Virgin in a White Dress
In Western cultures, white symbolizes moral purity, and so (according to this trope) the classic virgin wears a dress that's as pure as she is. In older times, any unmarried women was supposedly expected to remain chaste, so she could be identified by the color she was wearing. (But see the Real Life section below.) This color-coding is traditional for a bride on her wedding day, a débutante at her coming out party, and
the Virgin Sacrifice
. The Ingenue
might very well wear white for the virginal symbolism, while an Ethical Slut
might do so for irony, or to emphasize the "ethical" aspect. The idea might be present even in a modern setting because of characters being notably religious, or a sense of Old-School Chivalry
being restored. If moral expectations are strong, you can expect some Slut-Shaming
from the Moral Guardians
towards those who haven't remain "pure".
A Fairytale Wedding Dress
will be pure white unless it has a little bit of pink or something as girly
to it. (Hence, many modern brides who don't claim to be exactly virginal will wear white anyway because they don't see why they should be deprived of the "fairytale" aspect.) The girlyness can be done away with, though, for a bride who wants to convey a sense of purity but also emotional maturity; all such a woman needs is a dress that's simple, understated, and still strikingly beautiful — and white.
Technically, such a virgin is a Woman in White
, but her appearance doesn't necessarily have the significance and style that the other trope conveys, as the color is simply expected of the bride or debutante, which takes the sense of mystery out of it.
Examples can range from the saint-like, to a sexually inexperienced woman who wanted to "lose it", to an experienced one who has somehow renewed her sense of purity.
This is of course the basis of the Blood-Splattered Wedding Dress
Compare Gold and White Are Divine
and True Blue Femininity
- Discussed in A Brother's Price: A man who is commonly known to be Defiled Forever appears in white at a ball, and another character points out that this is likely an attempt to distract from his extramarital indiscretion.
- In Breaking Dawn Part 1 in the Twilight Saga, Bella is a virgin in white on her wedding day, because Edward was too gentlemenly to have sex with her beforehand.
- Snuff: Lady Sybil mentions that a particularly ridiculous tradition — the maids at a grand house must turn to the wall when being spoken to by a man on pain of being fired) — was instituted so the girls "wouldn't feel ashamed of wearing white on their wedding day". The rule wasn't introduced without reason; some of the house's guests weren't above taking advantage of the help.
- Katherine Steiner-Davion consciously plays with this in the BattleTech expanded universe as part of her public image especially during her time as the "virgin" Archon of the newly-minted Lyran Alliance, deliberately favoring white in clothes and overall decor (it helps that she's also naturally blond). This is mentally lampshaded by her eventual advisor Tormano Liao at least once — hailing from the partially Chinese-inspired Capellan Confederation originally, he associates white less with virginity than with death and so finds the resulting look more off-puttingly sterile than "pure".
- In The Handmaid's Tale, Daughters (that is, the daughters of the wealthy and powerful men of Gilead) wear white dresses. They are assumed and expected to be virgins until they marry and become Wives (where they'll wear blue robes to still convey a "Madonna" status) or Econowives (where they'll wear robes of red, blue, and green, to show that they "do it all.") It isn't known what would happen to a Daughter who lost her virginity before marriage; she might perhaps be given as a Handmaid, or she might be killed (either directly, or by sending her to a work camp to clean up radioactive sludge unprotected, like all the other people Gilead considers "undesirable."
- In the song "Only the Good Die Young", Billy Joel's inspirational ode to his high school friend Virginia Callahan, he believes the girl is refusing him because she comes from a religious Catholic family and that she believes sex before marriage is sinful. One example in the lyrics is as follows:
- In Albert Herring, Lady Billows recalls that, in the good old days of her youth, the Queen of the May always wore a white dress. Because she can now find no girl pure enough to be worthy of the honor, she accepts the unorthodox selection of Albert Herring as King of the May, and specifically describes his suit as "virgin white" at the May Day ceremony. Albert, however, secretly hates being paraded around like this and decides to deliberately destroy his reputation for innocence.
- Maria in West Side Story traditionally wears a white dress to the neighborhood dance, to emphasize her innocence, although it has a red sash to suggest danger, rebellion, sexuality, etc.
- Spoofed in The Critic, where Jay's sister, Margo, is forced to attend a débutante ball, and the dressmaker asks if she wants to wear white, or an off-white he calls "Hussy White". Margo says she will wear plain white ... except for the gloves.
- In a Flash Forward episode of The Simpsons where we see Lisa's wedding, she and Marge briefly discuss this, as they are a church-going family.
Lisa: Mom, I feel kind of funny wearing white. I mean...Milhouse.
Marge: [dismissive] Oh, Milhouse doesn't count.
- This general idea has carried over to high school graduations in the U.S., now that caps and gowns come in more than basic black. If one of the school colors is white, nine times out of ten the girls will wear white caps and gowns, while the boys wear the other color.
- This trope isn't always applicable in Eastern cultures (including China, Pakistan, Vietnam, and India), where virginity is symbolized by red, and brides traditionally wear that color. In modern times, young brides in such countries can and do choose other colors. White is still not the most popular because in some of them it symbolizes death, but that doesn't stop everyone.
- In the West, this trope is actually Newer Than They Think.
- Up until the Victorian era, brides traditionally wore a nice dress, but it didn't have to be a particular color—or more to the point, there would usually be an "expected" color, but it would be highly dependent on where you were. Then when Queen Victoria got married to Prince Albert, she wore a fancy white dress, which was (1) suitably expensive to make and maintain and (2) the tradition among the German aristocracy (of which Albert was a member). At that point, a fancy white dress—especially one that was only going to worn once—was a way of showing how wealthy one was, and naturally other women started copying the queen. The virginity thing was grafted on even later, during The Fifties.
- However, Slut-Shaming was present before that, with the flowers a woman could wear and the candles that would be lit in the church restricted by whether or not the bride was a virgin.
- For decades, Judith Martin, better known as Miss Manners, has been trying to combat the "vulgar" idea that white is for virgin brides only. As she explains it, "White had been a usual color for young girls before they were allowed to overstimulate themselves – and others – by wearing exciting colors and jewels and putting up their hair." It was therefore appropriate ("fresh" and "sweet") on a woman who had never taken on the burdens of marriage before. A woman remarrying was expected to want to project wisdom and maturity, and therefore to prefer some other color for her second wedding gown.
- Today, this is becoming a Discredited Trope. Brides are free to wear whatever color dress they choose (or even to not wear a dress if they feel so inclined), whether they're virgins or not, whether it's their first marriage or their hundredth. Many still choose a white dress, because it's traditional. (Some older people might still frown on a second-time bride wearing white, but as Society Marches On, fewer people care.) Increasingly, too, wedding dresses are becoming available in colors other than white — not necessarily for non-virgin brides, but for women who just want to do something a little different, or feel that this trope is offensive.