Varieties of White in the World

When do we usually wear white? Most women imagine walking down the aisle with their beautiful white wedding gowns, linking arms with their fathers while everyone watches from their seats in awe. The customary tradition of wearing a white wedding dress, now predominantly a western tradition, actually did not become popularized until the mid 1800s. 

In 1840, Queen Victoria stepped away from the elaborate designs and bright colors that marked aristocracy at the time and married Prince Albert in a simple yet elegant white dress. Knowing that the wedding would create a buzz, Queen Victoria wanted to send a message to the people that she would rule with transparency. It is said that she also wanted to show support for the declining lace industry by using ‘honiton’ lace to make her dress. Following Queen Victoria’s precedent, many wealthy women started to wear white on their wedding day. The custom was strictly an affluent affair as only the well-off could buy and maintain white as a part of their wardrobe. However, after the end of World War II, many middle class women started to wear white as well and the tradition became widespread in Western cultures ever since. 

While it makes sense for white to be the color of wedding dresses as it signifies light, goodness, purity, and cleanliness, the same color also means almost the exact opposite in Eastern cultures. In most Eastern cultures, white means unhappiness, misfortune, death, and mourning. Historically, countries like China and Korea required children of deceased parents to wear white and mourn their parents’ death for three years. It is said that the tradition originated from white chrysanthemums that symbolize lamentation and grief. 

Other white flowers, such as the frangipani, are planted near temples and graveyards for very different reasons. In India, the flower is a symbol of immortality as it can grow leaves and flowers even after its roots have been taken out of the soil. It is also used widely in temple worship and in South Indian weddings because the flower is said to signify eternal love and devotion across lifetimes.

Wearing white also symbolizes various meanings across different cultures. People belonging to the Jewish faith wear white robes called Kittel on religious holidays because the color symbolizes purity. Additionally, muslim men are encouraged to wear white while performing their daily prayers to portray simplicity as well as purity.  Therefore, wearing certain colored clothes is not only a form of self expression but can also represent a societal norm. 

– Yoosoo Yeo