Saturday, 30 April 2011

The White Dress Thing

Whether or not you are a virgin is nobody's business but your own.

I am repeating myself again, but I do not care. The world is sick, and one of its sicknesses is harping on whether women are virgins or not. This topic is a source of endless sniggers, and when a young woman I know chose to wear a gold rather than a white dress to her wedding, one of her female guests sniggered away. She thought the bride was revealing something about her life history. Actually, the bride just liked gold.

My first husband (to new readers: I'm not a widow; I had a a Church annulment) was obsessed with the fact that I was a virgin. You have no idea how much I wish this were a topic that had never come up. I can't remember how it did, although in Catholic circles at the time we were encouraged to be out and proud virgins, especially to non-Catholics. Although I suppose back then it gave comfort to other women to know we weren't "the only ones," what this did was alert every virgin-hunter within earshot.

There are at least two kinds of virgin-hunters. The worst kind is the one who enjoys destroying innocence and thinks he is doing something clever by "being the first." Canada's most notorious sex killer was like that. The other kind is the man who is obsessed with marrying "a virgin". In my eyes, such a fellow is somewhat akin to the woman who wants to marry "a millionaire." Both are valuing a human being for some thing they possess, not for themselves alone.

Anyway, Husband the First was indeed obsessed with the fact that I was a virgin. He mentioned it often, and he was quite interested in our choice of my wedding dress. He enjoyed saying that I, unlike so many other women, "deserved" to wear a white wedding dress. I probably agreed with this sentiment although perhaps it crossed my mind even then that no woman should be forced to confess the state of her hymen on the most public day of her life. He flipped through wedding dress magazines avidly.

His little pet name for me was "my virgin bride," and he called me that for about a year after we married. I hated it. He called me the Parthenona, too, which is one of the names of Athena, celebrating her virginity. I grew to hate that, too. It drove me crazy that my chief value to this person I had married was that I had been a virgin when I did so. And it grew clearer every day that he was horrified by my other, rather more telling, qualities, e.g. courage.

We lived not far from a neighbourhood with a significant incest problem. Neither of us knew that, of course. I found out years later. In short, a village with a terrible incest problem had emigrated, almost en masse, to Canada, and the problem continued there. I mention this to hammer home an unpleasant reality: not all women have the choice of "being virgins" when they marry. Some are seduced by male relations and told it is normal, and some are flat-out raped. The whole notion of "consent" to sexual activity is one scary ball of wax. Let's just say there's a sliding scale. Female virginity is probably more often a historical accident than it is a daily, virtuous moral choice.

Anyway, back to the white dress. The white wedding dress was popularized by Queen Victoria. Before Victoria, everyone just wore her best dress to get married in. There was a superstition that you ought not to get married in green, but beyond that, I can't think of any other pre-Victoria colour rule. And somehow white, which in India (for example) is the colour of mourning, became the western colour of virginity.

From a Catholic perspective, this should seem surprising. Our Lady is most frequently represented by the colour BLUE and in countless paintings she can be found wearing gold and pink as well. But I suppose white = virginity may derive from a sense that white = cleanliness = purity. The alb (albus (L): white) is a sign of Christian baptism. And in some Christian countries, or Chrisitian countries around the Mediterranean, it was once customary to inspect the wedding couple's bridal sheets, to see if the bride had been a virgin or not. (Ignorance of the fact that virgins do not, in fact, always bleed on their wedding nights has probably led to the completely pointless ruinations--and even murders--of thousands of women.)

Today we think inspecting or displaying bloody sheets is absolutely barbaric, but we are doing the exact same thing when we look at a beaming bride in all of her expensive finery and think "Hm. Does she DESERVE to wear that white dress?" It is so mean-spirited it makes me gnash my teeth.

A wedding dress represents not her past but the bride's feelings about her wedding day. A gorgeous white gown says nothing about her private history (which is hers alone), and everything about how she feels about starting a new life with her husband. A white dress, like a christening garment, means a new start. It means hope. It means whatever the past was like, the future is a clean page.

