Unlike a good cocktail dress, which is designed to be a workhorse in a woman’s wardrobe, a white or cream-colored wedding dress need only dazzle its audience once. Unless, of course, it's a used wedding dress, either passed down from a beloved relative or picked up at auction or from a favorite vintage shop.
The trend for white wedding dresses started in 1840, with the union of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Prior to Victoria's wedding, most brides wore whatever fashionable hue they wanted, since they were likely to wear the dress on other occasions. Breaking with tradition, Victoria selected an elaborate white dress featuring a long train, a bridal veil, and a crown of white blossoms. Victoria's choice of white was viewed as quite conservative since it was historically the color for mourning (decades later, Victoria would make black the defacto mourning color when her beloved Albert died). However, mass-media coverage of her wedding made her style an instant sensation, influencing brides to this day.
At the beginning of the 20th century, with the Belle Epoque in full swing, Edwardian brides were cinched into tight corsets, which were covered with wedding dresses made out of chiffon, lace, and taffeta. But by World War I, the practice of squeezing women into hourglass shapes was giving way to more natural looks. After the war, wedding dress hemlines had crept far enough off the ground to reveal a bride’s ankle.
Hemlines continued to rise throughout the 1920s, producing wedding dresses that were relatively revealing in the front with a flowing train in the back. Dresses got long again in the ’30s, were generally straight, and for the first time were equipped with a detachable train, which allowed a bride to take her solemn walk down the aisle but then cut a rug on the dance floor after.
The 1940s was a schizophrenic decade when it came to fashion, and wedding dresses were no exception. During the war years, wedding gowns followed the overall trend of boxy, broad shouldered, military silhouettes. By the late ’40s, though, all bets were off as miles of previously rationed fabrics were lavished on wedding dresses and gowns. In some cases, wedding dresses were even made from silk salvaged from surplus parachutes.
Wedding dresses returned to full femininity again in the 1950s, with tight waists and full skirts below. Sleeve styles ranged from full length to almost none at all, while necks could be left open or collared. These varied looks remained consistent into the next decade, except for those adventurous brides who chose to be married in short numbers that ended well above their knees. By the 1970s, some women dispensed with the wedding dress altogether, trading tradition for the sophisticated look of an Yves Saint Laurent white tuxedo-jacket suit.