Gowns Through The Ages

The classic white wedding gown has been at the height of bridal fashion since Queen Victoria sparked the trend in 1840, but styles have drastically changed over the decades. Here, Tijan Biner delves into the history of wedding gowns to explore how they have evolved over the last 100 years.

A Wedding gown is one of the most memorable garments a woman will wear, and one that truly symbolises her character and personality. From the frilled, tapered-sleeve gowns of the early 1900s, to today’s form-fitting, mermaid-style dresses, brides-to-be throughout history have embraced every shape, fit, cut and colour.

Royal Traditions

Although styles and colours have changed throughout the years, brides have always dressed in their best. Sparing no expense, those with a high social standing always dressed at the height of fashion, and brides who had limited means still dressed as best as their budgets allowed.

The amount of material a wedding gown contained even symbolised a bride’s social status – the longer the train, the richer the bride’s family. Similarly, the ubiquitous white wedding gown – popularised by Queen Victoria at her wedding to Prince Albert in 1840 – was reserved for the elite. For many working-class brides, cleaning a pure white gown was next to impossible, and garments in styles or colours they could never wear again was an extravagance they could neither afford nor justify. Since white wasn’t a chosen colour in which to be married, Queen Victoria’s wedding dress came as quite the surprise. Soon after, women of elevated social status all over Europe and the United States also began to wear white on their big day.

Early 20th Century

A greater extravagance to bridal fashion was introduced in the Edwardian period. Wedding gowns were lavishly embellished and often featured frills along the bodice, high necklines and wide, puffy sleeves. In the 1900s, S-shaped corsets were commonly worn to draw in the stomach, and lengthy trains, long gloves and veiled hats were popular accessories. Full skirts were left in the 1900s, and empire-line gowns became extremely popular in 1910. Waistlines also began to rise higher and sleeves were worn much shorter. Wedding gown styles continued to follow the fashion trends of the time, which included the short flapper dress in the 1920s. This transatlantic exchange of style hitched hemlines up to, or just below, the knee and made V-necklines surge in popularity. Inspired by American jazz and dancing, gowns often featured a dropped-hip waistline, long sleeves and a loose, straight silhouette.

Money was tight during the Depression era, which meant luxurious fabrics and materials were not as popular or affordable. Due to financial hardship, many brides in the 1930s wore the nicest garment they owned or purchased a gown that they could dye or customise to re-wear. Although droppedwaist styles were still popular, waistlines were higher and much more prominent in the 1930s, while hemlines became longer – generally calf-length or to the ankle. Film also began to dominate this era, which had a significant impact on the fashion and beauty industries. Brides were aptly inspired by glamorous, ladylike Hollywood starlets, who wore their hair long with finger waves and pinned curls.

Mid 20th Century

In the 1940s, silhouettes reflected the needs and requirements of wartime women. During the war, weddings were extremely rushed and organised within only a few days. If a bride was lucky enough to wear a gown on her wedding day, practicality was key – furnishing fabrics were used to make her dress and veil due to shortage in money. Gowns featured rounded shoulders and gathered sleeves, while corset waists and padded hips were used to accentuate a woman’s hourglass figure. In February 1947, Christian Dior introduced the first major post-war collection. His ‘New Look’ range was most recognisable by its curvy shape – the desired look was a womanly figure with a tiny waist, full hips and a plentiful bust. In a single moment, Dior took the world by storm and created one of the most distinct looks of the century, which influenced a huge shift in bridal fashion.

In the 1960s, waistlines moved higher up and empire-line silhouettes were extremely popular. Being the ‘space age’ era, it was commonplace for brides to incorporate metallic embellishments and floral daisies into their look. With significant social change taking place in this era, groups such as the ‘hippies’ and ‘rockers’ rose to popularity, which, in turn, drastically influenced individuals’ fashion sense.

Late 20th Century

The 1970s was a transition decade – with a mix of styles varying from bohemian to traditional, these new trends led the change to materialism in the 1980s. Double-knit gowns, which featured drop-back capelets, batwing sleeves and bustled trains, were extremely popular, as were relaxed, unconventional dresses. It was also in the 1970s that bridal fashion businesses flourished. With the introduction of bridal magazines, designers began selling off-the-rack gowns, and many current trends in bridal fashion originated from this decade.

Princess Diana’s wedding in 1981 set the paradigm for the ‘fantasy wedding’, and her gown is considered one of the most iconic dresses of all time. The 1980s was dominated by cathedral trains, full-length veils and lace, and brides were beginning to experiment with colours other than white, such as ivory, cream, champagne and magnolia pink.

In the 1990s, brides combined glamour with typical ‘Americana’ styles, which created a more minimalist look. Embellishments such as beading and lace were rarely seen, and silhouettes were more fitted.

The Modern Bride

In 2000, fewer couples were marrying in a church, which meant a bride’s shoulders did not have to be covered. As a result, strapless gowns became extremely sought after and gloves were hardly worn. A bridal look sans the veil was the norm, and tiaras, flower crowns or fascinators replaced the traditional accessory.

After Kate Middleton was wed to Prince William in 2010, veils across the face were in vogue again, with many brides favouring mid-length, lace-edged veils. Similarly, when the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, married Prince Harry earlier this year, she set an entirely new trend. She wore Clare Waight Keller for Givenchy, and the gown epitomised timelessness and minimal elegance. The icy-white gown was handcrafted from double-bonded silk cady and featured six meticulously placed seams, a bateau neckline and a slender, sculpted waist. Paired with a five-metrelong veil that featured a trim of hand-embroidered flowers in silk and organza, as well as Queen Mary’s diamond bandeau, lent to Markle by The Queen, the gown is sure to inspire brides across the world for many years to come.

With universal access to wedding inspiration through television and the internet, brides can now dress in almost any style they wish. From ornate and lavish, to understated elegance, today’s brides are eclectically assuming their own bridal look. The process of finding the perfect gown is now a little more personal and filled with love, care, time and patience – much like the marriage itself.

Image Credit: We are Twine