A history of wedding dresses

Jenessa Williams 2 June 2021

Steeped in cultural tradition, wedding dresses are so much more than lengthy trains and white lace frills. Jenessa Williams goes back to the beginning to find out more about the different ways in which Western culture perceives the garment

Origins of the wedding dress

According to historians, the concept of donning a special garment for the purposes of marriage is thought to have originated in Chinese fable, where a princess was dressed in a phoenix dress and crown which would bring her luck and fortitude in the marriage. To this day, Chinese brides still favour a dramatic phoenix-tail red gown, a talisman homage to that early story. 

In Korea and Japan, silk wedding robes changed in style according to the ruling dynasty and season, but normally adhered to bright colours, designed to emulate royalty.

Though the concept of marriage union stems back to the ancient civilisations of Sumer, Babylon and Assyria, the ideas of weddings as a romantic notion is much more recent. Through analysis of paintings made from Assyrian artefacts (including British painter Edwin Long’s 1875 interpretation), women would dress in draped garments of white or cream to be bid on in a market-like environment, with the less desirable women being allocated to “commoners”. 

In Ancient Rome, brides wore braided hairstyles and veils of deep yellow, whereas Ancient Athenian women dressed in violets and reds, shaped by a girdle that would be symbolically loosened by the groom after a union.

"In Ancient Rome, brides wore braided hairstyles and veils of deep yellow"

Wedding dresses in 19th century Britain

Wedding photos from circa 1890 - 1920

Some believe that the wedding tradition of white stems from this marriage-market tradition, but it is just as likely that it was solidified within the Victorian age, steeped in connotations of virginity and purity. Costly and difficult to keep clean, white garments had appeared as a status symbol in various British weddings throughout the 1400s and 1500s, but when Queen Victoria wore a white gown to be married in 1840, the notion of a white wedding dress became the standard of the western world.  

Until Queen Victoria, the idea of purchasing a wedding dress to wear once simply wasn’t an option. The queen herself re-used both her dress and veil, and many non-royal women would have simply used their Sunday best, or else dyed and altered a new gown for subsequent re-use. But with the industrial revolution and the rise of photography, the emphasis on a “one time only” dream gown became stronger, with white looking particularly striking in the new monochrome or sepia technology. 

As a result, even the shape of Victoria’s gown became the standard fashion for a bridal silhouette—a nipped-in waist, wide skirt and layers of ivory lace. Even the bridesmaids got in on the action; in fact, it was fairly typical for the bride and her bridal party to wear extremely similar gowns, potentially stemming from ancient roman folklore that the similarity would confuse the curse of any lingering evil spirits.

As the 1900s wore on, the Edwardian era heralded a slightly more laid-back style, with looser gowns made from delicate fabrics. High necks, ruffles and long sleeves were a priority, as well as the emergence of elaborate headpieces and bouquets. Slowly but surely, we were beginning to see signs of women choosing shapes that they felt comfortable in, no longer adhering to a singular vision of the “perfect” bride.  

"When Queen Victoria wore a white gown to be married in 1840, the notion of a white wedding dress became the standard of the western world"

Wedding dresses in the 1940s and 1950s

During the war effort, lavish gowns weren’t exactly a priority for garment production. Instead, women returned to wearing their Sunday best, or occasionally, donning altered versions of their Husband’s suits, very much in keeping with the “make do and mend” mentality of the era.

Though the war was over by the time Queen Elizabeth married Prince Phillip in 1947, the country was still feeling the effects of rationing, and the mood was sombre. Wanting not to appear too overwhelming decadent, Elizabeth’s dress of ivory silk and pearl was noticeably understated in comparison to her forebears, but would go on to be highly influential for the romantic bride, looking for delicate features like a shorter skirt or embroidered flowers to appear as youthful and feminine as possible.

Wedding dresses from the 1960s to 1980s

A stamp issued in 1981 commemorating the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana

In keeping with the Free Love moment, white was no longer the only option in the 1960s. The famous canary yellow dress and flower crown that Elizabeth Taylor wore to marry Richard Burton comes to mind, but so do coat dresses and getaway outfits, designed in practical cotton fabrics and simple shapes to allow the bride to head straight off on her honeymoon. 

Through all the subversions of the 1970s—peasant dresses, floppy hats instead of veils and bell sleeves—women were moving further and further away from the traditional hoop skirted silhouette of classic bridal fashion, but they were transported right back on the 29th July 1981, when Princess Diana stepped out of St Paul’s Cathedral in enormous taffeta. With 750 million people watching, she resembled every inch of every inch of the “more is more” aesthetic of the 1980s, putting oversized bows, lace and puff sleeves firmly back on the wedding map.

Wedding dresses in the 1990s – 2000s

a row of wedding dresses

With so much history to draw on, the westernised wedding dress had been back and forth so many times that the form had almost been perfected, with brides knowing inherently whether they were a “big-skirted” or a more laid-back type of woman.

In 1990, Vera Wang opened her first bridal boutique, popularising the strapless, form-fitting gown that was normally accessorised with a slicked-back up-do and silver accessories. Though wedding dresses had appeared at fashion couture shows since the late 1950s, it was becoming more and more regular in 1990s fashion weeks and showrooms, with designers such as Calvin Klein, Versace and Oscar De La Renta all offering their own signature take on a formal occasion dress. 

The popularity of reality TV also played its part in the bridalwear boom. Shows like Say Yes To The Dress, Don’t Tell The Bride and Big Fat Gypsy Weddings all increased our interest in what it takes to put on a very special day, often with the gown as a be-all-and-end-all focus. Hints of this would continue into the 2010s, but the rise of social media would also offer it's alternatives…

Wedding dresses from the 2010s to now

Rear view of Happy white Woman in Elegant Wedding Dress walking in Summer Park

Though the UK wedding industry is worth more than ever (approximately £14.7 billion), we are all learning that there is no right way to wear a wedding dress. With changing laws around same-sex marriages and civil partnerships as well as an increased understanding of modern feminism and gender expression, the desire to do bridalwear has ranged from caped-jumpsuits to matching suits and indeed anything that makes the wearer feel special.

In keeping with this push for inclusivity, the late '00s and early 2010s also saw an increase in bridal blogging and online communities, helping “alternative” brides to find the perfect outfit for them. Sites such as Rock N Roll Bride, Love My Dress and Nu Bride have shown that tradition looks very different to different cultures, and the high-street seems to be following suit, offering affordable wedding attire that is accessible to various body types and budgets.

Even ASOS has gotten in on the action, selling a range of Indian-inspired bridalwear that seeks to recognise wedding attire outside of the typical Anglo-Christian lens. Though there is some critique in the inexpensive appropriation of a garment so rooted in extensive symbolism and hand-made embellishment, the recognition that weddings don’t always fit a singular culture tradition is an important one for British retail. The coronavirus pandemic will have likely also played a part, with many couples stripping back the detail of their outfits to focus on a small-scale event.

"The desire to do bridalwear has ranged from caped-jumpsuits to matching suits and indeed anything that makes the wearer feel special"

As with any fashion garment, certain styles still very much pervade. Just this month, American pop singer Ariana Grande got married in a Vera Wang gown and bow-topped veil that would have been entirely befitting of the glamorous 60s bride, while Princess Beatrice’s private 2020 wedding saw the bride wearing vintage, handed down to her by the Queen and modernised with the addition of 70s chiffon sleeves. Wherever we are in history, it seems bridalwear will always appreciate its “something borrowed”—a taste as bespoke as the romantic union it symbolises.

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