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The History of Wedding Dresses

Updated on March 27, 2020
Nicole Val profile image

Nicole is a college student majoring in Civil Engineering. During her spare time, she is finding the latest fashion trends that she enjoys.

For as long as people can remember, people all around the world have been showing their form of commitment through weddings. Above the decorations, the food, and the music, the most memorable thing for a bride that day is her wedding dress. It represented her style and reflected her personality. Besides her personal taste, the wedding dress shows the trends that were popular when the bride got married. This article will talk about the history of wedding dress. How a wedding dress can change drastically from decade to decade, and the reason as to the changes throughout history. For the purpose of today's article, the wedding dress trends that will be talked about today will be mostly based on American history, but there were outside influences that dictated the trends.

The Start of The 20th Century

The start of the 20th century had many social and technological advances. With those changes there also came new trends totally different from the 1800s as the century progressed. However, in the beginning of the 1900s, influences from the 1800s were still prevalent. This was because the trend that Queen Victoria had set for her wedding in the year 1840. Before Queen Victoria, wedding dresses were not white because the material was difficult to afford and to maintain, so only those who were wealthy could afford white dresses. As technology advanced in the later years after Queen Victoria's marriage, white cloth was much easier to obtain.

White wedding dresses were starting to become common.
White wedding dresses were starting to become common.

A touch of elegance

The trends of a normal wedding dress in 1900s was high necklines that included collars, frills mostly found on the bodice, puffy sleeves on the shoulders that were tapered in the arms, and long trains to complete the dress. The color of the dress was not always white. Although Queen Victoria set the trend for the white wedding and white dresses were more accessible compared to the 19th century, a mauve or pale pink colored dress would be worn for the wedding.

Natural beauty is preferred

Aside from dressing elegant, women in the 1900s did not use makeup the same way as women today would. The desired look for women back then is for no one to know that they were wearing any form of makeup. To desire the natural look, women turned to natural remedies to avoid being seen with makeup on. Hairstyles resembled the trend of the Gibson girl style. This represented the ideal of feminine physical attractiveness that began in the late 19th century and continued to the start of the 20th century.


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Fun Fact

During the 19th and 20th century, guests, in some weddings, would throw shoes at the newly-wed couple as tradition. This much similar to today when people throw rice at the couple. However, rice seems safer than shoes!

Love and War

The 40 year jump from the 1900s to the 1940s shows a very different way women used to wear their wedding dresses. First off, the United States like the rest of the world was in the middle of the war. To be specific, the world was in the middle of the Second World War. At this time, men in the United States were being drafted to serve, and their schedules of being deployed were unpredictable. With their sweethearts at home, and the uncertainty of when soldiers would come back, a quick and speedy marriage was preferable.

The war and its setbacks

If the soldier had made it home for a short time or was planning to leave soon, there was no time for the bride to find a wedding dress. The reason for this would be that there was not enough time to buy a wedding dress, and the material that would be used to create wedding dresses would be rationed. Silk would be used to create parachutes for soldiers, but when World War II started, it was difficult to import silk from Japan. Thus began the rationing of nylon to replace silk parachutes. Women were encouraged to donate their pantyhose since the material is mostly made of nylon.

No dress? No problem

With a shortage of material to create wedding dresses and the lack of time soldiers had at home, the best option for the bride was to wear her 'Sunday's best'. It saved time, made it easy to walk around, and it saved material. A lot of people during that time mentioned that if a couple was getting married, it was best to wear something that you can ride a bike in to make it to the courthouse. On the other hand, there were times were the bride would have a long wedding dress, but most brides preferred to marry in something that would be quick and easy to make it to the courthouse.

A couple who recently tied the knot during World War II.
A couple who recently tied the knot during World War II.

No need to focus on hair or makeup

To finish off the quick and easy wedding, the bride would usually wear red lipstick since it was the only color of lipstick that wasn't being rationed, and would be a boost of morale to soldiers fighting the war. Hair wasn't the main focus of the outfit. During the 1940s long brushed out curls (where the process is called a 'brush out') were the normal hair style, as well as adding victory rolls to the hairstyle. There was no super elegant hairstyle or makeup, unless the couple had a lot of time to plan (which was rare). All that is needed is a dress, a bike, and a groom to get married.

Big Hair and Big Fashion

From the 1940s to the 1980s, a lot of things have changed. Things that weren't socially acceptable back then were acceptable in the 80s. The political climate was completely different. Although the there was no world war, the United States was actively involved in the Iran-Iraq War. Along with the political and social changes, fashion also had experimented with its changes in fashion.

The decade was dedicated to having bigger and brighter fashion. Being eccentric was the trend, so it was no secret that wedding dresses would also be as eccentric as the trends during the decade. One of the most remembered wedding dresses during the time was when Princess Diana had gotten married to Prince Charles. It was broadcast live and garnered millions of viewers around the world for this beautiful ocassion.

The famous dress from the royal wedding.
The famous dress from the royal wedding.

Bigger is better

Wedding dresses during this time included a lot of beading and lace around the dress. The puffy sleeves that were tapered into the arms, and a beaded and lace bodice that would occasionally have a collar. To be clear, not all the dresses during the 1980s were the same. Some dresses seem to be more of a ballgown while others had more of a mermaid silhouette. With Princess Diana's influence, many dresses included long trains as well. Her inspiration for the design of her dress was looking at portraits from previous royal family members. It goes to show that although time goes on, fashion goes full circle. Some trends of the 1980s reflected the trends of the 1900s, such as the puffy sleeves and dresses that included collars.

Trends from previous decades came back during the 80s
Trends from previous decades came back during the 80s

Anything goes in the 80s

For the 80s hair and makeup was eccentric. It ranged from big hair and eye catching makeup to a tight bun and minimal makeup. There was a lot of space for creativity for brides during this time, and it came with a variety of looks throughout the decade. Some had very eccentric colors in their weddings, while others had soft muted colors. In the 80s, everything went, it was the time when technological advances were happening, and many social changes were happening.

Weddings are ways that a couple represents their love and their desire to commit to each other for a lifetime. Many brides would like to remember their wedding day for a long time, and their wedding dress play a big factor to what they remember. In previous decades, dresses had a wide variety of options. The 1900s showed a more simplistic dress, brides in the 1940s only needed a dress, and 1980s had big hair and big dresses be the trend. So whatever the trends are and whatever the circumstances, there is no stopping those who wish to tie the knot.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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