History of Wedding Gowns: 600 Years of Bridal Dress Styles
History of Wedding Gown Styles
Classic styles of wedding gowns still hold an attraction for antique and vintage fashion enthusiasts. Its old-chic, coupled with the air of fantasy, has fascinated many of today’s brides who desire to re-live the past in a modern-day setting.
Wearing bridal dresses specifically sewn for weddings didn’t come into effect until the 19th century. And though the ceremonious wedding traditions of the Medieval times gave birth to modern wedding customs, the rituals of joining two people together in matrimony never called for having a special dress made, unless perhaps you are royalty.
For the most part of history, there were no wedding gown styles as such. Brides rarely had a dress made specifically for her wedding. Rather, she had to wear her best dress for the ceremony, and there were no specific colours either.
Many brides wore black, brown, or such dark colours with only a few exceptions but certain colours like green or yellow were considered unlucky; thus the myth “Marry in yellow, ashamed of your fellow.” The common people wore dark colours because they hid stains and imperfections and could be worn again and again.
Later, blue became the popular choice because it represented purity, piety, and a connection to religion and the Virgin Mary. And though gowns made in white can be traced back to the early 1400s, it wasn’t popularised until 1840 during the wedding of Queen Victoria where she wore an elaborate white dress. It soon inspired a following. By then, white wedding gowns became the most befitting colour for wealthy brides.
Today, most wedding dress colours are white, eggshell, ecru, or ivory, not necessarily because they symbolise wealth, purity and virginity, but because the colour has become a lasting trend.
The 1300s to 1400s
In the 14th century, both men and women would likely wear a garment known as a cotehardie, a floor-length, form-fitting gown with is an open- wide neckline and full length (or elbow-length) sleeves. They probably featured some form of patterns like damask or stripes that were usually two-toned.
By the 1400s, wedding gowns of wealthy medieval brides were hand-sewn in fabrics like satin, velvet, and silk, and came in deep rich tones of blue, red, and gold. Blue was a popular colour because it signifies virginity and purity. Wedding gowns for brides from the lower class were sewn out of cheaper fabrics like cotton, wool, or linen and were usually dark muted colours. Their styles were usually attempted copies of the designs of the wealthy.
Lower-class brides would copy the style of noblewomen as much as possible, but their dresses were created out of inexpensive fabrics such as cotton and linen.
The first documented instance of a noble wearing a white wedding gown was in 1406 England when Philippa of England wore a tunic with a cloak made in white silk and bordered with grey squirrel and ermine fur.
The 1500s to 1600s
During the Elizabethan era, the middle-class bride would wear her best gown and kirtle and if she can afford it, she may sew a new dress. Wedding gown styles were full-length and would cover most of the body except where it had a plunging neckline. The wealthy made their gowns with luxury fabrics like velvet, corduroy and satin, while the lower-class made their wedding garments from flax, wool, and cotton.
Colours came in a variety of different shades: for the less privileged, red, blue, greens, white, grey, black, orange and tan were the usual hues of bridal dresses while the wealthier brides had their gowns adorned with jewels and gold and silver threads.
The outfit was usually worn with a cloak. The necklines and cuffs were decorated with linen or silk ruffs (crimped or pleated collars or frills) which were usually full and wide.
White wedding gowns weren't the custom colour at the time, but in 1559, Mary, Queen of Scots wore a white wedding gown in 1559 when she married her first husband, Francis Dauphin of France. The only reason why she did is that white was her favourite colour.
The 1700s to 1800s
Before the Victorian era when white wedding gowns became popularised by Queen Victoria in 1840, a bride had the choice to wear any colour she desired, including black. By a decade later, white became the traditional colour for bridal gowns.
Wedding gown fabrics were satin, silk, tulle, organdy, linen, and gauze-like materials. The more elaborate and pricier gowns were made from lace, just like Queen Victoria’s.
The earliest Victorian style wedding gown was designed with a fitted bodice, small waist, and a full skirt. Because the skirt (bustle style) was meant to be voluminous, it was plumped up with undergarments like petticoats and hoops which were worn extensively at the time.
The mid-victorian era brought an emergence of middle-class wealth and the wealthy gladly exhibited their new riches. At this time, around the 1870s, bridal wear designed by Frederick Worth in Paris was the ultimate status symbol! For those who could least afford it, the bustle styles were copied.
By the late Victorian period, the bustle style disappeared; shorter trains and larger sleeves became the trend, and the veil became standard bridal wear.
Widows who remarried didn’t wear pure white. They wore shades of white, like ivory, including salmon, lavender, rose, or violet and satin dresses trimmed with ostrich feathers.
At the beginning of the century, the Edwardian era, the styles of wedding gowns were charming, at best. They were sumptuous styles, elegant, soft and often pricey, with very long flouncy trains, sometimes over seven feet long. They were generally adapted to the trending styles of the day.
They were sewn with lots of trimmings like embroidery, lace, or frills. Though the original vintage wedding gowns were mostly made from cotton batiste and soft cream-white satin, today's version of the Edwardian bridal dress can be made with light to medium weight fabrics such as satin, taffeta, voile, crepe de chine, or batiste.
Edwardian style wedding gowns had a characteristic high lace collar neck, nipped waist, big and bold leg-o-mutton sleeves, full sweeping skirt, and plenty of lace detail. Today, recognised as vintage wedding gowns, the style is still popular for its representation of pure classic feminine beauty. Remember the “Gibson Girl” look? It was an Edwardian style.
By the 1920s, the flapper style became a hot trend. Usually cut loose, it was a ‘flirty and sexy’ style shift-dress that drops straight down the body, rather than display curves like wedding dresses of the previous era. By the mid-20th century, wedding gowns were almost always white and remain so until today.
In the 1950s, wedding dresses became a high fashion affair and most brides wanted to dress just like the silver screen stars - like Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, and Debbie Reynolds. The popular styles they inspired had sweetheart necklines, small waists, and full layered skirts. The hour-glass silhouette was the rave.
Tea and full length strapless bridal gowns with matching lace, silk or satin bolero jackets and three-quarter length sleeves were also worn for the ceremony. It wasn’t acceptable to wear sleeveless wedding gowns until the 1960s.
There was a wide variety of fabrics for bridal wear ranging from man-made textiles to natural fibre fabrics. They include ribbed silks, Duchesse satin, lace, tulle, linen, cotton, and polyester-cotton. The wide choice of available textiles allowed many brides make new wedding gowns for the occasion. They were sewn by tailors, seamstresses, or experienced family members, mostly with the aid of . Some brides re-cycled and re-fashioned old heirloom wedding gowns into the latest fifties’ fashion. wedding dressmaking patterns
Would You Have a 'Vintage-Themed' Wedding?
Sewing Vintage Wedding Gowns Tailored Specially for You
If you plan to have an antique or vintage-themed wedding, it is most unlikely you will find authentic gowns today. Most of them are either displayed in museums, stashed away and forgotten, or kept as heirlooms stored away in old vintage trunks.
Your best bet is to have your gown sewn especially to your desired vintage style, for the occasion. There are also antique and vintage bridal dresses you can buy online from stores like Amazon, Etsy, and eBay. sewing patterns
And not only are there professional tailors and dressmakers who can tailor your dress, but there are also online professional tailors that will design and produce vintage wedding gown styles for you.
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