I know this firsthand because I wore a white dress to my second wedding. (So far only one person has been rude enough to question this decision.) I wore it because I did not want the shadow of Mr Virginity-Obsessed to mar my wedding. I wore it because that awful first marriage had been declared by the Church invalid. I wore it because I wanted to look beautiful to my husband and to be a worthy symbol of the Bride of Christ, the Church.

As far as I was concerned, my wedding was about a wonderful second chance: a new life with a completely unexpected (and perfect-for-me) husband. My mother made my dress, and we found the silk in a closing sale, so it cost the princely, extravagant sum of $80. We used lace from my first communion veil for my bridal veil. It all meant so much to me, the bride, on so many levels.

Thus I was made very uncomfortable by a snide remark about the Duchess of Cambridge, who wore a white gown to her wedding yesterday. The Duchess, unlike the late Princess of Wales, did not experience a whirlwind romance with her groom, but a ten year friendship that was probably sexually consumated years ago. Although this is not consistent with Christian teachings about marriage and sexuality, it does give the (mostly nominally Christian) British public a hope that this marriage will be both lasting and an inspiration. The Duchess's white gown was not some claim about her past but a symbol of her--and Britain's--hopes for the future.


Lina said...

You make so many good points in this article; and also, I'm so happy that you got away from your first and found B.A.
I've often wondered about the poor women in centuries past who didn't provide the requisite bloodied sheets. And men who are obsessed with finding a virgin bride creep me out, even though I qualify. In one of my stints on a Catholic dating website (never going back to that, btw) I came across a man who declared loudly and proudly to anyone who'd listen - both on his profile, if I recall correctly, and in the public fora - that he sought a virgin for a wife. This in spite of the fact that he had been married before and had the marriage annulled. It really got my back up that he would demand virginity so openly, especially when he obviously was not a virgin; I spent a lot of time wishing there was some way to reach physically across the internet and smack him good and hard across the face a few times. Really, what was he thinking?? How does a man come to believe that he has the right to demand such a thing, ESPECIALLY when he's not a virgin himself? Grr. I wonder if he ever found someone; meanly, I rather hope he didn't. He was such a pompous... well, this is a polite blog so I'll stop there :)

Elisabeth said...

As another D&A woman, now single with a flock of beautiful daughters, this brought tears to my eyes. I can only hope that your analogy of white dresses being the appropriate garment for entering a new state of life, whether as a newly baptised Christian or as a brand-new wife gains currency far and wide.

Seraphic said...

Lina, they should creep you out BECAUSE you "qualify." (You're the intended target; keep out of the way!)

I repeat this is information that a woman should not allow other people to know. As I've said before, the only people who NEED to know are (possibly) her doctor and (probably) her fiance some time before they get married.

Virginity is a beautiful thing PARTICULARLY if a woman is planning on keeping it her whole life as a woman religious. However, young woman should not act like it is a major trophy or a medal to pin to their dresses on state occasions. This is immodest and can lead to unexpected trouble.

fifi said...

I agree very much with this post, and I thought that the royal ceremony was beautiful and that the couple seemed to be very consciously trying to emphasize the important parts of the day. It is certainly gauche at any wedding to speculate on the bride or groom and their "experience." I once had a very distressing example of this at a friend's wedding, when her female relations were all banding together to "educate" her before her wedding night and being incredibly condescending and even mocking of her choice to practice NFP, etc. Very sad and difficult to operate in this culture sometimes!

Emma said...

Virgin bride or not, that dress was stunning and I am heading over to Britain to steal it! Come on, she's not going to wear it again.

So much better than Diana's dress. Kate's dress was elegant, and yet simple. I want!

Bernadette said...

I think I read the comment you're referring to, and it made me sad. It felt, well, mean. I'm really glad that you wrote this, and I agree 1000%.

Lina said...

Seraphic, you said: "Lina, they should creep you out BECAUSE you "qualify." (You're the intended target; keep out of the way!)
I repeat this is information that a woman should not allow other people to know. As I've said before, the only people who NEED to know are (possibly) her doctor and (probably) her fiance some time before they get married."

