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Symbols, Shame, and A Number of Reasons that Billy Idol is Wrong

Like many men, I have very little in the way of jewelry, and what I do have does not change very often. For nearly thirteen years, I've worn the same necklace, a small silver chain with a scarab pendant, a gift from my parents when I was in Washington, D.C. for some high school contest or another. They'd picked it up while visiting the Smithsonian, knowing that I had a fondness for Egyptian mythology. To a certain extent, I wear it because it reminds me of them.

On the other hand, I was also mindful of the symbolic meaning of the scarab: while the specifics vary a bit from report to report, the stone is associated with protection, life, and rebirth (through its association with Ra). I wouldn't have worn it if I thought that either it meant something I disagreed with, or that believers around me would find it disturbing.

I mention this by way of Irishlaw and PG's discussion of a New York Times article about a trend among pregnant women to have white weddings.

Irishlaw approves of the marriages but wants the brides to show a little shame:

Pregnancy, if it has to happen outside of marriage, is a pretty good (and certainly age-old) impetus for marriage, and I do think the profiled women's desire for marriage (for their own sake and their children's) is a good one. It's just the brazenness here that's interesting . . . it seems like there ought to be a little embarrassment, instead of the sin verguenza attitude on display.

On the other hand, PG seems to approve of the "brazenness" and yet wonder about the marriage:
Still, I don't see a reason to be embarrassed about pregnancy in any situation. A woman without ring or boyfriend should be proud of having the courage to complete her pregnancy alone. If, as IL thinks, pregnancy is a good reason to get married, then the pregnant brides should be proud of choosing marriage.
. . . .
Saying that pregnant women and other nonvirgins shouldn't wear white dresses ignores the extent to which Western wedding traditions are valued more for aesthetics, and as traditions, than for their symbolisms' actual correspondence to reality. . . .
. . . .
If you already were planning to get married and your plans just get more urgent due to a pregnancy, that's fine, but I'm disturbed by the idea that pregnancy is a good impetus for marriage by itself. The first year of marriage can be difficult enough without the stress of an infant, and getting married when you otherwise wouldn't have, just because of a broken condom or missed pill or total indifference to the possibility of conception, seems like courting divorce.

A bachelor myself, perhaps it's ill-advised to get involved in a discussion between two women as to wedding dresses. My impression was always that if fortune showed such obscure humor as to make me a primary partner in such an arrangement, I need only make sure I could still fit into my tux. Nevertheless, the trend towards pregnant weddings, as part of the general devaluation of the white dress as a symbol, fills me with considerable unease.

There's a sort of mini-industry attempting to deny the obvious: that white has been used as a symbol of ritual purity in our society. Take, for instance, the invaluable Snopes, which holds that white was actually a matter of aristocracy, and has only symbolized virginity "recently" (where recently is described as a mere hundred or so years). Which is all very well: the white wedding may "only" date from the Victorian era, and may not have meant virginity before then. It remains a tradition. Now if the NYT had stated that these brides were attempting to redefine the tradition---"I'm wearing white because it symbolizes [insert here]"---I might think twice. But there's no sign in the article that they considered anything but the fact that it looks nice.

Whatever the "aesthetics" of a traditional western-style wedding, its symbolic elements still mean something to at least some people. I'm not sure I agree with Irishlaw that any pregnant bride should feel shame for not marrying as a virgin. Nevertheless, I think there should be at least trepidation, about stepping upon such traditions. Take one bride:

But for brides like Ms. Pampillonia, however, etiquette was not on top of the priority list. "Marriage is supposed to be a symbol of love and unity, and a child brings you more love and unity," she explained.

A wedding is not supposed to be a symbol of love and unity: it's an oath, a ceremony, a statement that goes far beyond the symbolic. If a wedding were a mere symbol, if it changed nothing, it would be close to valueless. On the other hand, the elements of a wedding ceremony have symbolic meaning in their own right. This is true in every culture, from the tsunokakushi of Japanese brides (a hat meant to hide horns of jealousy at the eventual infidelity of her husband) to the white dress of the western ceremony which symbolizes sexual purity.

While Irishlaw seems to project her disapproval of premarital sex upon the brides, I take less issue with this than PG's relegation of the symbolic to a mere "aesthetic." Symbols mean something, evoke something, and the devaluing of them may allow a bride to "have it all," but it shows a fundamental lack of respect for the "all" so desired. No matter how much I may think a dog collar looks good on me, I've never adopted the clothing of a priest: I shouldn't wear one. The robes for those who have earned a doctorate at Oxford look far nicer than the ones I'm entitled to wear on formal occasions: nevertheless, not having earned the right to wear them, if I have any consideration for the institution at all, I'll stick to my proper uniform. Legally, I doubt anyone could stop me from wearing either, of course, so long as I didn't actually exaggerate my academic or ecclesiastical qualifications. Nevertheless, to do so would be tacky.

(White-covered pregnancies also seem somewhat disrespectful to those women who have managed the very difficult task of maintaining their chastity until marriage. A bride who for whatever reason has cared enough to remain chaste until marriage should have a symbol of her principles that has not been devalued, no less than the professor or the priest.)

There's an argument that brides these days are attempting to redefine the meaning of the white dress, to return it to a more roman symbol of joy, perhaps, or perhap even to a Jewish conception of renewed virtue. [1] But certainly the NYT article gives no hint that these women were consciously replacing one symbolic meaning for another. I have less problem with a change of symbolic meaning, but in merely watering it down, reducing the symbolic to the aesthetic, something special is lost.

