A Brief History of the Wedding Dress in Britain

Article and Illustrations by Elizabeth Davies; Croydon, Surrey, England. April 2001

Hand-drawn illustration of a wedding dress
Wedding Dress

The wedding gown is unique. Along with baptism and burial, marriage is one of the three great public occasions in a person’s life, and the only one at which the principals can fully appreciate the glory of their central role. For the bride, more than the groom, it is Her Big Day. Throughout history, women have tried to make their wedding dress special, to suit the festive occasion, to make the beautiful bride more beautiful and the not so beautiful at least splendid to look at.

At the top of the scale, royal princesses have always tried to be most princess-like on their wedding days. In medieval times, when royal marriages were of great political importance and used to seal alliances between two countries, it was also necessary for the young bride to look magnificent to uphold the prestige of her country, to impress the bridegroom’s country with her own nation’s apparent wealth and, if possible outdo anything they could have afforded. Her jewellery might well have been the topic of prolonged negotiation as part of her dowry.

Wedding dress: Margaret of Flanders, 15th Century

To this end they used as much material as they possibly could, of the most costly, like velvet,damask silk, satin, fur and fabrics woven with gold and silver thread. In days when all fabrics were hand spun, woven and dyed, and economical use of it was the norm, wedding dress skirts would be gathered and full, the sleeves would sweep the floor and trains would fall behind to a length of several metres.

Colours would be rich, too. Only the wealthy could afford expensive red, purple and true black dyes, which were much harder to acquire than natural vegetable-based shades. Additionally, the dress would be sewn with precious gems – diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds and pearls – so the bride would glitter and flash in the sunlight. In some cases, the gown would be so thickly encrusted with jewels, that the fabric beneath was hidden and in the fifteenth century when Margaret of Flanders was married, the result was so heavy that she could not move in her robes and had to be carried into the church by two gentlemen attendants!

Wedding dress: Wedding Dress: Catherine of Braganza, 1662
Catherine of Braganza, 1662

With the advent of constitutional monarchy, royal marriages were of dynastic rather than national importance, but a princess going, or from, overseas would still wish to impress her new country. This sometimes backfired, when an outfit in the height of current style at her own court might not be so admired elsewhere. This happened to poor Catherine of Braganza (left) at her wedding to Charles II of Britain in 1662, when her pink farthingale wedding dress was castigated as dowdy, and her hairstyle as peculiar.

Wedding dress: Giovanna Cenami, 1434
Giovanna Cenami, 1434

Of course, not many brides were princesses and most could not afford such expense. But, in order to look special, a bride would usually try to copy the dress of a woman of a higher social class than herself. A noblewoman would do her best with gems and fur trimmings. A well-to-do middle class woman (like Giovanna Cenami in 1434, right) would aspire to velvet or silk fabrics, and because she could not usually afford mink or sable, she would wear fox, or rabbit fur to impress her friends.

The poor bride’s wedding dress would be of linen, or fine wool, instead of the usual coarse homespun, and she would use as much fabric as she could. For an everyday girl, clothes would normally be as sparingly cut as was decent, so a gown with flowing sleeves or a train was a big status symbol. In modern times with factory made materials, the symbol of the bride in her train has lost its original meaning, but become a tradition.

An ordinary girl who could not afford very much in the way of decoration or trimming on her wedding outfit, which would have to become her Sunday best frock immediately afterwards, and maybe serve for many years as part of her everyday wardrobe, still wanted the excitement of a special dress. She could have it by adhering to the rules and traditions of wedding costume.

Blue Wedding Dress, 1870
Blue Wedding Dress, 1870

Before modern medicine, a long and healthy life was not easy to achieve, but people tried to ensure good luck by following superstition. Many superstitions grew up around weddings, to bring about a girl’s happiness in her new home and of course to guarantee her fertility. The colour of the gown was a popular source of luck.

White, or a variation of white, was always a favourite and symbolised a girl’s virginity and innocence in the face of her imminent change of state. But it was not a practical shade for most purposes so it was not always the favourite choice. Blue (as worn by a bride of 1870, left, whose gown is in the London Museum), with its associations with the Virgin Mary, was another a strong symbol of purity. Blue also traditionally symbolised fidelity and eternal love, hence the popularity of the sapphire in engagement rings. Brides who wore blue believed their husbands would always be true to them, so even if their gown itself was not blue, they would be sure to wear something blue about their person. This is another tradition that has survived to this day.

