The evolution of bridal fashion has a trajectory that’s a bit distinct from the rest of the fashion industry. “It doesn’t necessarily reflect the particular era in which it’s made, instead, being a sort of amalgamation between fantasy, historical styles, and contemporary trends,” says fashion historian Sara Idacavage. And the influence of geographic regions, religious groups, socio-economic statuses, family traditions, and personal values make bridalwear even more modest in its adaptations.
Still, there are historical events that have directly and overtly impacted the industry over time. From poverty-stricken wars and the Great Depression, to flapper dresses and escapist mindsets, and, of course, a Royal or Hollywood wedding each decade, bridal fashion has reflected each event—whether that looked like high-collars, corsets, and long veils, or daisy crowns and pantsuits. And then there’s today, where micro-weddings are more popular and social media is king—defining a new era of bridalwear around the world.
Meet the Expert
- Michael Kaye is an award-winning Canadian fashion designer currently based in NYC. He's an adjunct professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and also has an evening gown showcased at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY's permanent collection.
- Sara Idacavage is a fashion historian and a doctoral student in the Textiles, Merchandising, and Interiors department at the University of Georgia.
- Lydia Edwards is a fashion historian and lecturer based in Perth, Western Australia. She's the author of both "How to Read a Dress" and "How to Read a Suit"—and is currently working on another book focusing on wedding gowns.
- Dr. Sonya Abrego is a New York City-based design historian specializing in the history of American fashion in the twentieth century. She has also taught at Parsons, The Pratt Institute, New York University, and The Fashion Institute of Technology.
Ahead, fashion experts weigh in on historical events and their impact on bridalwear, decade-by-decade.
1840s: Queen Victoria
Like many trends throughout bridal fashion history, the tradition of the white wedding gown came to fruition through a royal wedding—that of Queen Victoria’s. “Queen Victoria was known for the invention of two things: the white wedding gown and black funeral garb,” says designer, Michael Kaye.
Unlike her predecessors, Queen Victoria married for love. Wanting the finest fabric available to wear in honor of her matrimony, the Queen wore French lace which, at the time, was only available in white. And just like that, the rest is history and the white wedding gown became supreme.
1910s: World War I
During World War I, “smart, practical fashions took precedence over more ornate looks,” says Dr. Sonya Abrego, an American fashion historian. “We generally saw womenswear simplifying in ways that made it more modern, taking a deliberate step away from Victorian aesthetics...skirts were shortened slightly to above the ankle, and, as with the 1930s Depression years, women might opt for a gown they could wear again; something formal that didn't scream ‘wedding.’”
1920s: Roaring 20s
“The 20s fashions show such a clear break from previous generations, with shorter more revealing lengths, open backs, dropped waists, and less structured silhouettes,” says Dr. Abrego, “These qualities were visible in wedding gowns as well, but not for everyone. You see interesting examples of bridal gowns that are keeping up with what was current, but on average keeping longer lengths in the skirts, to look more traditional and conventionally formal.”
Kaye further adds that while bridalwear trends still veered more traditional, brides did have more freedom to "breathe" and move around during this era. “It was the Jazz Age. They were all bouncing back then and the feet were moving," shares the designer. "Shoes became really popular, [as did] the drop waistline—and the corset was gone." And we can understand why! Looser fits were needed for more dancing and fun.
1930s: The Great Depression
“In the United States, the Great Depression forced many brides to revert to what their foremothers had done for their big day: simply wear their best frock as a wedding dress,” reveals author and fashion historian, Lydia Edwards.
Given the economic hardships, paying money for a gown wasn't a possibility for many brides in this era. “A lot of people had to make do with what they have, especially people in America,” says Kaye. "Silk was scarce so a lot of rayon was used. It was more affordable. And they tended to wear something that they had to also be dyed, so if it was white, they were going to dye it afterward and get more mileage out of it.” Fine French lace was also a thing of the past, and instead, brides wore cotton, crochet-esque weave during this time period.
1940s: World War II
While Princess Elizabeth became Queen Elizabeth during this period and spared no expense on her royal gown, other high society socialites of American history still opted for more subdued styles.
“The rationing instilled by World War II meant that for the seven-year period of conflict, the majority of brides again chose the best item of clothing in their wardrobe," explains Edwards. "Sometimes this could be as practical and austere as a suit—in keeping with the plain and neutral tone of a groom’s military uniform. The practice of renting or borrowing more traditional styles of wedding dress became popular, and some brides took advantage of the best silk available to create a dream wedding dress.”