[1]: I'm not sure how authoritative this is, but while discussing/researching this, I ran across the following:

Ironically, while the white gown has come to symbolize bridal virginity in Christian culture, in the Jewish tradition the gown denotes something quite different-- that no matter how sexually active a bride may have been before marriage, the wedding purifies her. White is worn as a symbol of the purity conferred upon her by the wedding.

Anyone who can confirm/deny this is welcome to comment.


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Well, here's a spin on the theory of why it just doesn't matter. (I know this because I'm going through tons of wedding planning myself and I've heard all the stories on where the traditions come from.) Contrary to popular belief, the virginal symbolism of the white dress sprang up after it became custom to wear it, not before. You see, Queen Victoria wore a white dress when she married Prince Albert. Until that point, it had been the custom to simply wear the nicest clothes a bride could get. Medieval depictions of weddings usually show the bride in finery with gold trim and all that rot. But Victoria wore a white dress partly because she looked good in it and partly because she was rich as hell, white clothes are impossible to keep clean, and it was a status symbol. White dresses took off after that and became fashionable. Virginity only entered the picture when some people wanted a better reason than "the Queen wore white" in justifying a completely irrational dress for a party.
I have nothing intellectual to contribute but your link to PG heads back here.
Is it worth noting that whatever the problem is with wearing white for your wedding when pregnant, surely it's just the same for anyone who's had pre-marital sex. Which probably accounts for a majority of white weddings through history.
Sherry: Thanks, I fixed the link. Adam: I've heard the Queen Victoria explanation. However, even if it was an explanation that was tacked on afterwards, it has become a symbol, and one hundred years is long enough for it to be legitimate. The fact remains that if you asked most people what it meant that the bride wore white, they'd have a pretty single answer. Martin: Agreed. The difference, however, is one of detection. Most folks who aren't happy with pregnant white brides are just as suspicious when confronted with a bride who has lived with her partner for four years, and yet wears white. Yet there is a kind of suspension of disbelief possible in that situation: one can't prove anything, and the question is not about to be asked. With a pregnant bride, the removal of doubt is pretty absolute.
There's only one time when you should care what the bride is wearing, when it's your wedding.
Nice post, and thanks for the link : ) Symbols mean something, evoke something, and the devaluing of them may allow a bride to "have it all," but it shows a fundamental lack of respect for the "all" so desired. I think you're right that regardless of how this particular tradition of brides wearing white came about, there's little question that it's pretty well ensconced today, along with its symbolizing of virginity. And that symbol does mean something (even if it's a fiction for many) so insofar as symbolic things should have any value at all, this symbol shouldn't be so openly devalued. We can have suspensions of disbelief in most cases, and while that's still not ideal in my view, it is all the more impossible with 7-months-along pregnancies. And I guess I can admit to a bit of pique at the way the women in this particular story seemed completely blase about their status (even though again, I support the marriages). As you note, what about the women wearing white who actually do stay chaste until marriage? White will mean something to them, and rightfully so. But if everyone's wearing it just for the aesthetics, then yes, something is lost, and that's a shame.
Heavens! I attended my mother's wedding when I was eighteen, and tho' she wore white, still I saw nothing odd or wrong with it. I cannot believe I've been living like such a pig not to realize.... In (more) seriousness, if you're trying to claim some permanent meaning for this silly ritual preserved only for the sake of the tyranny of fashionable taste, and perhaps the illusions of the twenty-something coeducational graduate bride's blushing father, I am absolutely confident of two things: 1) You are outnumbered by those who disagree; 2) You're going to lose this one. I am also absolutely confident that "if you asked most people what it meant that the bride wore white," and you're talking about today and not some time-machine thing, they'd be for the most part befuddled, or would think you were kidding. And you have to ask: If you're trying to preserve a symbol of something no one actually thinks is there, what's the point? Actually, probably even with the time-machine, you wouldn't find so much virtue as you think. Shakespeare's recreations seem to be pretty much frat-house heaven, although that came down in the Victorian age. And the ancient Greeks and Romans! Don't get me started. And let me set up the contrary hypothesis, because [devils advocate] my own feeling is that chastity until marriage is an inhuman cruelty and ought to be stamped out and not at all rewarded with some artificial sartorio-nuptial marker [/devilsadvocate]. (I rather wanted to go on a bit: "The loose woman as the poster child of a new America!" I was going to have some fun with that....) And while I doubt I'd get many people verbally to agree with me, still I suspect most people act as though they do.
i will be five months pregnant during my wedding ceremony. yet be assured i shall be wearing a wonderful shade of absolute whiteness! with no shame at all, because a) it suits my colouring and b) i may not be a sexual virgin but as i have never previously been married i am certainly a virgin to the world of marriage, and motherhood for that matter! i am not loose, i am in love and am loved and with my wonderful child completely gorgeous, much better than a nasty gold digging virgin who apparantly we have no problems with on the white dress front............hmmm slightly misplaced values don't you think!
i will be five months pregnant during my wedding ceremony. yet be assured i shall be wearing a wonderful shade of absolute whiteness! with no shame at all, because a) it suits my colouring and b) i may not be a sexual virgin but as i have never previously been married i am certainly a virgin to the world of marriage, and motherhood for that matter! i am not loose, i am in love and am loved and with my wonderful child completely gorgeous, much better than a nasty gold digging virgin who apparantly we have no problems with on the white dress front............hmmm slightly misplaced values don't you think!
Do people seriously believe that it is a really good idea for a young woman to marry someone she has never slept with?
Phagh! I wore deep burgundy red for my legal court wedding... and a white robe w/burgundy trim for my handfasting (it's a Pagan thing) a year earlier - not because I was sexually virginal, but because white linen bed sheets are easy to make into robes. People forget - the original meaning of 'virgin' meant 'unmarried', not necessarily non-sexually active.

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