It is the most important dress purchase a woman will make during her life.
A single gown to represent her own personal style for one of her most special days to date. But if you pay close attention, you would see that bridal fashion is not simply a sea of indiscernible white gowns for the bride to choose from.
Designers are constantly transforming the world’s most famous white dress into a clear representation of both modern style and the way of life at that time – influenced by culture, celebrities and prominent royal weddings.
When it became customary to dance at weddings during the 1920s, bridal gowns became fluid and less reserved; when Elizabeth Taylor emerged in the original Father of the Bride movie with a heart-shaped neckline and bare collarbone, women everywhere scoured the racks for that dress. Today, with traditional church ceremonies now a rarity, bridal gowns have given away to sexier, backless styles perfect for a destination backdrop.
So though the I Said Yes to the Dress bridal movement is a recent decade evolution within the industry, bridal gown styles have far from stayed still over the years; evolving consistently through the decades to keep up with the modern woman.
In the early 1900s, the fashion industry’s most prominent [to this day] bridal staple was born: the white wedding dress. Before this time, white was only worn by the most affluent brides – with the most common colour for the average bride to adorn remaining mauve, blush pink and softer shades of grey. It was not until Queen Victoria wed in 1840 did the colour white become the most predominant colour for young brides to choose.
There were very little options for women to choose from in terms of design; the customary wedding dress was a very structured gown with an S-shaped corset, high waistline and frills on the bodice – meant to accent the bride’s youthful figure. Along with the introduction by the current monarchy of white gowns for weddings, wide Gigot sleeves that tapered to a narrow arm were also made popular by royalty at that time. These wedding gowns were not meant to be comfortable – both a representation of female garb at the time and a reflection of the wedding ceremony: a formal event that was meant to be sophisticated and reserved.
With the invention of the phonograph solidified and music now more easily accessible to the public, dancing became a popular part of the wedding celebration; this revolution also introduced the First Dance as an intrinsic component of a wedding reception.
With this radical evolution to the wedding format – into more of a party than simply a religious joining – bridal gown styles followed suit: dresses were made in a more flowing silhouette, with less boning and corsetry to restrict their movement, allowing the brides to move freely and dance with ease.
The Great Gatsby, as a book, defined an era. So, it’s safe to say The Great Gatsby— as a style — defined the trends. Combining this with the Jazz Age entered a new bridal aesthetic: Edwardian inspired, flapper-esque bridal gowns. Waist lines and necklines dropped, a more streamlined silhouette took hold and ornate jewellery, caps and accessories became an important part of the wedding day ensemble. And as necklines dropped, hemlines rose: this era saw the shortest bridal gowns to date emerge on the market.
With the quick turnaround of wartime love affairs, weddings often during this period were left with little time for preparations. According to an article published in a 1942 issue of Vogue, “Weddings nowadays hang not on the bride’s whim, but on the decision of the groom’s commanding officer.” With this and the schedule of a military man, many engaged couples were given less than a week to plan, invite, execute and celebrate their big day.
This shortened timeline left most brides being married in simple outfits that reflected the practical needs of the war era woman. Bridal fashions were kept simple: daytime dresses were popular with knee-length skirts. Even those who chose to celebrate in a more traditional floor length gown opted for wool fabrics; most definitely gone were the elaborate trains of the earlier century styles.
During the 1950s, television was the primary medium for influencing public opinion. This revolution in marketing and advertising introduced the influence of celebrities on fashion. For example, this era saw the introduction of the timeless sweetheart neckline, first popularized by Elizabeth Taylor in the original movie Father of the Bride.
Grace Kelly’s iconic wedding gown in 1956 further set the tone for ’50s style wedding dresses. Her luxe wedding dress featured a barely-visible sweetheart neckline beneath a lace illusion cover – which to this day remains a popular alternative for the more conservative bride who is drawn to the sweetheart silhouette.
Along with this change and forward movement in design, the 1950s brought with it an introduction to exposed arms and shoulders and more relaxed and sexy silhouettes.
Notoriously known as the space age, 1969 saw both Apollo 11 land the first two men on the moon – and introduced bright sparkle into bridal fashion. Weddings during this time often saw brides incorporating metallic embellishments into both their gowns and those of their bridal parties.
During a time of polarized political movement, bridal trends represented the same eclectic mix of styles, beliefs and taste. Flower child and bohemian brides could be found skipping barefoot down an aisle draped in a Grecian style gown simultaneously as another would be demurely making vows in a structured suit with matching nylon blazer.
As Princess Diana glided down the aisle in 1981, adorned in an ivory silk taffeta and antique lace ball gown with flowing sleeves gather at the wrist and a 25-foot train trailing behind her, she transformed the bridal industry with a single breath. The gown was described as “something that was going to go down in history” by designers David and Elizabeth Emanuel; and overnight it abolished the flowing bohemian trends of the past decade and introduced a new romantic ideal. Soon designers worldwide were creating bridal gowns with cinched waists, elaborate long sleeves, lace adorned trains and so much detail that even the most average girl could feel like a queen.
Fueled by the popularity of weddings in pop culture, the wedding industry expanded massively in the 1990s. With the 1991 remake of Father of the Bride and other popular movies centered around weddings including Four Weddings and a Funeral, My Best Friend’s Wedding and Runaway Bride, a generation of girls emerged who dreamt about their bridal gown.
Along with the expansion of the bridal market came an expansion of styles and designers available; more minimalistic styles and sheath silhouettes gained momentum — exemplified by Carolyn Bessette’s shift dress for her 1996 marriage to John F. Kennedy Jr.
Strapless gowns made a surge in popularity in the early 2000s and wedding gowns overall began to be more of a representation of the bride’s personal style rather than remain constricted by the requirements of religious ceremonies. As most brides moved away from traditional church ceremonies and more couples choose to have tropical destination and less formal weddings, the need to cover one’s shoulders was no longer required.
2010’s & Today
With the release of the American reality television series Say Yes to the Dress, the introduction of Pinterest and the expansion of designers in the fashion market, the bridal industry further exploded to be one of the biggest fashion sectors in the world.
Today, there is no singular design, style or trend for the bride to choose from. From sexy, semi-sheer sheath gowns to full satin ballgowns, curve-hugging mermaids and boho-chic flowing silhouettes, there is an endless array of dresses on the market as unique as each individual bride.