In Abrahamic cultures (Jewish, Christian and Muslim), white symbolizes purity, thus the classic virgin wears a dress that's as pure as she is. In older times and still today in some cultures, 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.
A Fairytale Wedding Dress will be pure white unless it has a little bit of pink or something as girly to it. The girliness can be done away with, though, for a bride who wants to convey a sense of purity but also emotional maturity or a widow who is married a second time; all such a woman needs is a dress that's simple, understated, and still strikingly beautiful — and white.
May overlap with Ethereal White Dress if the character died innocent or at a young age.
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. Very commonly associated with goddesses and other über female character types.
This is of course the basis of the Blood-Splattered Wedding Dress trope.
- In a commercial for Chewy Granola Bars, a little boy walks up to the bride at a wedding reception and says "My mom says she can't ''believe'' you wore white!" The premise was that the chewiness of the granola bars will keep your kids from talking too much.
- The Ultimate Evil: Shendu, a Demon Sorcerer of Asian descent, knows that Western brides wear white to symbolize their virginal purity. When he sees Valerie Payne in a white dress, he finds himself liking the application of the sentiment in her. When their marriage takes place in the rewritten version of China, Valerie wears out of Shendu's will a white wedding dress instead of the red version traditional in China.
- The Pieces Lie Where They Fell: Discussed in chapter 18 of the sequel, Picking Up the Pieces, where Vix-Lei says she'll be this for her wedding in part because her mother will throw a fit if she's not (and also because she's smart enough not to get involved with sometaur outside of marriage). Night Blade also confirms that he and Page will be having a "pure white attire" wedding (which his doctor commends him on), and Wind Breaker comments that he intends to be this way, if he ever gets married.
- Subverted in the Hooves-Platinum-verse, when Derpy is getting ready for her wedding and tells Rarity she doesn't want a white wedding dress. Rarity starts to freak out, thinking maybe she's missed out on some new fashion trend, until Derpy points out that it wouldn't be traditional for her to wear white since she's already mother to a ten-year-old (whose father she's going to be marrying soon, now that they've finally met up again) and thus decidedly not a virgin. Rarity calms down after hearing this.
- In the 1987 Dragnet movie, the bad guys steal a wedding dress for their Virgin Sacrifice.
- In the play, and later movie, Jezebel, Julie spites her fiancé by wearing a red dress to the most important dance of the season, when unmarried women are to wear white.
- In Grease, Sandy wears a white dress to the dance/prom.
- Hercules Returns. On seeing Labia in a white toga for her wedding, Ursus mutters that she's got a nerve wearing white.
- The Lodgers: Rachel is wearing her pristine-white shift when her twin brother Edward realizes that she is "still pure"...and that he can take advantage of her being unconscious to immediately relieve her of said purity.
- Prom Night (1980): Kelly wears a white dress to the prom and it's established that she's still a virgin. She winds up dying a virgin when she gets cold feet when she's about to have sex with her boyfriend; he dumps her, and the killer slits her throat right after the boyfriend leaves. Also counts as White Shirt of Death.
- In William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, Juliet wears a white dress until after her marriage with Romeo is consummated.
- In West Side Story, Maria complains about wearing a white dress to her first dance, saying that "White is for babies! I will be the only one there in a white dress!". Very tellingly, she is.
- 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."
- A lot of heroines in Lurlene McDaniel's books are pathological about this. The ones who are oblivious to their fate focus on the idea of being married in white, while the ones who know they're dying want to be buried in it. This blog owner finds the idea old-fashioned and sexist.
- In the Vita Nuova, Beatrice is seen dressed in pure white when she first greets Dante, a moment surrounded by assurances of her benevolence and predestined beatitude in Heaven. The next time Beatrice is seen in white is five years later, when a white veil shroud her corpse after her soul was taken by a legion of angels to Heaven.
- In Gilmore Girls, Lane Kim plans on having sex, but when she has the opportunity, she surprises herself by saying, "Oh, well, I have to wait until I get married," because the morals her Seventh Day Adventist mother taught her have stuck. She's afraid that she might never get married and have sex — but then she does.
- In The Golden Girls, Blance wears red at her wedding.
"Me wearing white? Even I couldn't keep a straight face!"
- Call the Midwife:
- When Chummy stands up to her overbearing snobbish mother regarding her wedding (which her mother actually forced her to call off before Chummy and Peter's passionate reunion), she demands that her mother buy her a skirt suit instead of a fancy wedding dress. When her mother asks if she will at least wear white, Chummy admits that she's "no longer entitled".
- When Shelagh Mannion — formerly Sister Bernadette — marries Dr Turner, she wears a gorgeous Fifties-style wedding gown with a cloud of tulle for a veil. In this case, she's most definitely a virgin. In fact, the couple discuss this trope; she had originally planned to wear a grey skirt suit. Dr Turner's son Timmy remarks that someone had said that she wasn't wearing white because having been a nun meant that she had been "married to Jesus", and so she was like a divorced person. This pisses her off something fierce.
