Throughout history, royal brides have both followed predecessors' traditions and created some of their own. Their weddings create a wonderful snapshot of the times in which they live, providing a chronical of the fashions of their time, but they also provide some fascinating insight into the customs that are still adhered to, those that have been jettisoned and those that have been instigated for the first time.
To find the original Royal trendsetter we must go back to Queen Victoria and her marriage to Prince Albert in 1840. The monarchy, at this time, was deeply unpopular – thanks to the antics of her bachelor uncles, who’d ruled without producing legitimate heirs - and the powers that be were concerned that Victoria’s decision to marry a German Prince may make matters worse. However, Victoria turned her wedding day into a PR triumph – one that cemented her position within the hearts of the British people and the establishment. And in doing so, she made sure that many of the decisions she made about the day have become popular traditions, followed by many a modern-day bride.
Illustration of the Feb. 10, 1840, wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in the Chapel Royal at St. James’s Palace in England. (Associated Press)
Did you know that Victoria was the first Royal to insist on ‘Made in Britain’? She was determined to champion British industry and her entire bridal outfit was made in this country, using British materials. For instance, the heavy silk satin used to make her dress and court train was made in Spitalfields, London and the lace adorning it made in Honiton, Devon. This proved a huge and important boost for Devon lace-making, as other brides sought to replicate the new fashion set by their Queen.
Victoria can also be said to be responsible for the tiered wedding cake trend. Traditionally English cakes were one layer, but Victoria wanted her cake to reflect French influence, specifically the high-rise pre-revolutionary France cake – edible delights created by skilled chefs seeking to present ever more ornamental creations. The British upper classes quickly embraced the fancy craft of the confectioners and pâtissiers who’d fled France after the ‘Great Terror’ and Victoria and Albert were no different. Their choice of tiered cake soon caught on – with brides from every level of society stipulating this style. So much so, that royal wedding cakes were required to become ever taller, to convey authority and prestige. It ended up like a right Royal Cake Off! When Lady Elizabeth married the future King George VI, 83 years later, they had a 10-foot tall, nine-tiered cake!
But what we can really thank Victoria for is her choice of white dress. In a deliberate break with tradition, she refused to wear her crimson robe of state to her wedding, instead deciding to enhance the idea of her purity, and visibility to the crowd, by wearing a white dress. It’s a decision that started the western tradition for brides wearing white on their wedding day; one that remains the most popular to this day!
The Victorians loved the language of flowers – they believed that each bloom had specific symbolism – and Victoria was no exception. She’s behind another trend, passed down throughout every subsequent British royal wedding, and that’s the addition of Myrtle in the bridal bouquet. This humble, delicate white flower stood for love and fidelity. Victoria was the first to include it in her bouquet and tradition has it she used a cutting from her own bouquet to plant a garden of myrtle bushes on the east facade of Fulham Palace.
Just as the wedding of Victoria and Albert had set a trend for royal weddings, so too did the marriage of her great grandson, Prince Albert, to Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, nearly 85 years later, in 1923. It was the first royal wedding that was filmed – and available to view (in the cinema), on the same evening as the wedding.
April 26, 1923: The wedding of Prince Albert, later King George VI, and Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. Hulton Archive / Getty Images
You’ll notice in the wedding photo above that the bridal bouquet (which included lily of the valley, roses and, of course, Myrtle) is missing. This is because Lady Elizabeth placed it on the Grave of the Unknown Warrior as she entered Westminster Abbey. It is believed she did this to commemorate her brother Fergus Bowes-Lyon, who died during the Battle of Loos in 1915. This started an unofficial tradition for subsequent royal brides, who send their bouquets back to the Abbey, after their nuptials, to be placed on the grave. Queen Elizabeth II (1947), The Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson (1986), Catherine Middleton (2011) and Meghan Markle (2018), have followed this tradition.
© Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans
Did you know that the after effects of war played havoc on the marriage of Queen Elizabeth II to Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, in 1947? Taking place just two years after hostilities had ceased, Princess Elizabeth had to use her saved ration coupons in order to buy her dress! And, as food rationing was also still in force, ingredients for her wedding cake were sent to the Princess from overseas. As the royal couple had 12 official wedding cakes, we can only suppose these food and ingredient gifts were very generous indeed! Even the Queen’s wedding dress was affected. Instead of silk used for her gown coming from Japan or Italy – WWII foes – Norman Hartnell, who designed the dress, had to seek it from China; a first.
You may also be surprised to know that the very first royal wedding to be broadcast live on television was not the Queen and Prince Philip, but that of her younger sister, Princess Margaret, to society photographer, Anthony Armstrong-Jones in May 1960. An estimated 300 million viewers tuned in from around the world to watch them marry at Westminster Abbey.
May 6, 1960: Antony Armstrong-Jones and his bride, Princess Margaret, leave London's Westminster Abbey after their wedding. Associated Press
Princess Anne’s wedding to Captain Mark Phillips was notable for the first time that the surname Mountbatten-Windsor appeared in an official document. She used it to sign the marriage register at Westminster Abbey. Around 500 million viewers are estimated to have watched the wedding on television.
Fox Photos / Getty Images
Possibly the most iconic royal bride was Lady Diana Spencer. Her marriage to Prince Charles in 1981 ignited countless bridal fashions, not least the trend for a huge cascading floral bouquet, which set the look for brides-to-be for many years to come. Diana was also the first royal bride to skip out the ‘obey’ in her wedding vows. It is a trend her daughter in laws have both followed.
April 29, 2011: Prince William and Kate Middleton kiss on the balcony of Buckingham Palace following their wedding.
Peter MacDiarmid / Getty Images
Did you know that Catherine Middleton is the oldest bride to marry a future king in British history? She was only 29 when she married Prince William in 2011! They exchanged vows in front of nearly 2,000 guests, on a day that was declared a public holiday.
In 2018, Meghan Markle made royal history with her luxury wedding invitations. At first glance, they seem very traditional: elegant thick white card, die-stamped and gilded with gold – but take a closer look. Meghan is given the honorific title – Ms. This is the first time it was used by the royal household. It was a step into the Twenty First Century. Since Meghan and Harry’s engagement announcement, the Royal Household has used the title in all its communications, including social media.
Finally, we come to the most recent British royal wedding – that of Princess Beatrice and Edoardo Mapelli Mozzi in July 2020. Thanks to COVID they had a small, private, intimate service at the Royal Chapel of All Saints in Windsor. The bride set a striking new upcycling trend, when she wore a repurposed silk moiré Norman Hartnell dress, first worn by her grandmother in 1962. Which just shows that royalty can do low key just as well as lavish!
Benjamin Wheeler / PA Images
Whilst Royal weddings remain – for the most part – traditional events, steeped in history and entrenched codes of etiquette, as you can see, sometimes a bride will push the boundaries…and when they do, they set new trends that trickle down through the whole wedding industry.