Wedding dress: Mrs. Joseph Nollekens, 1772
Mrs. Joseph Nollekens, 1772

Pink was another popular colour, considered most suitable for a May wedding. It is flattering to most complexions and associated with girlhood, but some superstitions held it to be unlucky. “Marry in pink and your fortunes will sink”! Mrs Joseph Nollekens (right) was much admired in 1772 in her saque gown of brocaded white silk embroidered with delicate pink flowers. She wore shoes of the same material, with heels of three and a half inches (8cm). The deeper shade of red was definitely taboo by Victorian times, with its reference to scarlet women and hussies.

Amongst the unpopular shades was green. This was considered the fairies’ colour, and it was bad luck to call the attention of the little folk to oneself during a time of transition. Also linked with the lushness of verdent foliage, it was held to make rain spoil the big day.

Wedding dress: Yellow Wedding Dress, 1774
Yellow Wedding Dress, 1774

Harking back to the days of homespun garments, any natural shade of brown or beige was considered very rustic. “Marry in brown, you will live out of town” with the implication that you will be a hick and never make good in the city.

The bright shade of yellow has had varied popularity. In the eighteenth century it was THE trendy colour for a while, and many wore it, like this bride of around 1774 (left) whose dress is at the Gallery of English Costume in Manchester. However before that time yellow had been associated with heathens and non Christians and was considered an unholy shade to wear in church!

Wedding dress: Mary Brownfield, 1842
Mary Brownfield, 1842

For brides of the lower classes, an extremely common shade of wedding gown was grey. It was such a useful colour to re-use as Sunday best, being considered eminently respectable. Mary Brownfield (right) chose grey twilled silk as suitable, as a maiden lady of 32 years at the time of her marriage in 1842. In Victorian times it became associated with girls in domestic service, as they would often be provided with a new grey dress each year by their employer.

Its deeper shade of black was of course banned, with its permanent association with death and mourning. In fact black was considered such a bad omen that in some places even the guests were not allowed to wear it, and a recent widow would change her mourning for a red gown for the day, in deference to the bride. This in turn deepened the antipathy towards red, which was viewed as bridal mourning.

Wedding dress: Charlotte Pennell, 1910
Charlotte Pennell, 1910

Brides forced by economics into wearing a dress that would soon become regular daily wear, would adorn it for the day with temporary decorations. Up until the nineteenth century ribbons would be tied into bows, or “love knots” and loosely attached to the dress. These “bride laces” would be pulled off by the guests during the post ceremony festivities, and kept as wedding favours, or souvenirs.

This custom gradually died out, being replaced by flowers instead. Guests would be given floral button-holes to wear, and the bride might wear flowers in her hair; as a corsage; or garlanded round her skirts, or else carry them in a bouquet. Rosemary and myrtle were early favourites, and orange blossom became popular in the 1830s. This custom has, of course, remained to this day. Most brides, no matter how simply dressed, will have a flower or two somewhere on their outfit! When Charlotte Pennell (left) married George Hill in 1910, she was nearing 40, and had no intention of wearing a “once only” dress. She did however, decorate her fashionable ensemble with a posy of flowers in her hat and a matching bouquet

Wedding dress: Princess Charlotte, 1816
Princess Charlotte, 1816

The “traditional” wedding garb as we know it today first appeared in the late eighteenth century. With the introduction of machine made fabrics and cheap muslins imported from India, and styles inspired by the classical world, by 1800 the white dress with a veil was definitely the one to wear. As usual with fashion, it began in London, spread to other cities and towns and eventually to country areas. Princess Charlotte (right) gave it royal approval at her marriage to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg in 1816. 

Wedding dress: Queen Victoria, 1840
Queen Victoria, 1840

In 1840 Queen Victoria (left) chose white silk and Honiton lace for her own wedding dress, and made it the virtual rule.The Queen was the first royal bride to have bridesmaids to carry her train too, which also set a fashion.

In the nineteenth century, even a bride who wore white would expect to wear her dress again. For the season of her “bride visits” when she would do the rounds of family, friends and acquaintances as a newly married woman, she would wear her bridal gown, with the train and flowers removed. A higher class bride would then adapt the bodice of the outfit (which was often made separately) and retrim it for evening wear for another season. Queen Victoria herself removed the lace overskirt from her dress and frequently used it again. She wore it over a black silk gown for her Diamond Jubilee celebrations over 50 years later.

