The modern bride, dressed in a long white gown, is a relatively new phenomenon, popularized in the Victorian Era and contrary to the current zeitgeist, the color white symbolized joy, not purity. Off all the bridal raiment one sees today in popular culture, the veil is the oldest of these. Wedding ceremonies have taken place all through recorded history, although the word “bride” is first used in the modern context in the 9th century in England (OED). What is a woman enacting in a couture gown in a cathedral, or a cotton sundress on the beach at dawn, what is the lure and the draw of this ritual?
One of the earliest references can be found, not surprisingly in mythology. The Celtic goddess, Brigid, according to Robert Graves in his book, The White Goddess, belongs to the trinity of the triple moon goddess, who occurred through Indo European mythology. She was one of the most widely worshipped goddesses in Celtic Britain. In the triad, she represents the maiden, and is associated with healing, creativity, wisdom and childbirth--- all transformative actions.
Brigid took over from the winter goddess, the hag, and only women were allowed at her ceremonies. She is later Christianized as St. Brigit in Ireland. In the highlands, she became St. Bride, foster mother to Jesus Christ. Is it possible that her magic, and her iconography persevered and became encoded in the Fairy Bride of the Victorian Era? Folklorists believed that her cult like devotion stretched far into the Victorian Era when we first see the bride as fairy princess.
Traditionally, the fairy bride is non human or enchanted, living beneath the sea in a magical place, but is captured by a mortal man and is transformed by marriage to him. She lives her life as a mortal being, bearing children and resigned to her fate. Yet one day she finds her garment that she shed when the transformation occurred, she slips back into it and escapes back beneath the sea, becoming once again an enchanted creature. She is then a powerful creature, perhaps her antecedent is Brigid or St. Bride, a goddess in disguise, and not subject to the laws of ordinary women.
According to Carole Silver in Strange and Secret Peoples, this fairy tale rose in prominence in the Victorian Era, just as marriage laws were being revised--- at stake the power or rather powerlessness of women. Early folklorists ignored the autonomy and strength of the fairy bride and the fairy society she inhabited, they “found the subject of fairy brides married to mortal men disturbing” (94). Of course they did, that might imply the women were something more than decoration.
And since wives were still considered property, this interpretation was far too dangerous. Certainly if she is descended, at least in part from the powerful Celtic goddess, Brigid, and not an impoverished Catholic substitute, there was good reason to be concerned. Whether she was the Swan Maiden, the Fairy Bride, or the Seal Bride, she might really be functioning as an encoded, underground assertion of female power, through the ritual of the wedding.
It is at this juncture of fairy tales, myth and real life gender struggles that the story of the modern bride is born. There were certainly always a set of rituals accompanied by an announcement and subsequent wedding of a young man and a young woman. The rice and the bridal cake, for example, symbolized a wish for fertility, and all of these rituals worked to “effect real and perhaps long lasting transformation in the lives of the ritual participants” (Otnes and Pleck, 4).
Before the Victorian Era, women had simply worn their best dress on their wedding day. However, the idea of dressing up as a fairy princess, in a long white gown, worn only once on her special day, with a veil, was new--- and eagerly embraced. She became the living embodiment of ritual and magic fed by myth and popular fairy tales. But who exactly is hiding beneath that veil? And is she dangerous?
Graves, Robert. The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.
Otnes, Cele C., and Elizabeth H. Pleck. Cinderella Dreams: The Allure of the Lavish Wedding. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2003.
Silver, Carol G. Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.