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy wears white throughout "Surprise", the episode where she loses her virginity. After sleeping with Angel her clothes get darker. Buffy also wears a white prom dress when confronting the Master in "Prophecy Girl", and likely for the same Rule of Symbolism; as a Virgin Sacrifice she allows the release of an evil monster into the world.
- Game of Thrones. Subverted in "Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken". Lady Sansa wears a white fur dress for her wedding to Ramsey Bolton, who doesn't hesitate to use his Marital Rape License. In her earlier forced marriage to Tyrion Lannister (who doesn't take advantage of her), Sansa wears a gold dress while Tyrion wears red (red and gold being the colors of House Lannister).
- Defied by Joy on My Name Is Earl when she marries Darnell. On her first attempt, before Earl ruined it, she wore a pair of white pants, a bridal veil, and a white tube top. On the second attempt, when Earl provided her with the new wedding to make up for accidentally wrecking it and sleeping with her days before the wedding, she wore a white gown and veil. No one says anything bad about it, even though she's slept with half the men of Camden, she's been married before (to Earl), and she has two children.
- Jane on Good Girls Revolt wants to be this. When shes drunk with Patti, she shouts that she wont get married in a white dress letting Patti know that she slept with her neighbour. Cindy also mentions that she was a virgin when she got married.
- Discussed on Adam Ruins Everything: Murph and Adam travel back in time to a sepia-toned wedding in the 1800's, where the bride was wearing a casual-looking brown dress. Murph whispers that her lack of a white dress must mean she's not a virgin. The bride, in response, slaps him upside the head, and explains that it just means she's not rich. Adam then goes on to explain that the tradition started with Queen Victoria, and even then it was originally limited to wealthy brides, because a white dress with trimmings (that was only going to be worn once) was expensive and impractical.
Bride: We gotta make our dresses last! Brown don't show the dirt!
- On The George Lopez Show, George pretends to be a professional wedding planner so that he can do Angie's job. The Bridezilla eventually finds out.
Bride: This is the first wedding you've ever planned?!
George: Yeah, and you're wearing a white dress! So we both stretched the truth a little!
- 'Allo 'Allo!: In one episode Herr Flick brings Helga a black leather wedding dress, Helga questions the colour choice and Herr Flick retorts that she can hardly wear a white leather one.
- During his first wedding on M*A*S*H, Wholesome Crossdresser Klinger claims to be entitled to wear white in response to a jab from Margaret. Since theres no other indication in eleven seasons that hes an Unexpected Virgin, its probably a case of Negative Continuity for the sake of a gag.
- 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:
- Referenced in the song "If I Die Young" by The Band Perry:
And I'll be wearing white when I come into Your kingdom
I'm as green as the ring on my little cold finger
I've never known the loving of a man
But it sure felt nice when he was holding my hand
- Martina McBride's "Wearing White" is about a woman with a "wild" past choosing to wear white at her wedding anyway. The neighbors are scandalized, but she and the groom don't care.
- On her wedding night, the title character of Madame Butterfly wears a white robe "like the goddess of the moon," and Pinkerton rhapsodizes over her innocent, childlike beauty in it - romantically from her perspective, not so romantically from the audience's.
- 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.
- Kim of Miss Saigon (itself a Setting Update of Madame Butterfly) is introduced wearing a long white dress to emphasize her innocence and virginity before she meets Chris. This is despite the fact that she works as a bargirl.
- Maria in West Side Story wears a white dress to the neighborhood dance, to emphasize her innocence (she complains about having to wear it specifically because of this trope "White is for babies!") , although it traditionally 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's qualified 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.
Marge: Uhh...I'm not sure how to put this...Selma: WHITE!
- In another episode, Selma is preparing to get married (yet again), and Marge brings up the subject of her dress. She's trying to be delicate about it, but Selma knows immediately what she's going to say, and quickly shuts her down.
- 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. Some Vietnamese brides sidestep this by wearing red áo dài for the traditional, private part of the ceremony (before the bride and groom's families' altars, bringing luck to the bride and avoiding offending long-dead ancestors who would expect to see brides in red at the same time) and white Western-style wedding dresses for the nonreligious party with friends and extended family. White áo dài, however, is a straight example of this trope, being associated with young high school female students both due to their color (purity) and their simultaneous concealment/enhancement of feminine features (modest, elegant beauty without showing "excessive skin").
- A somewhat common explanation for wearing white is that the woman is symbolizing her death as a daughter and her rebirth as a wife.
- 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 be 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 '50s.
- 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.
- Part of the reason for the concept of brides in white becoming commonplace is the Golden Age of Hollywood: White is the only color that really stands out on black and white film, so by having the bride wear a pure white dress in wedding scenes, they make it clear to the audience that she's wearing a special outfit for the occasion, regardless of the virginity of the actress or the character she's portraying. And with millions of would-be brides repeatedly seeing women getting married in white on film, they got the impression that they should do the same.
- 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.