Exactly. Which is why I wrote that comment with my not-really name; even the lovely people on this site need not know such a personal thing about me.
Also, it seems - and this is probably what you were getting across in parts of your post - that men who focus so much on the virginity of the bride are focusing on (literally, haha) only a very small part of her - and probably at the cost of overlooking her much greater parts, i.e. personality.
Men may be the caffeine in the cappuccino of life, but sometimes you come across a really awful cappuccino that needs to be tossed out rather than drunk (is that the right verb form?).

Meredith said...

Thanks for writing this, Seraphic. I've run across Trad sites (like and the wacky Tradition in Action) that said that non-virgin women should not wear white wedding dresses... TIA even advised a woman that her parish should shun a *repentant* unwed mother among them - apparently, her social life was now to consist of being visited and lectured by nuns. She had to be punished for her "adventure," lest the respectable matrons feel that their efforts to be virtuous were in vain. These folks never seem to get around to suggesting public punishments for unchaste men, needless to say.

Seraphic said...

That is just so crazy, I don't know where to begin.

Hey, no, wait: I'll begin by picking on unchaste men which means, of course, ALMOST ALL OF THEM. Self-abuse, I've been told, is an almost universal problem among men, but since no-one except the person who does the laundry knows for sure, the men don't get punished in any way whatsoever for it, unless they go to confession.

And just as there are no punishments for those men, there are no prizes for the men who manage to abstain. It is all very private and the only people who mention it in public are sick comedians like Frankie Boyle and Catholic women bloggers enjoying a massively moral rant, as I am this very minute.

healthily sanguine said...

I agree with your post and with everything said so far, but please don't lynch me for stating the obvious (which is of course implied withal but not yet, I think, clearly stated): Man or woman, you ought to be a virgin on your wedding day if you possibly can! This is slightly beside the point, but I'm finding that the more obvious something is (i.e. that the Church's teaching is that you not engage in sexual activity outside of marriage) the more it needs to be stated, again and again. Society is just that obtuse. :)

Lena said...

I wrote something (9/20/2010) about virginity being private info in my blog because some people really, really get into Mary's virginity status after she had Jesus.

Seraphic said...

Yes, it is a good idea to stay a virgin. Although I have known married people to scoff at this idea, virginity has many graces.

One is that it is easier to be chaste, especially if you are keeping from other kinds of sexual indulgence, reading, movies and imaginings. It is a protection from exploitation and disease, from which many, MANY teenage girls even in the West now suffer. Early intercourse can lead to cervical cancer because the cervix is not very well developed or protected until a woman is over 21 or so.

All this said, virginity is its own reward. If you keep it all your life, then in heaven there is a special honour waiting for you. We used to talk about the two crowns of martyrdom and virginity. St. Augustine, certainly, thought martyrdom the superior crown and in his De Virginitate warned his virgin audience NOT TO GET TOO PROUD because perhaps some married women, not they, might become martyrs.

There is no earthly prize. Of course, men being men they hate the idea of women they love having been with other men, although mature men will just shrug and accept it. (Just don't needlessly mention it, for it will make them uncomfortable.)

It may seem unfair that there is no prize for something that we are so tempted to give up and for which St. Maria Goretti died, but there is a saying that "Virtue is its own reward." We also say "Pride goes before a fall."

And because of this last, I think it a very good idea to refrain from condemning women one thinks (for whatever reasons) are not virgins. We don't stone women for adultery or make them sit on the Sinner's Chair in front of the congregation or put them in the stocks. And you know something has really gone out of whack when men declare that they would never marry a young widow because the young widow is not a virgin.

At such times we KNOW someone has gone outside of the realm of Christianity, and meanwhile--in the case of non-widows--there is such a thing as loving the sinner. Loving the sinner sometimes means keeping one's mouth shut, unless she is one's best friend, and then it may be okay to say, "If you continue like this, you are going to come a cropper."

Let's see if my blog will let me post a comment this time!