Svastika/Shutterstock

By Saleha Mehr

You’re sitting at home, leafing through your latest bundle of wedding magazines, or perhaps cell phone at hand, gliding through the Instagram pages of various wedding dress designers. Skimming through the sea of white, you note which dress style you might like to wear for your upcoming nuptials.   Likewise, as you flip channels, stand in the check-out line, or page through the news messages on your phone, you are inundated with envy-worthy, larger-than-life celebrity weddings, you might slip into a daydream about your own soon-to-be-unforgettable wedding —the beautiful white gown, the toasts, tossing the bouquet, being surrounded by your loving family and friends as you step into this new chapter in your life.

As you nurture your daydream, pinning away image after image, you come across a bride in a vibrant red dress, richly designed fabrics with textures you want to reach out to touch. Or perhaps she is wearing make-up that could only be described as, well, strange.  The images of brides from other cultures are quite unexpected at first blush. The elaborately decorated gowns worn by brides around the world and the complexity of their traditions may tantalize your curiosity, and even leave you wondering what all the fuss is about a plain white strapless gown.   A look around the world may leave you questioning whether wearing a white or ivory gown is really necessary.

At the same time, many of these same cultures are abandoning their tradition wedding attire to choose a western white gown instead. In today’s weddings, you also see a trend toward various shades of ivory, blush, nude, and perhaps even an occasional pale blue.  Still, the traditional white gown reigns supreme over all other choices in many parts of the world.  White wedding dresses became popular in 1840 when Queen Victoria wore a white dress to her nuptials. An angelic and demure vision, Victoria’s dress style became universal from then on.

queen victoria in her wedding gown

In 1840, Queen Victoria spurred the trend of white wedding dresses with her silk satin gown with Honiton lace.

But for centuries prior to and after Victoria, brides around the world have worn dresses of various colors, expressing their unique culture and history.  Today, more than any other time in the recent past, brides are free to wear what they choose, sty-wise, color-wise. Even bridal pantsuits are readily available.  Although these trends seem ‘new and fresh,” perhaps they are a reinvention of some very old traditions. If you have an open mind and are looking for some inspiration, just take a look around the world, where a white dress really is optional.

India

Indian weddings are a multi-day affair. The Mehndi or Sangeet ceremony is a pre-wedding function in which henna is applied to a bride’s hands and feet in lacy detailed designs.  Additionally, turmeric is applied to the bride’s face so she will have glowing skin on her wedding day. On this pre-wedding occasion, a bride is known to wear minimal to no makeup while donning a yellow lehenga, an embroidered skirt with a matching top.  The wedding party and guests dance and sing songs to celebrate the upcoming weddings.

An Indian bride with henna on her hands

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An Indian bride has henna applied to her hands over her golden lehenga.

Indian culture is deeply rooted in astrology. Mars, the red planet, is associated with love, passion, and marriage. So, for their wedding, Indian brides wear a fiery red saree or lehenga. The palm of her hands and feet are laced with intricate henna design, a red bindi on her forehead marks her as a married woman. Jewelry is also anything but understated. From heavy 18k gold necklaces, glass bangles, ornate earrings, a nose ring, anklets, and headpieces, Indian brides are truly regal.

indian bride

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Indian bride in her saree.

(See our real wedding between Nikita and Nishant here for more Indian wedding inspiration.)

Vietnam

In Vietnam, the tradition of having a colored wedding dress is continued.  A red or pink fitted silk tunic with pants, known as an Áo dài, is the traditional attire of a Vietnamese bride. Resting firmly on her head is a Khăn đóng, the “hat” of the bride. It is not uncommon for Vietnamese brides to change their attire throughout the reception. Generally, at least two Western dresses are reserved for the reception followed by another Áo dài, which the bride wears as she and her husband visit guests at their dinner tables during the multi-course meal that is typically served.

Vietnamese bride and groom

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Vietnamese bride and groom in silk tunics and hats.

