In the new book It's Our Day: America's Love Affair with the White Wedding , historian Katherine Jellison traces the elaborate and formal ritual to the rise of consumer culture after World War II. It was driven by "superstar brides," including Grace Kelly, Tricia Nixon, Diana Spencer and Carolyn Bessette.
Though few could afford the extravagance, the princess brides pointed the way to a particular style of designer gown or a certain brand of expensive champagne that, taken alone, might well be affordable, wrote Dr. Jellison, an associate professor of history at Ohio University.
She attributes the endurance of white weddings through decades of cultural tumult -- including the rise of feminism and divorce rates -- to their adaptability: A white gown, no longer a symbol of virginity, was favored just the same as a way for the perfect bride to have her perfect day.
"I think it's an escape from the routine of everyday life," she said. "It gives us a valid excuse to wear fancy clothes, eat fattening food, spend too much and perhaps drink too much without any guilt. After all, who can begrudge launching a loving, hopefully lifelong relationship with a pull-out-all-the-stops celebration?"