Tying The Knot

October 30, 2010 • Magazine

Tying The Knot

Tying The Knot

Mon, 2000-10-30 06:00

The Evolution of Bridal Wear From The 1800s To Now

Amanda Aldinger

Bridal fashion isn’t something I’ve ever thought too deeply about. I never planned my wedding as a child, and even as an adult, I’m not harboring any deep-rooted desire for the typical “fairytale princess” wedding experience. In fact, I find the whole idea of packaging up a woman in french tips, an up-do, an oversize dress that can never be worn again and an entourage of similarly dressed bridesmaids — an element of weddings that is seemingly predestined for tackiness — not my taste at all.

Currently on exhibition at the Chicago History Museum is “I Do! Chicago Ties the Knot,” a show which chronicles the evolution of wedding fashion from the 1800s to today, in a collection of forty-five dresses, accessories, shoes, corsets and menswear. I recently attended the show, and was surprised at how much I was engaged by the rich history of the pieces, and how markedly bridal culture has shifted from then to now.

When it comes to weddings, today’s culture puts overwhelming emphasis on finding the perfect dress. There are reality shows dedicated to this arduous endeavor (like TLC’s “Say Yes to the Dress,” which follows hopeful brides-to-be as they’re put to the task of choosing their dream dress), whole networks of wedding blogs, sharing various bridal tips and chronicling the “best of” wedding choices for cities all over the country, and more bridal magazines than any woman could ever hope to navigate. To come of the marrying age in the twenty-first century is to be upended by a culture obsessed with bridal perfection in an all-frills, big budget way.

The prototypical white wedding dress came into fame around 1890. Prior to that, wedding fashion was marked by accessibility and an emphasis on everyday wear. Many dresses had bustles, and corsetted waists were standard. Although the nineteenth century woman wasn’t shopping her closet for her wedding dress, when choosing a bridal look there was an emphasis on continued wearability, with many women altering their dresses after their wedding day so as to make them more suitable for social gatherings or evening wear for a night out. A vast color palate was customary, and brides weren’t expected to limit the color of their dress to one, culturally standard, color.

As bridal wear spent the next thirty years working towards standardization, the reign of Coco Chanel and the advent of WWII in the 1920s infiltrated the wedding world and overran it with the trending mentality that so dominates in the fashion industry. Hemlines rose, waists dropped and the greatest act of bridal groupthink since dresses became (for the most part) universally white occurred: the flapper trend.

For the first time, pervasive fashion trends transferred themselves to bridal wear. Women were experiencing a new sense of liberation, as brides were now given the same right to vote as their husbands and encouraged to participate more in the world — both sartorially and politically. As the flapper mentality took over, the wedding world emboldened popular trends, embracing aesthetic value for fashion’s sake and eschewing the traditionalism of cultures past.

From the 1930s to the 1940s, the effects of WWII reigned supreme. With women aching to renege the unsavory realities of the Depression era, glamour took hold of the wedding industry with dresses (termed “bridal gowns” for the first time ever) exploding in length and with the addition of detachable trains. In the 1940s, the war trend continued its hold over blushing brides-to-be, but in the opposite regard: as dresses took on the chic, clean-lined appeal of the military uniform, patterns were created to assist women in transforming ivory military parachutes into multiple garment options — including the wedding dress.

With the war over, bridal wear of the 1950s and 1960s reached an haute peak of unmitigated chic. The traditionalism of the 1950s was maintained in floor-length gowns featuring modest necklines and inordinate amounts of lace. Feminine glamour and traditional bridal appeal at its very finest. In the 1960s, Pop art’s mod influence was all over the wedding industry. Hemlines hit an all-time high, with the mini becoming more than just a ready-to-wear sensation. Scooped necklines and embellished details adorned longer versions of this decade’s classic look, exhibiting the playful, “anything goes” attitude of the 1960s.

While each of the previous decades followed each other, and the attitudes of the day, quite narratively, in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s all bets were off — a thirty year period of exquisite charm that did well to pre-date the less than appealing paparazzi era of the aughts. High-necked 70s romance and lace gave way to exuberant 80s puffy-sleeved volume, only to be followed up by the simplicity of the Vera Wang sensation, which began in the 90s when the designer opened her own salon in New York’s Carlyle Hotel.

It seems – with the current moment defined by the overwhelming presence that is the rigorous domination of social media – that much of the cherished simplicity of weddings has been lost in the muck of an endless photostream of celebrity coverage. In some regards, we’re a culture so obsessed with celebrity influence and the media’s relentless brow-beating, that it can be difficult to discern the integrity of bridal wear in the twenty-first century.

J.Crew has spear-headed a new concept for modern day bridal wear: bridesmaid’s gowns and wedding dresses priced affordably for the general consumer. Retailing at anywhere from $450 – $3600, the company offers simplistic bridal options that call upon the philosophy of the 1880s when wedding dresses could be more than a preserved garment in an attic, but rather, something to be continually cherished and re-worn. Ann Taylor has followed suit, launching their own bridal diffusion line, with prices ranging from $300-$500. In addition to being able to shop their online lookbook, their website also provides tips on how to continue wearing your wedding dress even after your wedding has passed.

Are we ready to return to simple elegance, the bridal charm that existed before the anxiety of creating and funding one’s perfect day amidst exorbitant price-tags and ardent media voyeurism? This is not to say that all bridal fashions of now have been lost in a sea of misguided cultural integrity. But perhaps a revisiting of history would be nice. At the very least, say “I Do!” to the Chicago History Museum’s bridal exhibit. No matter where you stand on the bridal spectrum, it’s well worth the insight.

1. 1880 Wedding Gown
2. 1955 Wedding Gown
3. John Lennon And Yoko Ono, 1960s Wedding Getty Images
4. 1970 Wedding Gown
5. Ann Taylor Bridal Collection
6. J.Crew Bridal Collection

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