Javanese-Indonesian

Java is an island of Indonesia, lying between Sumatra and Bali. A Javanese wedding is a broken into three parts, starting with something called the Siraman, a ritual bathing of the bride with scented water. Each family member plants a kiss, sniffs her cheek and bathes her, after which her mother breaks the water vessel and her father carries the bride into the house. The family serves coconut milk to guests after the ceremony.

Javanese royal wedding attire

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A bride in traditional Javanese royal wedding attire.

That evening, the midoreni takes place. The bride stays inside her home in an elaborate dress while friends and family come to visit.  At some point in the evening, the groom, followed by a procession, comes to the bride’s home.  He is not welcomed into the bride’s home, nor offered any food.  He is given only a glass of water.   His steadfastness to the bride in spite of this inhospitality symbolizes his devotion to the bride and his patience for her and her family.

The day of the wedding, the bride is dressed in a kain, a batik cloth that is wrapped around the waist with a kebaya, a decorative blouse. Her eyebrows are darkened, and loud red lipstick is applied. Her hair is teased and pulled back; a hair bun called a konde is secured with hairpins and adorned with jasmine flowers.

Nigeria

Traveling westward to Africa where the Yoruba population of West Nigeria resides, you will find that Yoruba weddings are full of eye-catching colors, pomp and circumstance, and folklore.  For a traditional wedding, the bride’s attire is made of Aso-oke, a fabric that is hand-woven and soaked in homemade dye. Her dress consists of a full-sleeved blouse called a buba, and an ankle-length wrap skirt held in place with a tied belt.  She also wears a headscarf and a shawl. The bride’s outfit isn’t complete without a matching necklace, earrings, and bracelets. This jewelry can be trendy or traditional.

Bride and Groom in Nigeria

A bride and groom of the Yoruba tribe, dressed in traditional wedding attire.
               Photo: “My Tradition” by Kehinde Olukunle /CC BY-SA 2.0/ via flickr, cropped

The groom outfit is anything but understated. Like the bride, he too wears a buba, a long sleeved blouse with matching pants called sokoto. A large, free flowing robe called agbada is placed on top of the blouse and pants. The outfit is completed with a hat called a fila.

Often the extended family of both the bride and groom will wear the same color or fabric as the bridal party.  Even if the bride has chosen to wear a white western gown, the wedding guests are often wearing the traditional dress.

Bulgaria

Tucked away in the snowy mountainside of Bulgaria is a small Muslim population which has faced decades of Communist persecution.  Despite political upsets, this population has maintained their traditional wedding customs, even though the rest of the country has modernized to align with Western “white weddings.”

On the first day of the wedding, a dowry consisting of homemade goods such as quilts and furniture that are display for villagers and wedding guests to view and inspect. The next day, the bride is dressed by the women in her family in a ritual called gelina. Her face is painted white and adorned with decorative sequins, either covering her whole face or just to highlight certain parts of her face.  Her head is further adorned with tinsel and a red veil the placed over her.  She wears baggy pants with a multi-colored bodice. The groom, on the other hand, is dressed in a Western suit with money pinned to his chest.

Bulgarian wedding gelina

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A Bulgarian bride with gelina, tinsel, and red veil adornment. The groom has money pinned to his jacket.

The groom, followed by his family members and villager, leads a traditional horo dance through the streets where the bride is eventually presented to him by her family. The couple is then led into their vows by a priest. Interestingly, the bride must keep her eyes closed until the priest blesses their union.  With the couple married, the bride is escorted to the groom’s familial home where the groom picks the white paint off her face.

Pomak bride with gelina face paint

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A bride receives gelina face paint for a traditional Pomak wedding in Ribnovo, Bulgaria.

The important thing to remember as you plan your own wedding is that there are many ways to celebrate a wedding.  There are many colors that signify the union of a couple and many traditions to sanctify a wedding.  Whether you choose to celebrate in a traditional or a novel way, as you consider the interesting cultures from around the world, allow yourself to be inspired and to incorporate some of these traditions and attire into your own wedding celebrations.  Most importantly, look to your own culture to find the details that inspire you to make your wedding personal and tailored just for your and your new spouse.

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