Wedding dress: Vionnet Couture, 1926
Vionnet Couture, 1926

Until the 1920s wedding dresses were always in the style of the moment, if more elaborately decorated than usual, and more modest than the the most daring fashion. In that decade however, there was a revolution in women’s clothing, and hemlines for ordinary wear rose from the shoe to well above the knee. At first wedding styles followed suit, and brides showed their ankles, but as skirts grew ever more abbreviated, it was felt by some to be unsuitable for a church service, and many brides preferred full-length wedding gowns.

This choice of following the fashion of the season or reverting to a long dress with a train led in the twentieth century to the development of a separate style in bridal wear which echoed, but often diverged from mainstream fashion (like this Vionnet couture design of 1926, right).

This was emphasised by the hiatus caused by the Second World War, when clothes were rationed, uniforms were ubiquitous, and frivolity was frowned upon. When fashion came back, everyone was keen to wear long gowns in luxurious fabrics on their wedding day, regardless of the ever increasing popularity of casual, easy wear clothing and trousers for women in daily life. As fashion has become more relaxed and sporty, so wedding styles have diverged more, so that although each decade’s brides are easily distinguished by the styles then in vogue, it is not because of that style’s resemblence to general fashion.

The Twentieth Century

The 1920s

Wedding dress: Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, 1923
Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, 1923 (The Queen Mum)

When Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (left) married HRH the Duke of York in 1923, the ceremony took place in Westminster Abbey, and the bridal gown was the traditional full length with a court train behind. Current fashion was followed in the dropped waist and generally unshaped bodice, and in the way the headdress was worn low over the brow, clasping the veil to the bride’s head in a way that echoed the cloche hat every woman was wearing then.

The style was described in the contemporary press as “medieval”, but was really very trendy, except for the length. She chose a traditional bouquet. It does not appear in her official photographs as she laid it at the tomb of the Unknown Warrior on her way out of the Abbey, in memory of her brothers, and others killed in the War, but many brides emphasised the medieval effect by carrying sheaves of white lilies.

Wedding dress: Elsie Pennell, 1925
Elsie Pennell, 1925

Elsie Pennell (right) married Charles Locking in Cleethorpes, Lincs, in 1925. Thinking herself a bit old for virginal white at the ripe old age of 26,, she chose a dress she could wear again to dances, of beige lace over old gold silk. The style was pure flapper, with shapeless bodice, dropped waist and short skirt.

Her big extravagance (she made the dress herself) was the picture hat, of brown and cream velvet, which cost her 29/11d (£1.50) and weeks of agonising over whether she could afford it. She carried bronze chrysanthemums.

The 1930s

After the “Roaring Twenties” came the depression of the thirties, and the times were characterised by a change in fashion. Waistlines returned to their natural position, and became more defined. Hemlines dropped back below the knee, though they were never to reach the floor again for day wear.

Instead of the boyish look, women emphasised their shape again. This was more pronounced as the decade wore on, with the introduction of bias cut gowns that hugged the female figure.

Wedding dress: Nora Pennell, 1931
Nora Pennell, 1931

Nora Pennell (right) married Arthur Williams in Cleethorpes, Lincs, in 1931, wearing an oyster pink silk crepe dress in the currently fashionable style of boat shaped neckline, fitted bodice and a short skirt to just below the knee. The wax orange blossom headdress and silk net veil were also of palest pink, and she carried a bouquet of pink carnations.

Her three bridesmaids wore similar outfits in pale blue, green and lemon respectively, and carried mixed sweet peas. The vicar of St. Peter’s called it a “Rainbow wedding” and said it was the prettiest he’d ever seen.

Wedding dress: Wallis Warfield Simpson, 1936
Wallis Warfield Simpson, 1936

Wallis Warfield Simpson’s blue Mainbocher outfit, that she wore at her wedding to the Duke of Windsor in 1936, clung to her every curve (left).

The 1940s

The white wedding dress virtually disappeared during the war years. Clothes rationing was introduced in 1941, when fashion almost ceased to exist. A few made brave efforts with parachute silk, whilst others wore gowns borrowed from relatives, but most brides wore uniform. Those not in the services also tended to wear a suit, or “costume” as they were called then, with a floral corsage pinned to the lapel.

