The Surprisingly Short History of the European Bridal Gown


The early history

The wedding dress was always a fine thing. In it’s earliest days in the 15th century it was reserved for wealthy and aristocratic women who could afford a dress for just one day. Soon dresses began to be adapted after the wedding for more casual wear, a tradition that continues to this day. The 16th century brought in more variation as the wedding gown spread, such as different sleeves, trains and material. Early styles were ornate, and came in many different colours. A bride might have chosen black to set off gold thread, or a blue to symbolise the Virgin Mary. Designs that used expensive materials, or more fabric, were less affordable and consequently more desirable. There had to be a trade off between quantity and quality, and a sparing combination of silks, furs and jewels may have been much more glamorous than lots of a cheaper material. The status symbol of the lush dress was particularly important for foreign noble brides, which kept the outfits at the edges of affordability despite the passing of time. Some of the more recent examples of these treasures have survived the years, kept carefully in museums, or preserved as an echo in black and white photographs. These hand made concoctions of velvet, satin, jewels and metals are a testament to human skill and artistry.

Victorian Era 1837–1901

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Queen Victoria started the era of the white dress when she married in an exquisitely detailed lace gown, with a full skirt and decorated veil. Coloured dresses were still common well into the 20th century, but pre dated the era of colour photography. Unless the dress was dark the visual effect of colour has been mostly lost in black and white photographs. At the same time etiquette books promoted the idea that white showed purity. Victorian times were very symbolic, with different flowers carrying certain meanings, and icons hidden in paintings. In some ways this has created a false history around the European wedding dress, where white becomes much more prominent than it actually has been.

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The Marriage of Queen Victoria, 10 February 1840

by Sir George Hayter, c.1842

The Victorian and Edwardian eras are the time of gothic literature, and the couple that wants the dark tints, movement and suspense of gothic style should look to this for inspiration.

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Edwardian Era 1901–1919

Dresses of this period were still very modest, with most of the body covered. Necklines were high, sleeves long and dresses floor length. Corsets were still in use, falling out of fashion around the 1910s. This caused waistlines to rise and become more organic. To the uninitiated eye the look of clothing has much more in common with the 19th century than what mangy would associate with the 20th. The rejection of these looks in the following decade was about to make bridal fashion look much more modern.

Jazz, flappers and the 1920s

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The ‘20s challenged Victorian ideas about showing skin. The ground breaking Coco Chanel sent dresses that ended just above the knees onto the catwalk. Previously skirts had been kept long. This gave brides another option that went fabulously with the dropped waists and long silhouette of flapper fashion. For dresses to drape in the 1920s style silk had to be cut perfectly on a bias. It is still a good standard to look for when choosing your dress if you want folds to fall just right.

A particular style of lacy circular cap which covered the hair, and sometimes turned into a veil was popular. Unlike costume jewellery and low heels it did not stand the test of time, but is beautiful and has been incorporated into different looks.

The classic look complements the smooth silks of this time, though must be used with care, as the style is timeless.

Princess Mary and Viscount Lascelles’ Wedding, 1922

1930s: The end of the Jazz age

Despite being a decade of economic hardship, the ‘30s is still known for its style today. This is not out of character for the arts, where less affluent societies often produce great pieces. It was a great time of innovation, both forced by finical necessity, and spurred by the invention of new fabrics and materials: nylon, rayon, zippers and industrially pressed pleats. The skirts of dresses lengthened again, and the waist lifted to become more feminine. Shoulders were expanding and puffing. A classic dress might be white silk, with matching silk covered buttons on the wrists and running down the front or back. The sleeves and waist would be tight, the shoulders loose and the fabric falling straight off the hips to the feet, ending in a modest train. Such a dress would be paired with a lace veil or cap in a ‘20s style.

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1940s: Austerity

War time brought rations and more sensible living. Wedding dresses built on the blocky silhouette of the ‘30s, with long, tight sleeves spreading out at the shoulder, and a looser bust brought in at the waist. However it would not be unusual for brides to forgo the wedding dress, choosing smart coats, hats and dresses instead. Women would often have to borrow wedding dresses. The wartime poverty inspired traditionalism in its wake, with people going back to classic, long styles when they had the chance.

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The most famous bride of this era was Princess Elizabeth herself, marrying in a long white gown. Her bejeweled veil stretched for meters. The dress was embroidered with spring flowers, a symbol of hope for good things to come in a trying time.


Many Serendipity brides are drawn to the stylish 1950s, choosing voluptuous skirts flaring out at the waist. Veils were popular, including the birdcage veil — a small piece of netting that partially covers the face, usually attached to the head with a finely decorated clip. You can capture this little piece of the ‘50s with this still popular veil, or reference it with a fascinator.

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The subcultures during the ‘50s are particularly interesting, including Beats, Rockabillies and Greasers, iconised by John Travolta and Olivia Newton John in Greased Lighting. Or, for the more offbeat, there’s Johnny Deep and Amy Locane’s memorable performances in Cry Baby.

This is the time of Grace Kelly’s royal wedding. Ever elegant, she fashioned a very ‘50s take on 1920s style, complete with a lace cap and veil. In turn, Kate Middleton is said to have been inspired by this dress. And you can see the similarity, with lace stretching from the neck to wrists, a scalloped collar and a button down front.

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The swinging ‘60s

The 1960s were a time of real divergence. There were wild designs and conservative ones. Both have become iconic of this time. One of the most notable looks from this time is the veil placed exactly at the top of the head, emerging from a crown, or pill box hat.

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Another striking ‘60s wedding is the marriage Between Pricilla and Elvis Presley. With her big hair maximised topped a veil and bigger eyes, she wore a flowing dress that dropped waistless from the torso to the feet. This beautiful look is so emblematic of the brave, striking fashion of the late sixties. The looseness of the look is clearly part of a new style that becomes dominant in the ‘70s.

A striking ‘60s look would be perfect for the lover of contemporary styling. Imagine popping colours, like those found in the art of the time on record covers, videos and the walls of the Tate Modern. The classic bride can also draw inspiration from this period. Look for for fine clothing, like the beautiful suits Dior and other French Fashion houses were creating.

1970s: The hippy era

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Politics and philosophy became entangled with fashion in the 1970s, resulting in relaxed, natural looks. Dresses became long and loose, complementing big hats, long hair, gathered tops and bunched sleeves. The term “flower power” was truly taken up, with many photos showing brides with only a string of flowers adorning her head. Used the right way, ‘70s aesthetics can create a very rustic feel. Think of pleated bodices and soft, light fabrics complementing flowers in your hair.

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The excess of the 1980s

The images of Princess Diana getting married best encapsulate the bold and big 1980s feel. The veil was long, the sleeves puffed and skirts truly massive. Like the sixties, the veil came from a crown on the top of the head, but it was spread out more broadly from one side of the head to the other, rather than gathered more closely in the middle. Perhaps the most striking feature is the bouquet, made of hanging flowers must have been over a meter long.

The 1980s saw a come back of trains, which are still popular to this day.


The ‘90s are known for their minimalism, and after the 1980s, it’s easy to see how fresh the look would have been. In a large part we owe the ‘90s for the sleek lines that are so popular today, from skinny jeans to maxi dresses. Veils began to be abandoned, a trend which can still be seen now.

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