The Wedding Gown
Tips for the Bride

Historical Wedding Fashions for the Modern Bride

In the modern world where most of us are too busy to give romance and elegance its due attention, there is still one event which prompts even the most pragmatic to consider romantic fashion in abundance: a wedding. Weddings have an undeniable way of transforming people. Women whose standard attire are jeans and T-shirts emerge down the aisle as modern-day princesses draped in fine silk and lace. Men who cannot tie a proper necktie stand gallantly as noble gentlemen adorned with ascots and French cuffs. No matter how harsh the trends in the fashion world have become, leave it to weddings to bring out the softness and grace of eras gone by. Everything is softened in lace and tulle, ivory white pearls, and shimmering tiaras. Weddings offer the one opportunity for women to wear what they usually only dream of wearing... fairytale gowns, spectacular headpieces, and flowing cathedral trains from ages past. Lace has all but disappeared from modern clothing, but it lavishly trims bridal gowns. A-line skirts and dresses may be non-existent in everyday wear, but they dominate wedding fashion. Victorian collars, Renaissance bodices, Regency waistlines... all of these classic design elements appear on wedding gowns. And few women wear all-white outfits, before or after Labor Day... but somehow, the white wedding dress that was first made popular by Anne of Brittany in 1499 is still in demand today.

Jessica McClintock

Jessica McClintock


Jessica McClintock gown
Jessica McClintock




For years, the romance of weddings have inspired modern women often look to the past to express their unique sense of style and taste. Whether you are a Renaissance enthusiast or a Victorian romantic, you can incorporate the beauty and elegance of past eras into your wedding today! Some brides choose a historical theme around which to build their entire wedding. Consider, for example, a Regency-themed wedding... you and your attendants gracefully dressed in empire-waisted gowns decked with laces, beads, and embroidery, and your groom and his entourage decked in formal suits with tails and ascots. Your reception could be held in a historical ballroom or an English rose garden, complete with Regency era finger foods and afternoon high tea! Or imagine a Titanic-themed wedding, with the blushing bride dressed in a reproduction of Rose Dawson's Edwardian bridal gown from the final scene of the movie. For the reception, your guests could be treated to an unforgettable recreation of a first-class dinner aboard the luxury liner, with a "steerage" dance party to follow!

Whether or not you decide to design you whole wedding around a theme, you can still walk down the aisle in a wedding gown that whispers historical romance into the air. There are a variety of easy ideas to add a sense of history to your wedding. Consider, for example, wearing an authentic vintage wedding gown from your favorite era of history. Make sure the gown has been properly cleaned and restored, and that the gown is not too delicate that it will tear after a full day's wear! Some gowns can only be used as display pieces for a museum or a private collection. You should ask a reputable vintage clothier or appraiser to inspect the gown and assess its wearability. Most gowns from the Victorian and Edwardian period can be restored to wearable quality if they were in pretty good condition, but older gowns may be too fragile. If your mother or grandmother has a gown that you want to wear, you can have it cleaned, restored and most likely altered to fit your body shape.

You could also opt for a vintage reproduction gown. For example, the 1970s saw a revival of Renaissance, Regency and Victorian styles. Jessica McClintock's original San Francisco company, Gunne Sax, produced many of these styles of formal dresses and wedding gowns. Purchasing a gown that is ten or twenty years old is much less expensive than buying an antique dress from the Victorian era, and many of these gowns incorporate the same stylistic elements. Another option is to have a historical reproduction gown created especially for you. There are many historical patterns available, as well as suitable costume patterns from such makers as McCalls, Butterick and Simplicity. You should find a reputable seamstress or tailor that has experience in sewing historical styles and wedding gowns. You could even use historical textiles and add vintage laces and trims to the gown.

The Victorian era provides perhaps the most popular styles of historical bridal fashions. White was the color of formal weddings of the period, and even the bridesmaids wore white dresses and white veils. During the early years of the era, the bridal gown featured a fitted bodice, small waist, and full skirt over hoops and a petticoat. Most likely the gown was made of organdy, tulle, lace, gauze, silk, linen or cashmere. The veil was made from fine gauze, sheer cotton or lace, and often attached to a coronet of flowers (usually orange blossoms for the bride and roses or other seasonal buds for the attendants). The bride also adorned herself with short gloves, a handkerchief with stitched initials of her maiden name, silk stockings embroidered up the front, and flat shoes decorated with bows or ribbons.