Wedding dress: Betty Hutton, 1942
Betty Hutton, 1942

Betty Hutton, the Woolworth heiress (right) chose a blue silk costume with matching veiled hat for her wedding to Cary Grant in 1942.

After the war ended, rationing was still in force, but nobody wanted Princess Elizabeth to skimp on her wedding gown. Clothing coupons poured into Buckingham Palace in 1947 from loyal citizens wanting to see her at her best at her marriage to Philip Mountbatten in Westminster Abbey.

Wedding dress: Princess Elizabeth, 1947
Princess Elizabeth, 1947 (later Queen)

Consequently, her Hartnell gown was sumptuous, with embroidery and beading decorating the flowing satin, with its long train and silk net veil. The sweetheart neckline and wide shoulders followed a predominant style of the decade, which was soon to give way, in the late forties, to Dior’s stunning New Look, with narrow shoulders, nipped waist and wide skirts.

The 1950s

Wedding dress: Joyce Holmes, 1951
Joyce Holmes, 1951

When Joyce Holmes (right) married Gerald Locking in 1951, her gown showed an intermediate style between the padded shouders of the forties, and the narrow look of the fifties. Her draped skirt, reminiscent of Princess Elizabeth’s, extended into a full train. The fabric was a creamy satin, with no trimming at all.

By contrast in 1955, her cousin Jill Wringe (left), at her wedding to Victor Savage, wore a totally New Look outfit. Her dress was like many others of the decade, of “ballerina” length, and made with a removable lace jacket bodice with the ubiquitous tight sleeve with cuff pointed over the hand, worn over the low cut underdress with its circular skirt held out by stiff petticoats.

Wedding dress: Jill Wringe, 1955
Jill Wringe, 1955

Many women wore variations on this look, and had the under-dress dyed a new colour afterwards to wear as a cocktail dress. Brocade and lace gradually superceded satin almost universally for wedding gowns. To counterbalance the bouffant skirts, veils, which had previously been usually square, worn folded diagonally with the point at the back and sides, now became circular and waist-length, usually attached to a coronet style headdress.

The 1960s

Wedding dress: Princess Margaret, 1960
Princess Margaret, 1960

The early sixties showed little change on the bridal front. Girls still wore circular skirts, sometimes supported by crinolines, tight sleeves and short veils. The only real change was that the veils became more bouffant to match the back-combed hairstyles then in vogue. A popular alternative to the coronet was a large single rose, worn high on the forehead, to which the veil was gathered.

In contrast, bouquets shrank, and tight little posies were preferred over the large, loose bouquets previously carried. Commentators professed to be surprised by the lack of embroidery or ornamentation on Princess Margaret’s wedding dress in 1960 (right), but it was quintessentially of its era. The only difference was that hers lengthened into a train at the back, with a matching long veil.

Wedding dress: Eileen Bessant, 1965
Eileen Bessant, 1965

By the middle years of the decade, however, the influence of the “Swinging Sixties” designs of Mary Quant and co were beginning to alter even the bridal profile. Waistlines first dropped, as worn by Eileen Bessant to her wedding in 1965 to Steven Bessant (left) and then straight, shift-style dresses began to be seen, like that of Eileen’s cousin Christine Holmes, who married Paul Heron the same year.

Wedding dress: Christine Holmes, 1965
Christine Holmes, 1965

Along with the narrower line returned the train and the “cathedral” veil, so named because only brides married in cathedrals had previously worn them!

The shift soon proved too shapeless for wedding fashion and it quickly evolved into the empire line, with the waist tight under the bust. Influenced by mainstream design, some girls abandoned veils in favour of floral bonnets, or floppy hats. This development continued into the next decade, when hoods attached to the dress, and Juliet caps worn with or without a veil also became popular headgear.

The 1970s

Wedding dress: Princess Anne
Princess Anne

Sleeves were the big feature of seventies wedding dresses. After twenty years of tight sleeves cut to a point over the hand, Princess Anne led the way with her extravagant Tudor sleeved wedding gown. The brides of this decade followed suit with sleeve styles culled from every era.

The shape of the dress itself moved gradually from the narrow, high-waisted empire line of the late 1960s to the more flared princess line, with little or no train, and the waist gradually fell to its natural position by 1980.

