There’s no outfit, frock, or piece of fashion that’s quite as iconic as the wedding dress. The gown—which can range from ultra-simple to extraordinarily elaborate—serves as the focal point of millions of weddings each year. “For many, wearing a wedding dress is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” says the head designer at Amsale, Michael Cho. “A wedding dress is designed to frame the beauty, and exude the radiance of someone who is the very center of attention at one of life's most memorable events.”
Meet the Expert
Michael Cho is the head designer at Amsale, a New York City bridal house that specializes in modern wedding dresses.
While you probably know that bridal gowns are special, there’s more to their allure than just being a beautiful item of clothing you wear while walking down the aisle. From how wedding dresses are made to their regal history, here’s an intimate look at the beloved bridal gown.
The History of Wedding Dresses
Even though it seems like wedding dresses have been around forever, the white, embellished gowns date back to the 1840s, explains Cho. This was all thanks to Queen Victoria, who wore a cream-colored silk and lace gown for her wedding to Prince Albert.
Prior to the fashion-forward Queen’s matrimony, wearing white was typically reserved for women being presented in court, while royal brides wore a variety of colors on their big days and non-royals donned their nicest outfits. After Queen Victoria’s nuptials, however, other influential leaders channeled her elaborate white gown style for their own special days. Cho explains that white dresses for the everyday bride became popularized in the United States during the early 1900s, gaining even more traction after WWII.
As for the modern wedding dress, Cho says that dates back to the 1980s. In fact, when designer Amsale Aberra couldn’t find a more contemporary silhouette for her 1985 wedding, she set out to create a chicer option herself. “[Amsale] eschewed the overly ornate—which was on-trend in that era—and crafted her own pared-down design that was elegant in its simplicity and quiet in its impact,” he explains. “Since then, Amsale has been widely credited as the inventor of the modern wedding dress.”
How Are Wedding Dresses Made?
Today, wedding dresses are securely part of the marriage celebration and there are more options than ever to choose from. Ballgowns, breezy boho styles, chic sheaths, and vintage-inspired ensembles might seem vastly different, but they all start from the same place: inspiration.
I look for inspiration all around me. It can come from travel, art, icons.
“For each new collection, I create multiple mood boards, gathering photos and ideas that will inform my designs,” explains Cho. Beyond that, it’s a whirlwind of fabric and embellishment selection, design sketches, mannequin draping, and pattern creation. From the conceptualized vision to brides receiving their gowns and saying “I do”, keep reading to learn how most modern wedding dresses are created.
Before a bride can decide whether or not she’s found "the one", the design team has to first dream up the dress itself. For Cho, this means zeroing in on the emotion the gown will evoke, such as romantic, sensual, nostalgic, or playful.
“This is a team process and is very important as we discuss concept, silhouette, brand, and market needs,” he notes. To ensure each garment is true to the desired aesthetic, Cho and his team create the aforementioned mood boards to help guide their design work. “I look for inspiration all around me,” he says. “It can come from travel, art, icons—I love to create and tell a story behind the mood board.”
The Fabric Sourcing
After determining what a gown will look like and what feelings it will invoke, designers have to gather the fabric, embellishments, and beading needed prior to making their first stitch. Sourcing the material is timely and can take anywhere from three to four months, Cho explains.
“For each collection, we select fabrics and embellishments based on the inspiration and mood boards, often working directly with the mill or beaders to create our own unique fabrics.” And once everything has been selected, the waiting process begins. Fabrics typically take about 60 to 90 days to arrive at a designer’s workshop, Cho shares, while beading can take over a month depending on how complex it is.
While some plain and solid fabrics are stored in-house at designers’ ateliers, most come from fabric mills in exotic places around the world. “Many designers have favorites they work with again and again,” Cho says, and depending on the type of fabric he’s looking for, he’ll source from various mills based on their specialties. A few of Cho’s favorites include family-run lace mills in Calais, France, small family-owned silk mills in the Lake Como area of Italy, and specialty beading and fabric manipulation houses in India.
The construction of the gown is, naturally, one of the most time-consuming components of the whole process. It all starts with the inside foundation, usually consisting of the corset and petticoat. “These are extremely time-consuming to make; it can take hundreds of yards of tulle for the inside skirt and petticoat,” Cho reveals. And since Amsale—like other luxury bridal houses—hand cut and hand sew their gowns to guarantee quality and precision, the meticulous internal creation process can take months. Once the silhouette of the gown is complete, next comes the outer fabrication and details such as hand-placed lace or embellishments.
If this is a new design that’s being considered for a future collection, it’ll then be fit and refit multiple times before getting a final review from the head designer. Upon receiving approval, the wedding dress is then presented to buyers and editors during Bridal Fashion Week. “That’s how brides get their first glimpses of the design,” Cho explains.
If you’ve ever wondered why brides have to start shopping for wedding dresses so far ahead of their wedding dates, it all comes down to production time. “It’s important to remember each dress is created specifically for each bride,” explains Cho. In fact, most bridal gowns are made-to-order (unless you buy a wedding dress that’s pre-owned or off the rack) and expensive to make, so designers typically don’t have many premade gowns sitting around.
“Fabric must be sourced, any embellishments must then be created that match the fabric (often involving meticulous handwork), and then each garment must be cut to size and sewn one by one by skilled artisans,” Cho says. Since patterns are based on each bride’s measurements, designers don’t even begin construction or sourcing until a to-be-wed officially places their dress order.
Then once the gown is made, Cho explains that it goes through quality control prior to shipping to ensure embellishments are secure and the design is perfect. The preparations aren’t over when the bride receives the dress, though. “It takes multiple fittings and alterations before the final wedding gown is ready to be worn,” Cho notes, which is why he suggests ordering your dress at least eight to 10 months before your big day and leaving two months for alterations.
What Makes Wedding Dresses Different From Other Dresses?
While it’s clear wedding dresses are iconic to wear and time-consuming to make, what actually makes them different from other formal gowns? Cho says it comes down to craftsmanship, customization, and quality.
“By definition ready-to-wear gowns are purchased off the rack. Generally, a wedding dress is completely made to order, never tried on or worn by anyone else, and then tailored to fit the bride perfectly,” he explains. Not only is the gown made just for the bride, but it usually has elements such as boning, a train, or layers upon layers of fluffy tulle that aren’t typically seen in non-bridalwear. Plus, there’s the whole “it’s white dress” component that’s now traditionally reserved for bridal gowns in the formal market.
Outside of the aesthetics, the process to receive a wedding dress is much longer than your standard formal frock. And once you receive your gown, it usually requires more fittings and tailoring than a standard special occasion dress.
Some dresses require over 1,000 pins to craft the ornamentation.
Finally, as you’ve probably noticed, wedding dresses tend to be more expensive than other formal gowns. This all goes back to that time-consuming creation, far-off fabric sourcing, and quality of craftsmanship. “Some dresses require over 1,000 pins to craft the ornamentation—the construction techniques used will make the dresses expensive,” Cho explains.
Ultimately what makes a dress wedding-worthy isn’t the price or whether it’s marketed as a wedding dress. It’s that the style reflects who you are and how you envision your special day. Whether that means rocking a designer wedding dress, a vintage suit, or something out of your closet, Cho says as long as the outfit expresses yourself and your love story, you’ll be sure to wow.