The evolution of the modern wedding dress

The tradition of the wedding dress as we know it only goes back to the Victorian era and was pioneered by Queen Victoria when she chose to wear a gown of white silk and lace for her wedding to Prince Albert in 1840. Long have the weddings of those prominent in society, shaped the fashions and desires of women for their dream dress. With so much choice of styles and fabrics for dresses today, it is interesting to see how the designs have been shaped and influenced over the last two centuries. The dresses of high society would traditionally be heavily embroidered and opulent in colour for many high society brides, but with the choice of the white gown by the young Queen Victoria, saw a shift to the choice of white as a sign of status. This showed that brides were wealthy enough to frivolously have a white dress for that sole purpose; that would not have to be reused as Sunday best.

Wedding dress styles did not change in style much until the 20’s, when the liberation in women’s fashions led to a change in how the wedding dress was seen. It became a garment for a separate and sole purpose, rather than a dress of the moment, that was altered and reused on numerous occasions. The anthem of the decade known for its freedom and elegance showed in the gowns of that era. Loose bodices, heavily embellished and with dropped waists and even higher hemlines in some cases. Elements of the era have shone through in recent years, with a revival in embellished beaded dresses, looser bodice and necklines.

The 30s and 40s saw a shift again with the great depression and the war. Gone was much of the liberation that had come with the 20s, calling for a more practical use of the fabrics due to rationing. Many women had to wear a ‘costume’, a smart, fitted skirt suit that could be bought with their ration tokens and for those that could afford it in the 40s the glamour of Hollywood sirens, brides wore dresses cut on the bias to give a flattering and more fitted silhouette. Two other major influences of the 40s that are still seen today are, the wedding of the Princess Elizabeth to Prince Philip, with her sumptuous dress of satin, and the trailblazing style of Chanel, with the narrow shoulders, nipped and fitted waist and voluminous skirts, which dominated in women’s choices of dresses until the 1950’s.

Queen Elizabeth wedding dress

Elizabeth wore a stunning white satin dress for her marriage to prince Philip

The Roaring fifties

The dawning of the 50’s again saw dress styles change. With the birth of the modern teenager, the rise in the economy and the end of rationing saw a different perspective on the traditional dress. Skirt lengths became shorter again and tea length and ballerina length dresses were popular. With fitted sleeves and layers of stiff netted skirt that was often dyed a different colour afterwards to be used as a cocktail dress. At the beginning of the 60s was the wedding of Grace Kelly which featured both an iconic wedding dress and the fairytale wedding of an American actress to the Prince of Monaco. The fitted lace covered bodice, full skirt and long train kept with the tradition and ideal of a dress fit for a princess and one that is still referred to today by many women. The royal wedding of Kate Middleton to Prince William saw the fashion forward bride pay homage to the timeless elegance and glamour of Princess Grace. The rest of the 60’s took a different approach and the feel of the decade meant that once again dresses were shorter and moved from a very fitted bodice and sleeves to a looser fitting shift dress with an empire line and the revival of the Cathedral train.

The 70s saw a nostalgic revival courtesy of another royal wedding. The wedding of Princess Anne saw a move away from the simpler, cleaner lines at the end of the 60s and had many thousands of women following her lead when she chose looser, bigger Tudor style sleeves and a princess style flared skirt with no train. Many women also opted for a pinafore bodice and contrasting sleeves and skirt.

kate middletons wedding dress

Kate Middleton’s wedding dress mirrored the classic style worn by Grace Kelly

Wedding Dress design in the 80’s

Two royal ladies were involved in the styles in the 80s. Most famously was Princess Diana which featured another grand fairytale wedding and an iconic dress. The huge skirt and puffed sleeves, the nipped in, natural waistline and a bodice embellished with bows and lace had many women flocking to have the dress of the moment. Many shorter or fuller figured women struggled with the voluminous effect of Diana’s dress and it wasn’t until Sarah Ferguson married in 1986, that we saw a dress with a lower waist that cut to a point, long and looser fitting sleeves, a full skirt and a sweetheart neckline, meaning thousands of women could covet this style and wear it well.

With not a great deal of change initially in the 90s and trend for what was now seen as a more traditional style of wedding dress of long sleeves, fitted waist and full skirt with up to date adaptations, there was a gradual change in the use of fabrics and the waistline. Some of the dresses again became loser fitting, long in length still and with a long lightweight overcoat of satin or silk and beading on the cuffs and edging of the dress. With the ethereal look also came the dropped waist once again. Still with a full skirt and a ruched or fitted bodice that saw through until the turn of the century.

The choice of wedding dress styles is abundant and it is clear that the previous decades and the princesses past and present are an ever constant source of the reinforcement of the fairytale wedding dress. There are so many fabrics and styles to suit all shapes and sizes but the classics are still popular. Whether that is the princess style ballgown, the fitted fishtail or an ethereal and goddess like chiffon gown, then it’s worth considering how far the styles have come to create the choice today and how the ideas of the wedding dresses have been perceived and reinforced over the previous two centuries, from the unusual choice of the headstrong Queen Victoria to the trend setter and modern icon of Kate Middleton.