Who is a blushing bride, and why does she blush? We can get a clue from the Blushing Bride hydrangea, whose pure white bloom turns pink or blue as it matures, depending on the acidity of the soil.
The blush comes to a woman’s face when she is excited, when she is nervous, and when she is shyly embarrassed. A bride is all these things. Her state represents the beginning of a life’s journey. Traditionally, a bride is young and inexperienced. She is stepping up into the world to take on life’s pleasures and challenges. She is excited, she is overcome with emotion, and she is perhaps a bit shy.
Blushing Brides in Literature
No doubt blushing brides have existed for as long as there have been marriages. The image can be found in Western literature going back to its earliest records. The ancient Roman epic poem, the Aeneid, tells the story of the Trojan Wars. In it, Lavinia loves Turnus, but her family wants to give her to Aeneas. Lavinia catches sight of Turnus, and her complexion goes from white to red, like storm clouds crossing the skies. Turnus sees the blush, falls deeply in love, and goes out to win her from Aeneas.
There is no marriage. Turnus is killed in battle. But the image of the young beauty overcome with emotion is one that lasts through the ages. White, the color of purity in Western culture, and red, the color of emotion and desire, are stirred together in a symbolic, hesitant but eager blush.
The Renaissance Bride
The phrase “blushing bride” shows up in the Renaissance as a well-known image. Shakespeare wrote a play with John Fletcher called “The Two Noble Kinsmen.” In the Prologue to the play, Shakespeare compares the as yet unperformed play to a maiden, and the actors’ first-night jitters to the bride’s blush on her wedding night. Shakespeare, who wrote so often about young couples and their struggles to get together, includes the blush of the bride in his many images of love, whether tragic or humorous.
Metaphysical poets of a few decades later in England spoke of the blushing bride as a symbol for the ideal partly seen, yet veiled by ordinary life. The poet Richard Crashaw writes:
A thin aerial veil is drawn,
O’er Beauty’s face; seeming to hide,
More sweetly shows the blushing bride…
The history of the wedding veil is only partly known. It seems likely that in early times, the veil protected the bride from bad luck and evil spirits on the way to the wedding. By the time of the Renaissance, its effect of masking the loveliness of the bride’s face inspires poetry.
The blushing bride comes into her own most fully in Victorian times. Victoria wore the first white wedding gown in history in her marriage to her first cousin, Prince Albert, in 1840. The white satin gown was not a symbol of virginity. Rather, it represented great luxury, as a white gown was hard to clean and was unlikely to be used again.
Young women in Europe and the United States quickly adopted the white gown for their own. Up to that point in America, the wedding was likely to be a small ceremony in the family house, with few people in attendance. The dress was special, but the color was ordinary.
The white dress soon took on its symbol of purity and innocence. The blushing bride is often referred to in nineteenth-century literature as the epitome of that combination of purity and innocence approaching experience and love. Edgar Allan Poe uses the phrase in his love poem, “Eulalie.”
Victorian literature is also full of damsels in distress, their innocence threatened. Sheridan Le Fanu is the most famous ghost-story writer in Victorian literature. In “Carmilla” he portrays a female vampire who sets the tone for all female vampires to come. Carmilla preys on young and innocent maidens. Her hungry, lustful blush is the opposite of the blush of innocence and is referred to as such. Blushing brides must be saved from over-excitement in these novels.
And then there’s Niagara Falls. The Maid of the Mist began operation in 1849. After the Civil War, the New York Central Railroad boosted tourism to the falls. Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother Jerome is often credited with establishing Niagara Falls as a honeymoon destination. He brought his new bride there in the early nineteenth century. By the end of the century, the idea of Niagara Falls as a honeymoon destination was well established.
William Dean Howells wrote “The Wedding Journey” as a humorous account of a young couple’s journey to Niagara Falls. The novel is based on his own trip to the Falls with his wife in 1870. The story was serialized in the Atlantic Monthly in 1871. When it was published as a book shortly thereafter, Howells convinced the publisher to give it a white cover, so it could be given as a wedding present.
“The Wedding Journey” opens with the couple discussing the trip. The new bride, surely blushing, asks, “We shall not strike the public as bridal, shall we?” This shyness becomes a familiar stance of young brides in the early twentieth century, as society becomes more modern and image-conscious.
Today’s Blushing Brides
Wedding rituals took on major proportions in the twentieth century. The high point of the traditional white-gown wedding was in the 1950s. Audrey Hepburn wore a tea-length, high-necked gown as the blushing bride of Jose Ferrer in 1954. Grace Kelly was the blushing bride in the Wedding of the Century, to Prince Rainier of Monaco, in 1956. Even Bridget Bardot, the glamorous French sexpot, appeared as a blushing bride in white in 1959.
The 1960s saw many changes in wedding styles. Tradition returned in 1981 when Princess Diana of Wales married Prince Charles. The blushing young bride was the world’s sweetheart. Her wedding was televised globally, and British citizens woke up at all hours around the world to watch.