The Evolution of Bridal Fashion

This issue, Grace Pickford explores developments in bridal fashion from the 1800s to modern day.

Bridal fashion has transformed through the ages, expressing the style and attitudes of the time: from the flapperstyle dresses of the ‘20s to the billowing ball-gowns of the ‘80s, let us walk down the aisle and explore the fashion of weddings past. 

During the 1800s, white was NOT the new black when it came to bridal fashion. Red was the flavour of the day, symbolising good luck, happiness, and passion. Wedding-wear consisted of the brides ‘best dress’, meaning there were a variety of styles and colours hitting the aisle. White fabrics were often too expensive to clean, so deep colours like red were a practical and vibrant option for the big day. In Asian countries, many brides continue to wear red on their wedding day, particularly in Indian culture where red is the colour for new life, and love.

It was not until 1840 when Queen Victoria walked down the aisle for the first time to marry her first cousin, Prince Albert, wearing a laced, ivory silk dress that the trend was set for future bridal fashion. Before this, different traditions were symbolized in the colours that brides wore; in ancient Rome, for example, brides wore yellow veils to symbolise light and vitality, bringing warmth to their new husband’s life- permission to roll your eyes.

1910s

Queen Victoria painted the image of the bride white, stamping the mark of royalty onto bridal fashion. Queen Victoria’s reign saw the conception of many trends that have lasted into the modern day, with another example being Prince Albert’s introduction of the Christmas tree to Britain in the 1840s. The white dress adopted connotations of purity and innocence, symbolising a girl’s passage into womanhood through the act of marriage. It has remained an important traditional element for many brides-to-be when deciding to ‘say yes to the dress’. 

1910s bridalwear consisted of long, flowing dresses – floor length cascades of material – to enable the bride full movement for wedding day dancing rituals. Dresses were often embellished with delicate lace and ruffles, but were mostly simple and modest affairs.

1920s

Think Great Gatsby- the roaring ‘20s saw a shift from the modest hanging dresses that characterised the fashion of earlier decades, into more adventurous flapper-style dresses. The new age saw elegant beading to add to the glamour of the period, often with shorter, figurehugging silhouettes to express brides’ confidence and sexuality. Dresses were often accompanied with long whimsical veils for ornamentation, and elaborate trains to create the appearance of mermaid-style gowns. Although the high neckline of the previous decade remained in fashion, women were beginning to embrace their bodies and their independence more in the charismatic glitz of the 1920s.

1930s

The collapse of Wall Street in 1929 led to the Great Depression of the 1930s which saw a resurgence of the more traditional and plain bridal dresses of previous decades. Brides of the ‘30s donned figure hugging dresses, with long sleeves and high-necklines, and minimal embroidery or ornamental design. The “Make Do and Mend” attitude that stemmed from the Depression meant a decline in expensive natural materials, and an increase in the use of manmade fibres such as nylon and rayon.

However, moving into the latter half of the ‘30s, the rise in Hollywood glamour and its influence over fashion trends began to see brides opting for dresses with dropped waist lines and slinky, silky fits that characterised 1930s filmstar fashion. Hips were no longer the focal point for attracting the eye, but waist-lines and shoulders, which led to the famous cuts of the ‘30s.

1940s

Bridal fashion of the ‘40s respected the austerity of the time: the Second World War saw women working and contributing to the war effort. Brides would often wear their work uniform to their weddings, or homemade dresses that were shared between friends and family. 1940s bridal wear reflected the impact of the war on everyday life and society, and the “let’s go forward together” attitude that fuelled the war effort. 

Women who did manage to acquire a new dress opted for an extension of the 1930s fashion with glamorous ruched sleeves and vintage, plunging V-shaped necklines.

1950s

Lock the plain-Jane dress back in the wardrobe because the ‘50s was the age of the billowing skirted ball gown. Dior paved the trend for women’s fashion in this decade with the iconic cinched waists and mid-calf length wide skirts extending into bridal fashion. Admired figures such as Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe ensured the popularity of this style.

The 1957 film Funny Face saw Audrey Hepburn dancing in a tea-length wedding dress with Fred Astaire, setting this as the trend for bridal fashion in the ‘50s. This wedding dress is still considered iconic in bridalwear history.

