The wedding dress is one of the most easily recognizable pieces in fashion. From iconic cinematic moments, to Pinterest boards full of inspiration, the modern wedding dress has lasted through the ages as a fashionable symbol of love.
Although wedding dresses can be found across many cultures, in a variety of shapes, styles, and colors, the most traditional image in Western cultures is that of a long white dress.
So, why do we wear white for our weddings? How did the modern wedding dress evolve over time? Let's take a trip through the ages and see for ourselves.
One of the earliest iterations of the wedding dress stems from an ancient Chinese myth where a princess was given a phoenix dress and crown on her wedding day as a symbol of luck. Their union was loving and full of happy memories, and the princess's daughter received a dress and crown from a phoenix for her wedding day, carrying on the tradition of good luck.
Although the history of marriage is long, the history of wedding dresses is significantly shorter. Athenian women in ancient Greece were one of the first to have specific wedding attire, donning either red and purple robes with a girdle to tightly cinch the waist. According to JSTOR, the girdle was meant to be loosened by the groom to signify her loss of virginity and therefore, her transition into adulthood.
At this point in time, marriage was still viewed as a transactional agreement rather than a ceremonial expression of love and commitment. Wedding attire typically meant wearing the nicest dress you owned, rather than buying or making something new.
Although certain colors, such as red, were frequently worn as a symbol of luck, there was no wedding dress market like we are accustomed to seeing today. However, red is still the traditional color of choice for many Eastern cultures, and is still worn by brides to this day.
So, why do we wear white when so much of the world wears red?
The first glimpse of the modern wedding dress wasn't seen until the Victorian era, when Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in a white dress. Little did she know, her dress would spark a centuries-long tradition of the white wedding dress.
An article from Esposa Group describes how the color white wasn't associated with purity as it is today, but was rather a symbol of wealth and status. Wearing white was a privilege reserved for the upper class for the sole reason that they didn't have to worry about dirtying their pristine clothes with labor. Having a white dress made to be worn once was the ultimate showcase of wealth.
Her ballgown was detailed with lace and embroidered orange flowers— a much more subdued look compared to the over-the-top opulence that was more common for the upper class.
Queen Victoria's world-altering wedding dress immediately took hold of the Western world. As the 19th century continued, white ballgowns mirroring the style of the Queen were commonplace. Lace became a popular material, and the corseted gowns were consistent with the Victorian era style we typically picture.
At the same time, white shifted from being a color associated with wealth to being associated with purity.
However, the wedding dress industry itself had yet to take shape. Following the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the next bridal turning point isn't spotted until the Roaring 20s, where an increase in disposable income made wedding dresses much more accessible for all classes. The boom in consumer culture led to wedding dresses being worn only once, a luxury that couldn't be afforded prior.
Keeping with the flapper aesthetic that reigned supreme, the hemline went up, and the waistline dropped. The ballgown silhouette remained popular, but new shapes and styles of wedding dresses began to emerge. Dresses also became more relaxed as dancing at weddings became more common, and elements like fringe were introduced.
The Roaring 20s ultimately gave way to The Great Depression, and the market for wedding dresses all but vanished. Wedding attire was once again reverted to the bride's Sunday best. It was considered inappropriate to spend a lavish amount of money on a dress to be worn once, and the bridal silhouette became even more relaxed and form-fitting.
World War II continued to establish a more subdued trend in bridal attire as a result of wartime necessity. The post-war era, however, reignited the bridal market as soldiers returned from the frontlines. The ballgown regained popularity, as did materials such as lace. White once again returned as the color of choice, but shades of white like ivory became acceptable in the 1950s.
One of the most notable trends to emerge in the post-war era was the introduction of strapless and sweetheart necklines. Long sleeves, high necklines, and off-the-shoulder styles dominated in years prior, and strapless options were considered to be risque in comparison. Despite this, the style took hold.
The hemline continued to shorten, and tea-length dresses surged in popularity following Audrey Hepburn's appearance in "Funny Face". Her ballerina-style dress features a boat neckline, layers and layers of tulle, and cap sleeves.
Consumerism was at an all-time high, and the modern wedding industry was finally born. David's Bridal, one of the longest operating bridal chain stores, was founded in 1950. Magazines were created specifically for wedding and bridal content. Weddings were a big business, and it was finally being capitalized on.
Following the ballgown craze of the 50s, the subsequent decades saw slimmer dresses, even shorter hemlines, and the rebirth of sleeves. The rise of the miniskirt in the 1960s was carried over into bridal attire, and short dresses with high necklines and flowy sleeves were commonly spotted. Sharon Tate's 1968 wedding to Roman Polanski perfectly embodies this trend.
The bohemian aesthetic of the 60s continued well into the 70s alongside the hippie movement. Relaxed maxi dresses with ruffles, long sleeves, and square necklines reflected the free spirited energy of the time period. The introduction of manmade fabrics made the wedding dress process even more accessible, and the rise of individualism saw an even wider range of bridal styles enter the marketplace.
The early days of consumerism in the 20s pale in comparison to the consumerism of the 80s. Bigger truly was better, and the ballgown made a dramatic comeback. Wedding dresses featured big sleeves, big skirts, big embellishments, and big cathedral veils to match.
Yet another royal wedding influenced the bridal trends as Princess Diana's extravagant wedding gown was broadcast to the world. Her 25-foot long train and massive puff sleeves captured the essence of 80s opulence.
Formal wedding dresses remained in popularity through the 90s and early 2000s, although the embellishments of the 80s were replaced with a more minimalist look. Slim fitting styles were seen alongside the traditional ballgown. Slip dresses were particularly popular, as were spaghetti straps.
The most shocking trend, though, was the resurgence of black wedding dresses. Although black was a macabre yet trendy choice for brides in the late 19th century, the 90s saw black make a comeback. Worn by Sarah Jessica Parker at her 1997 wedding, a new push for individualism was set in motion as the market became more and more saturated.
White had been long-established as the color for brides, showcasing their purity as they walk down the aisle. As many brides cast aside longstanding traditions like the garter toss, wearing a pure white wedding gown has also slowly fallen by the wayside. Instead, brides are choosing to wear colors that they feel most confident in.
Entering the early 2000s, straps practically became a thing of the past. Strapless gowns were all the rage, and the A-line style replaced the ballgown as an easier-to-wear alternative. Embellishments were back, though not as extravagantly as the 80s. Tiered skirts became an elevated version of the ruffles of the 70s, creating volume without adding extra weight.
Another color trend emerged at the same time: blush. The blush dress was seen on celebrities, TV shows like "Say Yes to the Dress," and overpowered many in Pinterest search.
The 2010s brought back sleeves following Kate Middleton's royal wedding in 2011. Her dress featured long, lacy sleeves reminiscent of the white lace popularized by Queen Victoria. Mermaid dresses and other figure-hugging styles, which are still popular today, solidified their place in the bridal market.
Illusion backs, backless dresses, and beading also found massive success alongside more minimal, beachy styles. The wide range of dresses for every occasion, venue, and bride is at its most visible.
As we look at the current decade, there truly is something for everyone in the bridal market. The path of the wedding dress throughout history has seen many changes, but trends from the past continue to stand the test of time today.
The future of bridal is all about self-expression, rooted in the belief that every bride deserves to feel beautiful.