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Wedding Gown History

Learn how wedding gown styles and trends have changed over the years.

Wedding gown styles change due to fasion trends and the economy. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
Wedding gown styles change due to fasion trends and the economy.

While Americans associate brides with flowing white dresses, wedding gown history shows a dramatic change in attire over the past two centuries. Personal taste was only one factor in directing fashion trends. Economic station, royal preferences, war and fashion trends impacted the evolution of the modern wedding gown.

Wedding Gowns of the 19th Century

In the early 1800s, economics divided citizens into upper and lower classes. Weddings were practical affairs that normally took place in the home of the bride's or groom's parents. Bridal attire was of limited importance and the bride usually wore the best dress she already owned, in any color. The style of the day was full length, with long sleeves, full skirts and a tight corset.

As the 1820s unfolded, small receptions began to follow upper-class wedding ceremonies. The social aspect of weddings grew, as well as the focus on pleasing the bride. Instead of wearing a dress she already owned, a bride from a wealthy family might obtain material to sew a new one, in some cases employing a seamstress for the task.

Wedding dresses of the era were not cleaned, pressed and boxed for posterity as is common today. Few could afford such a wanton luxury as a dress worn for a single affair. Rather, dresses were re-worn repeatedly to church and other community events. Bridal dresses were usually constructed of sturdy fabrics that laundered well, often in dark colors appropriate for any occasion. White was difficult to keep clean and therefore impractical to wear. As a result, white (or ivory) wedding dresses were a rarity even among the upper class.

In 1840, Great Britain's Queen Victoria married Prince Albert wearing a striking gown made of white satin and trimmed with orange flower blossoms. According to Victoriana Magazine Online, more than 200 people helped create the gown, which included hand-sewn lace designed especially for the queen. The pattern was purposely destroyed after completion, making the dress truly unique in design. Intrigued by the mystique of royalty, Victorian-era brides began to choose white dresses made of less expensive muslins for their own wedding attire.

Wedding Gowns of the 20th Century

As the industrial revolution spread throughout the United States, a middle class was formed. With citizens earning more discretionary income than ever before, weddings became more extravagant, and middle- and upper-class brides eschewed practicality in favor of fashion.

By the late 1800s, department stores arrived amid an increasingly wealthy society. The stores sold a wide variety of products, from groceries to tools to ladies' dresses. Wedding dresses were now available off the rack. Style remained consistent and selections limited, but store- bought gowns became a prized commodity over their homemade counterparts.

In the early 1900s, white (or ivory) was the color of choice among brides in densely populated areas. By contrast, frontier women typically followed the longstanding trend of practical colors and sturdy fabrics better suited to their hardworking lives.

Bridal Gown Fashion Impacted by War

Weddings as social galas changed abruptly with the arrival of World War I. Amid growing concerns for the future, elaborate weddings took a backseat to frugality, and popular Victorian gowns gave way to minimalist designs. Hemlines shortened, and Coco Chanel introduced a knee-length wedding dress worn with a long train. Once more considered impractical, white wedding gowns saw a decrease in popularity. Brides intent on wearing white often dyed the dress a more practical color after the ceremony.

As the Great Depression devastated the American economy, wedding celebrations were no longer an option for many. Expensive dresses fell out of favor as wedding trends shifted back to their roots. Once again brides were wed in simple family weddings wearing dresses they already owned.

Economic struggles continued through World War II. Frugality surged along with patriotism as women went to work in factories to support the war effort. With many men away at war and the prevailing social attitude focused on country rather than self, fewer weddings took place. Couples that did marry typically had short engagements, and many considered it their civic duty to forgo a wastefully expensive wedding celebration. Brides in the military generally married in uniform while civilians wore their "everyday best." Occasionally, a bride borrowed or rented a previously worn wedding dress, but the white wedding gown all but disappeared through this period of fashion history.

Wedding Dresses in Post-War America

After the war, an economic resurgence slowly spread across America. With soldiers back home and increasing financial prosperity, social weddings again came into favor. Brides became the center of attention, and their penchant for romantic Victorian dresses brought them back into fashion. High collars, puffy sleeves and full skirts with long trains came to the middle class, as did veils with expensive imported lace.

In 1956, the wedding of actress Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier of Monaco gained worldwide attention. Once more smitten by royal fashion, many brides aspired to copy Kelly's highly publicized floor length taffeta, tulle and antique lace Victorian gown.

Wedding Dresses of the New Millennium

Unprecedented prosperity marked the second half of the 20th century in the United States. Inspired by royalty and with financial leeway, brides planned elaborate ceremonies and receptions. Bridal fashion followed suit with imported, sometimes antique fabrics and costly handmade lace. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, bridal gowns regained a more traditional look of full skirts, puffed sleeves and tailored waists. Hemlines varied between tea and full lengths, and accessories might include gloves with a veil.

The New York Times describes the turbulent late 1960s and early 1970s as a time of "non-wedding wedding dresses." Traditional gown sales plummeted as free-spirited brides chose imports reflecting the ethnicity of other cultures, such as festive dresses from Mexico or embroidered Indian garb.

The wedding of Princess Diana to Prince Charles in the 1980s ushered in yet another nod to Victorian fashion. Diana's billowing skirts with cathedral-length train and demure veil brought romanticism back to wedding fashion. Brides enamored with the look dismissed frugality in favor of the fairy-tale gown. With this shift in priorities, wedding gowns became intricately detailed and far more expensive.

Modern Wedding Gowns

Modern day wedding gowns are as diverse as the brides who wear them. Dresses come in a plethora of styles, a few of which include:

  • Fitted sheaths in clingy silks
  • Flowing chiffons with empire waists
  • Satin sheaths with romantic lace overlays
  • Victorian-inspired, boned bodices with elaborate beadwork and sweeping trains

The rich history of the modern wedding gown has been more than 200 years in the making. Historians have carefully preserved vintage samples for future generations to enjoy.

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