1960s

Bouncing back to the simpler styles of earlier decades, the ‘60s saw a wave of heavier, structured material dresses with shorter veils, and slim silhouettes. The swinging ‘60s saw various colours begin to peek into the picture, with women starting to experiment more with fashion and shift away from what now seemed old-fashioned traditions. The emergence of the women’s liberation movement was visible in the knee length tea dresses and shorter wedding dresses that remained in bridal fashion in this decade.

1970s

Back to BIG: bell sleeves, high collars, and hair ribbons. ‘70s bridal fashion was billowing and bohemian. Wedding dresses were long and flowing, with draping materials creating a romantic and ethereal feel. Dior debuted a highneck dress with big sleeves in the ‘70s and this set the trend for the decade.

The ‘70s was also a decade for experimentation and self-expression, with women opting for jumpsuits and trousers, instead of dresses, for their wedding day, as well as further acceptance and popularity of different colours other than the traditional white.

1980s

Royalty continued to pave the aisle for bridal trends. Princess Diana’s 1981 wedding dress set the style for ‘80s bridal fashion: puffed sleeves, princessstyle full skirts, and tiaras combined with lace trimmings, and extravagant headdresses. The David and Elizabeth Emanuel ivory gown was an intricate masterpiece, adorned with sequins and pearls, with a veil longer than the train of the dress. The grandiose, extravagant nature of this dress instilled the tone for bridalwear in this decade.

1990s

Clueless, Sex and The City… the sophisticated fashion-forward thinking woman of the late 20th century was reflected in the fitted sheath dresses of the wedding runway. No more extravaganza or elaborate decoration, dresses were crisp and white; minimalism being the intention.

Brides wore elaborate hairstyles with minimal makeup and figure hugging silhouettes which often led to more androgynous appearances, augmenting the increasing freedom of women in their fashion choices, and modes of self-expression.

As couples began journeying to warmer climates for their wedding day, cool, no-fuss dresses became a must for sunsearching brides, highlighting the popularity of the minimal dresses of the ‘90s.

2000s

Vera Wang opened a small bridal boutique in New York City in 1990, and by 2000 Wang was setting the trend for wedding dress fashion as the boutique business grew into a multi-million dollar empire: originality and respect being the keys to rising success.

The spaghetti-strap bridal gown and strapless dresses were popular throughout the early 2000s. Nonembellished, close fitting or A-line, the natural beauty of the bride was central to bridal design with minimal coverage in order to emphasise the bride’s beautiful décolletage and elegant neckline.

Veils were no longer the norm, and although simple and effective was the target look, skirts with intricate detailing did begin to make a comeback, with lace detail and beading becoming more appealing towards the end of the decade.

2010s

Kate Middleton’s sleeved, lace dress hit the headlines in 2011: the barely-there style of the lace sleeves, and the detailed netting culminated in the elegant and sensual style that began to define the modern bride. The English designer, Sarah Burton, creative director of Alexander McQueen, designed the royal bride’s dress, continuing the tradition of royalty setting the trend for bridal designs through the ages.

Figure-hugging and curveaccentuating gowns were the most sought after, with mermaid dresses often taking the pedestal for creating the most flattering shapes. Textured details with beading and lace also remained popular.

Now?

Bridal fashion is now a space for selfexpression, artistic design, and experimentation. Tradition remains an important part for many when choosing their bridal outfit, but as the Venezuelan fashion designer Carolina Herrera stated: “A wedding dress is both intimate and personal for a woman- it must reflect the personality and style of the bride.”

London Bridal Fashion Week

London Bridal Week was created in 1987, and was rebranded as London Bridal Fashion Week in 2019 to encompass the contemporary industry that bridalwear has become.

The international trade show continues to provide a space in order to highlight and present the developments in the bridal industry, and the breadth of designs that are now available for the modern bride. The LBFW motto, ‘in unity there is strength’, illustrates its conception as a celebration of the diversity and creativity that now inhabits the world of bridal fashion.

You can read more of Grace’s work on Twitter by following @pickford_grace

Images via Pexels, Unsplash, and images of Grace’s parents, great grandparents, and great great grandparents – 1990, 1937, and 1911

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s