"It's an ancient superstition," said Clare Sauro, curator of Drexel's historic costume collection. "The bridesmaid was thought to be a stand-in for the bride, and they often both wore the same color to confuse evil spirits."
And it wasn't just evil spirits that were a threat, Sauro added. People were looking to kidnap brides from wealthy families. The unbetrothed sister was the perfect decoy. (Speaking for all unbetrothed sisters, yikes!)
"Think of a very special package you wanted delivered on time. That is how families thought of brides at those times," Sauro said. "And special packages need decoys."
But brides - and their maids - didn't always don white. Although the ancient Greeks wore white, brides of subsequent eras simply wore their "best" dress, which, depending on regional customs, ranged from navy blue in Europe and the Americas to red in Asia. That's because white was nearly an impossible color for everyday folks to wear - it got dirty quickly. No matter where you were, the bridesmaids dressed in the same color as the bride.
It wasn't until after Queen Victoria wore a white gown to her 1840 wedding to her cousin Prince Albert that it became fashionable for brides to wear the color again. Previously considered a color for the rich, white came to signify chastity and purity when Victoria, who was still a virgin when she married, adopted the color.
"When Queen Victoria wore white and dressed her attendants in white, it gave weddings a truly pure . . . look," said Sauro. "She had a very large influence on what respectable, married women did, right down to how the children dressed. She set the stage for upper-class brides to wear white, and that eventually became the standard."
So when did bridesmaids leave their posts as decoys and start wearing pastels? When the daughters of oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller started to marry in the late 1800s, said Annette Hoover, a wedding planning instructor at the University of South Carolina.
That's when pastels were considered suitable colors for debutantes and unmarried women, a natural fit for bridal parties. At the same time, the American aristocracy was establishing itself, and the notion that no one could upstage the bride began to take hold. Evil spirits, shmevil spirits.
"We started seeing the first etiquette books being written," Hoover said. "People just wanted to start outdoing each other in their social circles."
Fast forward to now. Pippa's white has been hot on the red carpet, too, and not just in warm months. At January's Golden Globes, we saw celebrities Salma Hayek, Kate Cassidy, Jennifer Lopez, Emily Rossum, and Miley Cyrus in white gowns. And last week, at a Buckingham Palace banquet, first lady Michelle Obama was radiant in a white Tom Ford gown featuring a crisscross neckline and long gloves.
It's no wonder companies like David's Bridal and Priscilla of Boston are selling versions of the Pippa bridesmaid dress (some good for modern bridal gowns). White is working it.
"The whole idea of the sexier bridesmaid is happening," said Dan Rentillo, design director for David's Bridal. "She's no longer a lady in waiting."
Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704, email@example.com, or ewellingtonphl on Twitter. Read her blog at www.philly.com/mirrorimage.