Pinafore styles were popular, whether actually two layered, or just giving the effect with a contrasting sleeve and bib front.

These two brides are both wearing gowns typical of the mid-seventies, made from the same Simplicity Pattern 6940. When Trudy Pope (left) married Stephen Hutchings in May 1976, she added a scooped neckline and bishop sleeves to the slightly high-waisted princess line gown. She carried white tulips.

Wedding dress: Trudy Pope, 1976
Trudy Pope, 1976
Wedding dress: Elizabeth Locking, 1976
Elizabeth Locking, 1976

When Elizabeth Locking (right) married Edward Davies in December of the same year, she also made the dress up in satin, bought from Hart’s of Wigan for £6.40, but chose the high neckline and the multi-caped sleeves. She carried bronze chrysanthemums in imitation of her grandmother Elsie Pennell fifty years before, and attached to her Juliet cap wore a hand crocheted veil made by Elsie.

The 1980s

If Princess Anne’s wedding dress influenced the seventies bride, the Princess of Wales’ extravagant skirt and huge sleeves proved the style icon of the 1980s. After the restrained outlines of the previous decade, every bride now wanted a fairytale crinoline and tiara. Waistlines had already returned to their natural position.

Wedding dress: Diana, Princess of Wales, 1981
Diana, Princess of Wales, 1981

When Glynnis Davies (right) married Thomas Barnes in 1979, skirts had already begun to get fuller, but this was still flare, not gather. Glynnis’s gown was of nylon ribbon lace, and had a wide spreading train. Her veil was attached to the back of her matching headband, and she carried yellow roses.

Wedding dress: Glynnis Davies, 1979
Glynnis Davies, 1979

After Diana’s dress, everyone had full skirts gathered to the waist, and big sleeves to the elbow, with flounces and bows and lace embellishments. There was a surge in popularity for taffeta and silk. Her flowers also signalled a return of the big bouquet, with trailing greenery.

However, it soon became clear that what looked wonderful on a 5’10” slender princess did not always suit short Miss Average. So when Sarah Ferguson (right) modified the look to suit her fuller figure, with a low waistline, pointed at front and back, and flare as well as gather in her satin skirts, other brides soon followed her and set the style that was to prevail for the next few years.

Wedding dress: Sarah Ferguson, 1986
Sarah Ferguson, 1986

The 1990s

Wedding dress: Nicola Holmes, 1990
Nicola Holmes, 1990

Applied embroidery and beading on a fairly stiffly sculpted satin corseted bodice, with important sleeves, had become very much the norm. A variation was introduced with off the shoulder designs derived from mid or late Victorian evening wear, such as that worn by Nicola Holmes (left) in 1990. As the decade progressed, a variety of skirt choices became available. The wide skirt stayed popular, but then a variant which had a very dropped waist, to below the hip, and then flared, was often seen.

Gradually, more fluid materials began to appear alongside the stiffly appliqued fabrics, and narrower profiles returned, as worn by Lady Sarah Armstrong-Jones (left) when she married Daniel Chatto in 1994 wearing draped georgette under a ruched corset. As the nineties progressed, shift dresses were introduced in day wear fashions, often made by layering a fine fabric over a lining for an ethereal effect, and this trend soon appeared on the bridal scene too.

Wedding dress: Sophie Rhys-Jones, 1999
Sophie Rhys-Jones, 1999

This was the look epitomised by Sophie Rhys-Jones (right) when she married Prince Edward in 1999, wearing a floating organza coat, edged with a deep pearl and glass beaded border, over a body-skimming silk crepe dress.


Wedding dress: Lady Sarah Armstrong-Jones, 1994
Lady Sarah Armstrong-Jones, 1994

We have now reached a new century, and no doubt the wedding gown will carry on changing in fabric and altering in form. But there is equally no doubt that it will remain with us. Since the civil wedding laws were relaxed in the 1990s, allowing marriages to be conducted almost anywhere, even those with no religious convictions can have a beautiful setting for a full-rig “do”.

As wedding fashion continues to evolve separately from the general vogue, people have felt freer to allow full rein for their imaginations, and some wedding parties are not so much in “best” dress as fancy dress, as themed and fantasy costumes are the order of the day. Which all goes to prove that everyone likes to dress up now and again, and every girl wants her day in the sun.

— Copyright Elizabeth Davies, April 2001 (reprinted with permission)