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There’s no doubt that wedding dress styles, though steeped in tradition (and much of this due to precedent set by Queen Victoria), change according to the prevailing modes of the time. This was just as much true between the 1880s-1930s as it is today. In honor of the recent marriage between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on May 19, Femme Fashion Forward will showcase wedding dresses throughout the years of the FFF timeline with stylistic notes.
To start off, this video on the exhibition Wedding Belles that took place at the Hillwood Museum from 2011-2012, gives a great overview of the changing styles of wedding dresses. It presents three generations of women’s wedding attire from the Marjorie Merriweather Post family, 1874-1958 >> Wedding Belles
Corbay-Wenzel, cream-colored silk satin trimmed with glass pearls and silk chiffon, Paris, ca. 1888, Philadelphia Museum of Art 1968-98-1a–c
This cream-colored wedding gown was made during the second bustle period, which lasted from about 1884 to 1889. In this photo we can see the train coming off the bustle at the back of the skirt, and many layers of fabric used to create the skirt. The front bodice extends down the front with a lower point. Bodices during this time were becoming longer in the front and this wedding bodice is no exception. The bodice is also very structured, which was typical for that time, and would have needed a corset underneath for the wearer to assume the correct shape.
Wedding Dress of Marjorie Merriweather Post, silk satin and antique lace, 1905, Hillwood Museum
The shift in silhouette from the gown in 1888 to 1905 is easily visible. The skirt has changed from an emphasis on the back with a bustle skirt to an S-shape. The shoulders are coming down a little from their height in the 1890s, but they are still puffed and the bride is meant to have an S-curve silhouette, as was the desired look at this time. The hem of the skirt is still long and fashionably swirls around the feet of the wearer like a true Gibson Girl. This dress is also embroidered with orange blossom flowers. Orange blossoms were often incorporated into a bride’s ensemble as a symbol of innocence and fertility. The look of this bride has definitely softened from the hardened bodice look of 1888, but the corset, puffed shoulders, and long skirt are still being used here to obtain a certain shape, versus emphasizing the body underneath.
This wedding gown was worn by Flora Diamond in 1923 for her marriage to Phillip Jacobs at the Bayswater Synagogue in London. The dress appears to be a light beige-green color and the skirt at the dropped waist extends out from the hips. This was highly fashionable in the 1920s. The dropped waist on garments was pervasive throughout the period, and the extended skirt panels was a popular look that was an alternative to the
straight flapper silhouette. Known as the “robe de style” look, this style is largely attributed to the designer Jeanne Lanvin, who created the look based on 18th century pannier court dress (find an example of a evening dress in this style from LACMA here
). Notice that the skirt of this dress is a little shorter in front too, also in keeping with the shorter styles of the 1920s. Except for the panier-style hip panels, this dress conforms to the shape of the wearer rather than the other way around.
This ivory wedding gown is certainly following the trends of the 1930s. The hemlines dropped again from the higher cuts of the 1920s, and it became fashionable to make dresses on the bias, as this appears to be. Cutting material like satin on the bias, or diagonally versus straight along the grain, allowed for better draping and movement which suited the look of the dramatic, curve-hugging gowns. The necklines were usually high with a lower dip in the back and the bodice typically had high darts or seams. Dresses were still close to the body, which had developed in the 1920s as the transition from a highly structured, corseted look moved to a freer, straight cut. In the 1930s more of the body was covered than in the 1920s, but the form was closer-fitting and curve-revealing, versus the often boyish look of the prior decade.
It’s amazing how much the styles of the dresses changed, especially in comparing the first and last examples. One commonality though, that should be addressed, is the fact that all of these dresses are white or some similar light color. Using white for a wedding gown was one of the trends set forth by Queen Victoria when she married in a white dress in 1840. Prior to this, in the early – mid-19th century, many brides opted for colorful dresses, and red in particular. White was among the colors deemed suitable for mourning wear (along with black, purple, and blue) and at the time, many thought it was not a very celebratory color for a wedding. Time
has a nice, brief article speaking to this here
. Brides continued to wear different colors for their wedding dresses, along with white ones, but white and ivory prevailed as a choice for brides and would later become the standard in the mid-20th century. On the other hand, orange blossoms, which were incorporated by Queen Victoria and many brides, was a consistent flower choice as a bouquet or embroidery, but seems to have died out in Western weddings by the mid-20th century.
Over time, wedding dresses have maintained a special status as a marker of a rite of passage for women, but the colors, cut, and details have largely varied throughout the years. It’s fun to look back and see how much fashion has influenced a piece of clothing that we often hope will be immune to changing tastes. I think regardless of the era, there are many unique and beautiful examples of this garment we hope will create a lasting impression while transcending the passing fads.