The wedding dress is a costume or single-purpose article of clothing worn by a bride during the marriage ceremony. From antiquity, weddings have been highly regarded occasions. The clothing worn by the bride for her wedding has usually been distinguished from that of her daily wear. Symbolism may be attached to the dress, such as white for purity, and may be attached to items worn with the dress, such as something blue for luck. The symbolism associated with the wedding dress may have cultural, traditional, or personal significance.
Colonial immigrants kept the marriage traditions of their home-lands. Brides in the English Jamestown settlement likely wore the costumes of young country brides of the mid-Elizabethan period. Although records of the first American weddings do not describe clothing, it is known that English brides of this era wore dresses of russet, a woolen fabric of natural wool color or dyed a reddish brown with tree bark. They wore simple, fitted white caps on the head. Dresses and caps made for weddings were usually adorned with fine embroidery.
American wedding dresses evolved into more festive or elaborate versions of the usual dress worn by women of each subsequent era. The dress was considered a best dress to be worn for special occasions after the wedding. The dress was usually new, although laces and trimmings might be old and handed down from a family member. Beginning in the mid-1800s, wearing a mother's wedding dress became an acceptable sentimental option.
As America prospered, brides marked the occasion of their wedding by bedecking themselves in the finest and most becoming dresses of their day. They were influenced by the styles of Europe and news of royal marriages. Although white had been worn for Roman weddings, all colors were used for early American wedding attire. Though other colors were occasionally seen, white settled into vogue as the preferred choice of color after the immensely popular Queen Victoria of England wed in 1840 clad in white satin.
Since the Victorian era's hooped creations, the wedding dress has known countless variations on the style of the day. While some early dresses displayed a slight trail of fabric behind, the wedding dress with train came into vogue in the mid-1870s, as did the use of the flowing veil.
Elaborate fabrics, embroideries, laces, braids, and trimmings were used whenever possible. The laces Aloncon, Venice, Honitan, and Chantilly were commonplace for wedding trims. The evolution of styles included the tubular skirts of the 1870s, the corset waists of the 1880s, the leg-o-mutton sleeves of the 1890s, the bustles of the early 1900s, the ankle-length Gibson girl silhouette of the 1910s, and the short-skirted flapper look with accompanying long, full veil of the 1920s.
In the 1930s the wedding dress became known as the wedding gown, as the term gown denoted a luxurious dress worn in Depression-era America. Over the years hemlines varied in the daily style of dress, but beginning in the 1930s, the majority of wedding dresses were designed floor length.
The 1940s war years' wedding gowns show an absence of elaborate laces and trims, but an attention to tailoring detail with padded shoulders and belted waistlines. The prosperous 1950s ushered in a new era of extravagant wedding gowns with yards of gathered skirting, laces, sweetheart and off-the-shoulder necklines, and peter pan collars. Since it had become traditional for the groom to present his bride a gift of a single strand of pearls, much emphasis was placed on the neckline design to show off this gift.
During the 1960s, the prominence of traditional styles of wedding dresses decreased in favor of contemporary dress styles. Many brides wore floor length flowered print dresses that were not significantly more elaborate than their usual mode of dress. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the hippie bride marrying in a meadow gave way to the miniskirted bride repeating vows before a justice of the peace.
As the 1970s progressed, the traditional wedding gowns enjoyed a resurgence. Early baby-boomers found meaning in unpacking, refitting, and wearing their mother's gowns of the 1940s and 1950s. For those not fortunate enough to have a gown from these periods, the bridal apparel industry was ready with fresh designs in polyester fabrics. Elaborate gowns of finer materials were still produced, and by the 1980s it had become customary for at least the dress bodice to be covered in beading and laces.
The 1990s wedding dress and its symbolism was a matter of individual taste. While many wedding dresses resurrected styles of the past, other styles continued evolving, such as the mermaid dress, a creation form-fitted to the knees with a flared skirt. Dresses were designed with a skirted train, a detachable train, or a veil trailing beyond the hem of the dress simulating a train. Examples of wedding dresses with fine construction and beadwork continued to be made and preserved for wear by the next generation of brides. The majority of wedding dresses not designed for repeat wear might have had beading and trims glued to the dress instead of hand-sewn. These dresses were often boxed and kept for sentimental reasons. The practical bride may choose to rent a wedding dress.
The modern wedding dress is steeped in tradition and history. The elaborateness of the design and the association of any cultural significance or traditional symbolism to the dress or to items worn with the dress is the choice of the bride.
Haines, Frank and Elizabeth. Early American Brides. A Study of Costume and Tradition, 1594-1820. Cumberland, Maryland, Hobby House Press, 1982.
Khalje, Susan. Bridal Couture. Fine Sewing Techniques for Wedding Gowns and Evening Wear. Iola, Wisconsin, Krause Publications, 1997.
Murphy, Brian. The World of Weddings, An Illustrated Celebration. New York, Paddington Press, 1978.
Tasman, Alice Lea Mast. Wedding Album. Customs and Lore Through the Ages. New York, Walker and Company, 1982.