During the middle part of the period, brides wore gowns with full court trains and a bustle, and long veils. The late Victorians of the 1890s saw the bustle disappear; rather, the bride wore a demi-train and puffed sleeves, accessorized with a veil of lace or silk tulle, long white gloves, and white satin or brocade slippers with heels. As for jewelry, wealthy brides chose dazzling diamonds, or pearl and diamond combinations. The mid-Victorians, who enjoyed displaying their lavish newfound wealth, often chose a diamond tiara for the ceremony. After the big day, Victorian brides usually had their wedding gowns altered; the sleeves were shortened and neckline lowered to serve as an evening gown for the first year of marriage. When a Victorian newlywed appeared in her "remade" wedding gown during the first year, it was considered to be a most-welcome compliment to the hostess of the event.

A Brief History of the Wedding Gown

For the most part, wedding gowns as we know them today are a recent invention. In medieval times, royal marriages were of great political importance and often were arranged in order to seal alliances between countries. Accordingly, it was incumbent upon brides of royal heritage to look magnificent on her wedding day, in order to uphold the prestige of her country and impress the groom's country. Thus, medieval wedding gowns were elaborate, using as much material as possible, of the most costly fabrics such as velvet, damask silk, satin, fur and fabrics woven with gold and silver thread. The colors used in a royal wedding gown were rich in hues, as only the wealthy could afford expensive red, purple and black dyes. Skirts were full and gathered, and the sleeves would sweep the floor, with trains of several meters. Additionally, the dress would be sewn with precious gems such as diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds and pearls, so the bride would truly sparkle in the sunlight. In some cases, a gown might be so elaborately encrusted with jewels that the fabric beneath was nearly entirely hidden. In the fifteenth century, Margaret of Flanders could not move in her heavily-laden wedding gown that she had to be carried into the church by two gentlemen attendants! Of course, few brides were princesses and most could not afford such expensive gowns. In order to look special, most brides tried to copy the dress of a woman of a higher social class. For example, a noblewoman would do use a few gems and fur trimmings, while a well-to-do middle class woman would aspire to less expensive velvet or silk fabrics. The poor bride's dress would be of linen, or fine wool, instead of the usual coarse homespun, and she would use more fabric than her everyday frocks. The lower class bride's gown often then became her Sunday best church gown immediately afterwards, and would serve for many years as part of her everyday wardrobe. During the eighteenth century, a bride of the lower social classes walked down the aisle dressed in a simple robe, which symbolized to her future husband that she brought nothing with her into the marriage and would therefore not burden him with any debt.

In mid-nineteenth century, the all-white wedding dress became fashionable. Until then, a woman simply wore her best dress, either made by the bride herself or a dressmaker, regardless of its color. (Pink had been a particularly popular colour, considered most suitable for a May wedding and associated with youthfulness. Blue was also a favored color for wedding dresses, as the color was associated with the Virgin Mary and thus symbolic of the bride's purity. The color also traditionally symbolized fidelity and eternal love; accordingly, brides who wore blue believed their husbands would always be true to them.) The introduction of machine made fabrics and cheap muslins imported from India, and styles inspired by the classical world, made the white wedding gowns very accessible by 1800. In 1840, Queen Victoria's pure white gown revitalized Anne of Brittany's idea, and started the trend that many women follow today. The color white was not necessarily symbolic of the "purity" of the bride; rather, it was meant to indicate the joy of the union. The elaborateness of the dress increased with the wealth of the bride's family. Poorer brides adorned dresses with temporary decorations (as their gowns would become everyday wear). For example, they loosely attached ribbons tied into bows or "love knots". These "bride laces" would be pulled off by the guests during the post ceremony festivities, and kept as wedding favors or souvenirs. Even wealthy brides often wore their gowns more than once. For the season of her "bride visits", when newly married women visited family, friends and acquaintances, even well-to-do brides often wore their bridal gowns, with the train and any flowers removed. A higher class bride would often adapt the bodice of the outfit (often made separately) and retrim it for evening wear for another season. Queen Victoria herself removed the lace overskirt from her wedding gown and wore it several times afterward; she even wore it over a black silk gown for her Diamond Jubilee celebrations over fifty years after her wedding day.

