Here comes the bride, all dressed in - black? Designer collections over the last two seasons have struck an unconventional chord in bridal wear. From Vera Wang's gothic gowns to short hemlines at Oscar de la Renta, nothing seems sacred anymore in the highly traditionalist world of puritan romance. Do these unconventional dresses reflect changing attitudes about women and marriage; or are they merely another trend in the fashion turnstile? The history of bridal wear may hold some answers.
Bridal wear has always been sewn in superstition, and never more so than in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. White symbolized purity and innocence, but was neither a practical shade nor a popular one. Blue dresses were preferred for their association with the Virgin Mary, fidelity, and starry-eyed eternal love. If brides couldn't have a blue dress, they would make sure to have something blue on their person - a tradition still followed today. Pink was also popular because of its ability to flatter almost any complexion and its association with girlhood.
Wealthy brides chose gowns not only to represent themselves but, more importantly, to represent their family's social status and affluence. They were expected to cast their families in the most favourable light, and thus often splurged on rich colours, bedazzle-style gems, and even layers of fur. However, most brides were from the lower classes and couldn't afford coloured gowns as one-time wears. Grey became one of the most popular bridal shades because it could easily be recycled as Sunday best.
Queen Victoria first popularized the white wedding dress in 1840 when she wore one to wed Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg. Just as Duchess Kate's bridal frock inspired a million and one knockoffs, so did Victoria's. But it still wasn't until the late eighteenth century, thanks to the introduction of cheap machine-made fabrics and muslins imported from India, that white bridal gowns began to cross class lines.
|Scarlet wedding dress from Vivienne
Westwood's S/S 2011 collection
The Great Depression and the post-WWII recession threw wedding garb back into the hands of frugality. Elaborate white weddings dresses were once again only for the most fabulous nuptials while everyone else did the best with what they had. Even those lucky enough to don white on their big day would purchase designs that could easily be dyed and worn again. As the twentieth century wore on, the economy rebounded and television broadcasts of celebrity and royal weddings made the white dress a ubiquitous must-have.
So while one might be inclined to see shorter weddings dresses and black garb as statements on the liberation and independence of modern women, history points to a different conclusion. Bridal wear, unlike couture, is made to sell to the masses and thus designs are more likely to reflect changes in consumer culture than designers' sociological imaginations. While everyone loves a good feminist argument, it seems these new trends are once again linked to the two strongest influences in bridal wear history: economics and celebrity.
It's likely that the downtrodden economy has caused some women to seek dresses that can be altered and worn more than once. Non-traditional colours (in the late twentieth century sense of traditional) make it easier to do this, as do hemlines more in the spirit of cocktail dresses than Cinderella. Not to mention shorter dresses require less fabric and thus are often easier on the wallet.
|Blue cocktail-length wedding
dress from Oscar de la Renta's
Spring 2012 collection
Social media and personal branding have turned many brides into self-made mini celebutantes. Everything, especially their wedding day, is about the spotlight and a strut down the aisle more worthy of an E! Special than the eyes of God. These brides want dresses that reflect their "signature" style, make an impact, and in a throwback to the seventeenth century, reflect their social status. This has created a demand for standout dresses that convey distinct messages and inspire awe.
Actual celebrities, whose names can be written in the same sentence as the proper spelling of clout, have also impacted this style shift. From Kate to Kim, 2011 has been the year of the prolific wedding. Endless media saturation of these fairytale nuptials (notwithstanding the results of Kim's marriage) has finally spurred a counterculture demand for significantly unique bridal wear after almost a century of white gowns.
Love it or hate it, get used to this new breed of bridal fashion. With some of the most influential names in the business on board, it might only be a matter of time before black is the new white.
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