History's Mirror Project: Wedding Dresses

A wedding dress is the one outfit in a wardrobe that is unique and very special. It is an item of clothing worn by a bride during the wedding ceremony and designed especially for a celebration. Throughout history wedding dresses have often reflected a family's wealth and status. The amount of material a wedding dress contained was also a reflection of the bride's social standing and indicated the extent of a family's wealth to wedding guests.

Luxurious fabrics such as expensive silks, brocades, and lace have often been made into full length gowns following the styles of the era and adorned with silk ribbons and lace. Often wedding dresses were created by a family's dressmaker making each design a bespoke piece for the bride.

Wedding dress styles have traditionally been based on the popular fashion styles of the day something that still continues today. The trend for a white wedding dress became popular after Queen Victoria's wedding in 1840 to Prince Albert of Sax-Cobourg. Queen Victoria chose a gown of white satin, trimmed with white bobbin lace matching her veil, and a crown of orange blossoms. She became a trendsetter amongst the upper classes who continued to follow in her choice.

With the introduction of machine made fabrics and cheap muslins imported from India, it soon became easier for all families to obtain affordable fabrics. Following Queen Victoria's lead, it soon became fashionable to have a white wedding amongst most social classes although black did still often remain the colour for a wedding gown in some poorer families right up until the early 20th century. The trend for a white wedding continues today. Alongside bespoke designs, shop-bought, ready-made wedding dresses offer a range of styles in all price ranges for modern day brides to choose from.


When the outbreak of the Second World War was declared in 1939 and the sudden call-up of men to the Forces, many people were rushed into arranging a marriage. This often meant foregoing a full traditional white wedding and with the advent of rationing, wartime weddings changed dramatically. A whole year's supply of coupons would not be able to provide all that an 'old fashioned' bride would need. Many women restricted by the clothing coupons and unable to obtain wedding dresses wore tailored suits that could be worn after the event or their service uniforms.

For most wartime brides there was often a sense of improvisation and making do. Many women borrowed dresses dating back to before the outbreak of war and had them altered to fit and simply added a veil made from net to create a 'new' outfit. Previously used dresses were taken out of mothballs and often passed round several family members matching up with handmade accessories such as felt flower button-holes. Others improvised by making their white wedding dress from synthetic fibres, such as rayon, satin or parachute silk. Some brides were determined to continue with tradition and still tried to have a white wedding and as a result hire shops saw an increase in their sales.


Although the war ended in 1945, clothes rationing and austerity continued into the early 1950s. This was reflected in the choice of weddings. Brides often had to choose not to wear a white dress, instead opting for dresses of all colours that could be worn after their wedding, for special occasions.

Eventually after several years, the decade did see a return to glamour. The 1950s became a period of elegance and style that is portrayed in many wedding dress styles.

Popular wedding designs of the era included romantic, feminine 'hour-glass' style dresses with full billowing skirts that required petticoats to be worn underneath them often made from French lace to symbolise the end of the war. Machine-made lace made in Britain, also introduced in the 1950s made it possible for all classes to afford a similar style. Wedding dresses were often paired with short, "shrug-style" jackets, called bolero jackets. These jackets could be removed for the reception to show off the rest of the gown. Fur wraps also featured as part of the bridal ensemble.

Towards the end of the 1950s, it became popular to make gowns from heavier fabrics, with longer and more luxurious trains. Famous brides like Grace Kelly and Jacqueline Kennedy wore dresses that took months to create and were made with hundreds of yards of lace and other luxurious fabrics. Despite this, accessories such as veils and headdresses often continued to be 'something borrowed' echoing the leftovers of wartime austerity.


During this decade, wedding styles and accessories were influenced by historical dress. Nostalgia and romantic revivals including the peasant look were the order of the day. Elements from previous decades appeared in designs such as the pointed lace sleeves from the 1950s, a tiara popular from the 1930s and a high waisted empire line of the dress reminiscent of the 1900s.

British fashion designers were influenced by the "swinging '60s" and that included wedding attire. Wedding gowns ranged from miniskirt lengths to maxi dresses. Long sleeves were replaced with no sleeves or three-quarter length sleeves and long gloves were worn with sleeveless gowns.

The 1960s saw the introduction of the hippie movement, which included long, un-styled hair and hemlines that varied from mini, midi and maxi lengths. This style of British wedding gown combined Victorian A-line features with the empire waist. Many had flowing bell sleeves with flower trims. Flowers would often be worn in the hair and long veils made from sheer net with lace were attached to the back shoulder


The trend for wedding dresses in the 1970s varied throughout this decade. With commercial fabric-making techniques and the increase in synthetic fibres, brides saw a rise in nylon, polyester and machine-made lace. These fabrics offered an affordable alternative to silks, natural satin and handmade lace while keeping the shimmer and look of the more expensive materials.

Sheer nylons, lace and a flowing look dominated the early 1970s wedding dress styles. Dresses had a fitted waist, often with a long A-line skirt, often two-layered, with a polyester or nylon satin under dress and covered entirely by a layer of lace or decorated nylon. High Victorian collars were a new style and the Camelot sleeve, loose from the elbow to the shoulder and tightly fitted from the elbow to the wrist, was also popular.

By the late 70s the fashions of the disco era also inspired many wedding dress fashions. Batwing sleeves, also called dolman sleeves, became popular. This cut featured a wide, sweeping fabric sleeve at the top of the arm that tapered down and became fitted at the elbow, forearm and wrist. By 1975, long trains and large headpieces were also common.


A 1980s wedding spawned many new bridal styles that contrasted with the 1970s era.

Wedding gowns of the 1980s were known for their volume of fabric with many eye-catching elements indicative of the era. From veil to train, gowns were large and ornate.

Princess Diana was a major influence after British designers Elizabeth and David Emmanuel created her wedding dress in 1980. Large puffy sleeves, as seen on her dress, became a popular trend. They were usually voluminous and exaggerated on the shoulder and bicep area tapering in to a tight fit around the forearms.

In contrast to the low, square neckline style of the 1970s era, a typical neckline of the 1980s was a high collar, a Mandarin collar or a strand collar. It could be the made in the same material as the dress or be a lace overlay. High collars looked regal and conservative, creating a sophisticated bodice for the dress. With shoulder pads also a popular clothing trend of the times, the style of accenting the shoulders and arms was not lost on the bridal fashion of the day. Long lacy sleeves were common, coordinating with the conservative look of the high collars.