apart at a party or beach cookout, clad in a white dress, everybody else in hot sweaty color. She looks cool, pure, maybe a little unattainable, but innocent, too—what other hue could pull off all of that at once? Men will speak of an unknown woman in a white sundress, her bare shoulders tanned, as though they have seen an angel.
I think we made a mistake when we chose the little black dress to be iconic. Why opt for zero color when you could have all the colors at once, the whole rainbow, deceiving the world? White looks like absence but is not. White light combines every color in the spectrum.
Maybe that completeness is why the suffragists chose white dresses? More likely they just wanted to project a little subliminal assurance: We are still pure and uncorrupted, still the young woman who wore white both to wed and to bed you.
We wear it first to be baptized, the lace trailing past our tiny pink soles. We grow up as “girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes,” winning Maria von Trapp’s approval and our mother’s, too. Yet Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White was an eccentric, and all too often, a woman in white is a ghost. Or she is Ophelia, gone mad and trailing her dreams behind her. White is fragile in so many ways.
The traditional white wedding dress goes back only to Queen Victoria, I am startled to learn. How fitting that she start a tradition; we all know how much she loved Albert—and how rare such a love is among royals. In today’s promiscuous times, though, Victoria’s white dresses cause a few snickers among people who know the bride’s past. (I compromised on cream, figuring that appropriate for my level of experience, which certainly did not run to scarlet.)
Before Victoria, it was only debutantes that wore white (as they still do in old-world St. Louis). And debutantes bring up the class question, which cannot be escaped in any conversation about clothing. Until our washing machines and chemicals grew powerful, possessing a white dress conveyed the privilege of a patient laundress’s services, because only strenuous labor could get it clean; the northern sun was not strong enough. This may be why maid’s aprons had to be white and frilly? It is most certainly why middle-class women hesitated to follow Queen Victoria’s example, waiting several decades before agreeing that white should be obligatory.
As wealth grew, the wedding gown became a one-off, worn only one day and then stuffed with tissue paper and boxed away in a cedar chest, hopefully for one’s daughter. Such a waste; even Victoria had her white lace re-styled for later wear. Appalled by a wedding industry that rivaled the military-industrial complex, I bought a looser sort of dress, layered with chiffon but still wearable to an elegant garden party. Alas, I am still waiting to be invited to an elegant garden party.
Nurses used to wear white; my mom sat for hours watching her big sister starch and iron her white nursing uniforms, both of them drinking frozen Cokes, my aunt Jane smoking. Poly scrubs the green of a grade-school auditorium do not carry the same reassurance. Is the hard labor part of the appeal? Doctors are only expected to wear the white coat, an ultra-convenient donning of status and credibility that is usually laundered for them. Nurses were the ones who went home to scrub dresses splattered with blood and other body fluids.
Nuns often wear white when they take their final vows, becoming a bride of Christ. There are no body fluids in such a spiritual endeavor; the blood is replaced by wine, and only men may pour it.
For men, white has very different connotations. White tie is the apex of moneyed elegance. In the military, the white dress uniform is the weapon that sweeps a woman off her feet; you wear it to carry her out of the factory. The famous suit was an accident—Tom Wolfe bought a white summer suit that was too heavy for summer, so wore it in winter, and the raised eyebrows resolved him to do nothing else ever again. He called his sartorial style “neo-pretentious,” aware of the arrogance of thinking oneself capable of keeping such a suit spotless. I have always secretly envied women who wear white coats, unafraid of muddy dogs or gray city slush. Even more impressive: People who purchase white rugs and sofas.
The quest for cleanliness occupies more mental space than we realize.
So do social signifiers: My grandmother gossiped hard about women fool enough to wear white to a wedding, competing with the bride. “It has to be broken,” she snapped, and I, at seven, did not understand how a color could be broken.
Now I pick up The White Dress by Nathalie Léger and read about Italian performance artist Pippa Bacca, raped and murdered while hiking from Italy to the Middle East in a wedding dress to promote unity, peace, “marriage between different peoples and nations.”
This is how a color can be broken.
At the State of the Union addresses in 2019 and 2020, women in Congress resurrected the white of suffrage, this time to oppose Trump’s agenda and support economic security for women and their families. Have women who did not inherit money ever had their own economic security? Less pay for the same work, fewer opportunities, the need for a man or a subsidy to raise one’s children—this, too, is how white can be broken. This is how innocence is really lost.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.