Couture Customs: The History of the Bridal Gown

by Raymond


A wedding is a rite of passage, a shift from childhood to adulthood, and most western wedding traditions can trace their origins back to ancient Rome.

The wedding ring on the third finger of a girl's left hand symbolizes engagement. At the ceremony, the bride wore white robes as a tribute to Hymen, the god of marriage and fertility, and was accompanied by her bridesmaid.

In Latin, the female verb "nubo" or marry - means literally "I veil myself." Hence, a bride was "nova nupta" and the wedding--nuptials. The bridal veil or "flammeum" was rectangular, transparent and worn off her face. Flame-colored, it matched her shoes. In her hair, she wore a wreath of fragrant flowers. Her gown was a white flannel or muslin tunic with a "cingulum" or girdle. Around her waist she carried the "knot of Hercules" to ward off evil spirits, and undoing this complicated knot was the groom's first order of business on the wedding night.


Medieval weddings among the nobles were mostly arranged and were more about political maneuvering than love. The bride's appearance was a direct reflection on her family, so her costume was of rich colors and expensive garments with furs, velvet and silk.


Peasant brides on the other hand wore gowns in greens or blues. Weddings were a high occasion even for the lower classes and brides dressed as formally as money allowed. Humbler fabrics were used, but styles of the nobility were copied as much as possible.


In the 1300's the traditional wedding gown was the "cotehardie" or "bold coat." It was a close-fitting garment, laced in back or front, with long, tight sleeves, and a full slit in front to show the underdress, which also carried a train. These were made of silk brocades and worn with a gold belt encrusted with jewels. The bride wore a ring representing eternal vows and true love, a brooch as a token of her chastity and a garland of flowers worn over loose, flowing hair for virtue.


Although the concept of a white bridal costume is relatively new, there were historical precedents. Henry IV of England's daughter, Princess Phillipa, wore a tunic and mantle of white satin, edged with velvet and ermine, at her marriage in 1406. Anne of Brittany wore white at her marriage in 1499 while in 1527, Marguerite of Valois married in white ermine and covered by a blue coat with a five-foot train. When Elizabeth of Bohemia married in 1613, she and her maids were robed in white and silver tissue trimmed with silver lace.
In 1840, Queen Victoria married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and wore a relatively plain white satin gown adorned with an orange blossom wreath headdress with lace veil and eighteen foot train, carried over her arm. The official wedding photo was published around the world and the white wedding gown became the rage with high-society brides. Her daughter, Princess Alice--and also Alexandra, Princess of Wales--married in white dresses with orange blossom wreath headdresses in 1858 and 1863 respectively, continuing the precedent set by Victoria.

Prior to her reign, most brides wore current fashions and colors, including cream and ivory. These gowns were simple in design and not heavily embellished. Often, the veil was the most elaborate part of the wedding attire. Blue was still considered the symbol of purity and many women wore blue wedding gowns. Victoria's wedding changed all that and for the rest of the century, white continued to gain popularity. By the 1880's most women wore soft whites and ivories and the white wedding gown came to symbolize purity and innocence. Later attribution suggested white symbolized virginity.

For many working class brides, marrying in a lavish white gown you would never wear again because of its style and color was an extravagance they could neither afford nor justify. Many brides continued to wed in gowns of soft blues, greens soft ivories and even black (if they were marrying a widower). Bonnets and veils were worn according to the style of the day. It wasn't until the end of the 1860's, that veils were worn over the face. 

The advent of the department store meant greater accessibility of fabrics and designs for women who could now realize their dream of being married in a new wedding dress. Prices came down and the white dress was no longer the privilege of the very wealthy. By 1890, it was accepted that a wedding gown be white.

The Edwardian period brought a greater extravagance to bridal fashion. Wedding gowns were further embellished with lace and pearls. This practice continued until the outbreak of WWI, when styles became simpler and reflected the changing role of women in society. Hemlines rose and tightly laced corsets disappeared. Wedding gown styles continued to follow the fashion trends of the day, including the short flapper dress popular in the 1920's. Hemlines rose from the shoe to above the knee. Also during this decade came the arrival of the dropped waist and shapeless bodice dresses reached the height of popularity. Later in the decade, many brides considered the short length of the bridal dress inappropriate for church services, and a re-emergence of full-length gowns took place.

The depression in thirties followed the roaring of the twenties. Women changed from the boyish look to a more profound expression of a woman’s body. The bridal dresses of this decade hugged the body of the bride and bridal dresses were given boat-shaped collars. The influence of the movies with glamorous evening gowns also influenced wedding dress design. When the depression hit, many brides made do with their 'best' dress for the wedding. Those brides who could afford a white dress dyed their dresses after the wedding, keeping only the collar and cuffs white.

With the arrival of World War II fashions in the 1940s died down because of rationing and women’s clothes became more of a uniform. The same was true for the white bridal dress. A number of brides struggled for silk dresses but most suited themselves for the uniform. Those who were not commissioned in the army wore the same costumes.



The padded shoulders of the last decade were superseded by narrow shoulders in the 1950s. Bridal trains were fashioned after the trains of the Elizabethan era. But with the arrival of The New Look, bridal dresses became tailored after the ballerina dresses in terms of length. The dress typically has a jacket bodice with tight sleeves.
In 1956, watched by over 30 million television viewers, Grace Kelly's marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco was hailed the wedding of the century. Her wedding gown was a white high-necked, long-sleeved gown with fitted torso and billowing skirt made of twenty-five yards of silk taffeta, one hundred yards of silk net, peau de soie, tulle and Brussels rose point lace. She wore a Juliet cap decorated with seed pearls, orange blossoms, and a veil of 90 yards of tulle. Like Queen Victoria's wedding before her, Princess Grace's wedding set the trend for the next decade and big white wedding dresses were in.

In the 1960s, bridal dresses still featured the circular skirts, short veils and tight sleeves, the only differences on the veils being a more bouffant approach. Most women wore coronets and a single rose with the veil gathered together from the flower. In contrast with the extravagant and flowing bridal dresses, bouquets in the 1960s were made simpler. More often than not, tiny flowers in tight posies were used.

After two decades of tights sleeves, Tudor sleeves were introduced in the seventies. The high-waisted lines of the 1960s moved lower to a princess line. Trains diminished and the cuts of the dresses were made far simpler. The vintage inspired wedding dresses of the fifties and sixties gave way to more relaxed gowns in the less formal weddings in the seventies. Outdoor settings replaced churches, garlands of daisies replaced veils, and couples wrote their own vows.



The 1980s signaled the return of the waistline to its normal position. Dresses were much fuller and big bouquets returned to fashion. This decade was marked with more extravagant sleeves, modeled after the bridal dress of the Princess of Wales.


In 1982, Lady Diana Spencer's wedding to Prince Charles was another grand fairy-tale wedding complete with a grand white Victorian-styled dress. It was puff-sleeved with a fitted bodice and full-skirted of ivory taffeta. Like many fashions of the 1980's there was little understatement with it. It was grand. The nineties saw a return to sleeker, less complicated styles.

Wide skirts remained popular with the start of the 1990s. However, different fashion icons popularized varieties of skirts. But among the most popular were the super low waists with skirts flared down.

The pervasiveness of television and the universal access to the internet means the 21st century bride can dress in almost any style--from ornate designer dresses to something informal. The color of the wedding gown is still mostly white, eggshell, ecru and ivory; although, colored wedding gowns are making a comeback.