By the 1920s, a white wedding dress became the norm for brides, and men were expected to wear formal attire (men in the army wore full military dress). In that decade, however, there was a revolution in women's clothing, and hemlines for ordinary wear rose from the below the ankle to well above the knee. Wedding styles followed suit, and brides began showing their ankles in simpler, straight-line dresses. As skirts grew more abbreviated, some felt that the style was unsuitable for a church service, and by the end of the decade, many brides returned to full-length wedding gowns with trains, reminiscent of earlier eras.

Tips for the Modern Bride

Below are some practical suggestions for the bride-to-be in finding the perfect wedding gown:

(1) Give yourself at least six months to find your perfect gown. Remember that certain gowns need several months to be created (most take a minimum of three months), and even factory-made dresses require time for multiple fittings and adjustments! You should plan for three fittings: First, when your wedding gown arrives. Second, to correct any mistakes. And third, near your wedding date to verify that everything is perfect. Finding your wedding gown should be one of the first items on your wedding to-do list! Don't worry if you don't have six months, however. You can still get everything done; it just may cost more to rush the order.

(2) Clip pictures from magazines to help you define what you are looking for. Bring your clippings on your shopping trips and try to find something similar.

(3) Keep your body shape, face and hairstyle in mind. Different necklines, silhouettes, sleeve styles and waistlines flatter certain figures, while others accentuate areas you may be wanting to conceal.

(4) Try on several gowns, even gowns that are out of your budget. You may discover that a certain style you would not have normally considered really looks good on you. You can always try to find a similar dress within your budget, or commission a tailor to recreate the look at a fraction of the cost.

(5) Bring a trusted friend or family member with you. A sister or friend can offer an honest opinion on how the gown looks on you, as well as help you through the frustrations of finding the right style.

(6) Make use of bridal consultants at each salon that you visit. Take advantage of the advice you receive, and be up front with your budget and wedding theme, if any. The consultant may be able to offer you honest and objective suggestions on fit and style based on your age and body type.

(7) Don't sacrifice comfort for fashion. Make sure your gown allows for sufficient movement. Try bending, sitting down, reaching, walking, even running in the dress. Your wedding day will be a long one, and you want to be comfortable. If your dress is too tight or pinches you in the wrong place, most likely your facial expressions will reflect your discontent... and you don't want wedding photos of yourself with a gorgeous dress and strained smiles! Also, remember that wedding gown sizes tend to run small; you will probably need a size that is one or two sizes larger than your normal dress size.

(8) Mimic your wedding day. Consider wearing a strapless bra on your shopping trips, to help you get a better feeling of how each wedding gown would look during your wedding. And if you already have jewelry or shoes chosen, bring them with you to make sure everything matches. Do your hair the way that you'd like on your wedding day; for example, if you are set on having an elaborate updo, try to at least pin up your hair in the same general style.

(9) Bring a camera and take pictures of yourself in each dress that you try on. (Make sure to ask permission before snapping pictures, of course, as certain tailors or retailers may not allow photographs.) Later, when you've had a few days to reconsider, view your photos to determine if you still love that one dress that looked so great in the store.

(10) Don't purchase a wedding gown that is out of your budget. Wedding gowns can range in price from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands! Take some time to think about your selection, and if possible, sleep on the idea before making the commitment to purchase. Remember that bridal gowns come with many unforeseen expenses, so you should not spend all of your dress budget on the gown itself. Save a little for alterations and accessories.

(11) Protect yourself from fraud and negligence. Purchasing a wedding gown is a major financial commitment, so don't let your heart rule your head when it comes time to make payment. Always use a credit card to pay for your wedding gown. Most cards offer some kind of buyer protection, so if something goes wrong, you may be able to recover some of your losses. Avoid cash-only brokers, as they could turn out to be scam artists. Expect to give an initial deposit of up to 50 percent of the cost of the gown. Be sure to get a written contract with specific information like wedding gown size, color, style, etc. If possible, bring your maid or matron of honor with you, as she can learn her responsibilities for the wedding day. Sometimes, small emergencies come up right before the wedding is about to begin. Your maid of honor should know your wedding gown, and she should also know how to perform small alterations in a pinch. If your mother would handle this situation better than your maid of honor, you might want her at the fittings as well.