More importantly, fashion historian, Sara Idacavage, highlights that World War II placed an emphasis on budgeting, and not spurlging, when it came to fashion overall. She notes, "After all, if you live in a time of great austerity, or in a country that is in desperate need of supplies for soldiers, you probably don’t want to wear a wedding dress that’s particularly ostentatious, even if you can afford it!”
1950s: American Royalty
When you think of 1950s bridalwear, both Audrey Hepburn and Jacqueline Kennedy immediately come to mind, and rightfully so! Both were style icons and the epitome of American royalty at the time. Kaye also adds, “The keyword for the ‘50s is ‘ballerina. Think cinched waists like Audrey Hepburn, and America’s princess Jacqueline Kennedy.”
1960s: Vietnam War & Hippie Movement
The 1960s signaled the emergence of the Vietnam war and the counterculture era, which greatly impacted the way people thought of everything from politics to religion and style. "This is when our waistlines move higher up, or sometimes there's no waistline at all,” explains Kaye. “There were [also] metallic and floral embellishments. Daisies were the popular embellishments of choice, the flower child, ‘all we need is love’ types.”
1970s: Me Decade
“The 70s was the ‘Me Decade,’” says Kaye, “It was individualistic, ‘I'm going to do what I want,’ and the suit became a popular choice to get married in.” Bianca and Mick Jagger’s marriage was a prominent one, where she wore a suit with nothing underneath. Princess Anne also got married and wore a clean puffy sleeve gown, with layers of ruffles in different tiers at the bottom.
1980s: The Big '80s
The event dubbed the "wedding of the century" happened in the ‘80s: None other than Princess Diana’s wedding. “Princess Diana wore a dress so big you couldn't even fit it into the coach,” says Kaye, “It was considered fantasy and it set the precedent for all other brides."
Following this iconic moment, other prominent bridal styles that came about were big shoulder pads, plunging necklines, and puffy sleeves.
1990s: Mixed Bag
“The 90s is a mixed bag,” reveals Kaye, “Think of American royalty John F. Kennedy Jr. marrying Carolyn Bessette, and that slip dress. Clean, clean, clean—there wasn't an ounce of anything on that wedding dress. Carolyn Bessette was widely acknowledged as setting the standard of what a wedding dress looked like for the ‘90s.”
Another notable name that became popular? Vera Wang. The former magazine rose to fame as a ready-to-wear designer, and later a world-renowned name in bridal fashion.
The 2000s marked the rise of weddings outside of the church, so women no longer needed to cover their shoulders. Strapless dresses became popular, and brides also started to experiment with different silhouettes. “The turn of our century still showed a lot of looks that felt like the 90s, which tended towards more minimalism,” shares Dr. Abrego, “the fashion pendulum swinging in the other direction after the very voluminous ‘80s.”
2010s: A Royal Affair
The most notable bridal mention for the 2010s is that of Kate Middleton and Prince William's wedding. The royal bride wore an Alexander McQueen gown, designed by Sarah Burton, featuring a bodice that was padded on the hips, an eight-foot train, and lace sleeves. The Duchess of Cambridge also wore a Cartier tiara borrowed from, none other than, Queen Elizabeth, to pull together the entire look. As a result, brides everywhere were inspired to replicate her iconic, hourglass silhouette, defining a new era in bridal fashion.
Present Day: Social Media
“Today styles are more pluralistic and turn over is quicker, so the options are limitless,” shares Dr. Abrego, “The pace of social media means that styles can be seen by the world instantly, and any designer's idea can be reproduced more quickly.” In an age where trends on Instagram and Tik Tok come and go in the blink of an eye, bridalwear is also being shaped by what's made popular by the social media influencers of today's generation.
“Throughout history, bridal fashion has been mostly inspired by family and cultural traditions, as well as celebrity weddings that probably helped to disseminate trends more than anything else,” Idcavage notes. “And the lasting influences of Queen Victoria’s and Princess Diana’s wedding dresses are proof of that claim! However, while movies stars and royalty may have had the greatest impact on what brides aspired to look like in the past, social media influencers have helped to democratize who brides look to for style inspiration in more recent years.”
However, one thing for sure, the history of bridal fashion is set to repeat itself, as it has in the past—just this time using a different medium. But in all, the sentiment remains the same—brides will always want to look their absolute best on one of the biggest days of their lives.