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Front Page » June 22, 2006 » Bridal Focus » A Dress for the Occasion
Published 3,397 days ago

A Dress for the Occasion

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Shannon Heugly stands in front of a three way mirror looking at the wedding dress she has on. Wedding dresses weren't always white, but since the mid-1800's it has become the standard for brideswear. However, while the color hasn't changed, the style has.

When the bride in white comes down the aisle to tie the knot, often fathers will mutter to themselves, "There goes my little princess."

And in that white dress, dad may be saying something closer to the truth than most would realize.

That's because the tradition of a wedding dress, really started with princesses, in the days when royal weddings were arranged and the girl who was marrying, often to bring two countries together, needed the prestige, charm and elegance of a dress fit for, well a princess.

Interestingly, these dresses weren't always white, like they are today.

In 1840 the marriage of Queen Victoria to her cousin Albert of Saxe-Coburg changed the trend from many colored wedding dresses, toward what we know today. Queen Victoria put the white peddle to the metal by marrying in white. Though brides continued to wed in gowns of different colors for years, after that white was the color of choice for weddings and has continued until the present day. White is considered an emblem of the purity and innocence of girlhood, with the marriage changing a young woman into an adult.

There are few more universal symbols of a life change for a woman than the wedding gown. It is unique amongst many kinds of garb a female will don in her life. Weddings are among the three most important events in a life, with the other two being birth and death, and the only one that the person who is living the life can really celebrate. The point of the wedding dress is to take the beautiful bride and enhance her position in the eyes of those in attendance and particularly in those of the groom.

"Most grooms don't want to see the dress the women pick before they walk down the aisle," said Loni Giraud of Giraud's Weddings and Formal Wear in Price. "And the groom should have their breath taken away by the sight of the woman they are about to marry in a beautiful dress."

In the olden days, royalty used as much material as they could in the construction of their dresses, and much of it was the most costly as well. Cloth consisted of velvet, silk, satin, fur and fabrics woven with gold and silver thread. In the days when all fabrics were hand spun, woven and dyed, and economical use of it was the norm, the skirts would be gathered and full, the sleeves would sweep the floor and trains would fall behind to a length of several yards. Colors would be very rich with only the wealthy able to afford expensive red, purple and true black dyes. Often the dresses would be adorned 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, and the dress would be so heavy that attendants had to help the bride around.

In the case of Queen Victoria she was also the first royal bride to have bridesmaids to carry her train too, which also set a fashion trend that stays with weddings to this day in some places and at some times.

But as the world changed and royalty became less and less important. As middle classes throughout the western world grew in stature and wealth, more common people began to emulate the dresses of the past. However, still without the total wealth of royalty, traditions changed and so did the dresses. In more modern times with factory made materials, the symbol of the bride in her train has lost its original meaning, but instead has become a tradition.

Loni Giraud shows Shannon Heugly one of the many dresses she carries in her shop.

The color of white for a dress has some interesting beginnings. Before the advent of modern medicine, a long and healthy life was not often achieved. So superstition became the point of many a tradition. Many superstitions grew up around weddings, to bring about a woman's happiness in her new home and of course to ensure fertility. The color of the gown was a popular source of luck. White was of course always a favorite which symbolized a females virginity and innocence.

At one time the idea of a reusable wedding dress was a fact that women accepted. Sometimes women would even dye it a different color and remove certain parts of it to use as for formal wear or even for Sunday dress.

But with the advent of the 20th century, things began to change dramatically. In the 1920's 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 20th century to the development of a separate style in bridal wear which echoed, but often diverged from mainstream fashion.

The change became even greater when during World War II when frivolous clothes became something that was looked down upon, with shortages of almost everything looming in the western world. Often women just got married in their best dress, or in some cases in a uniform should they be part of the branch of a service.

After the war when fashion returned everyone wanted to wear long gowns in luxurious fabrics on their wedding day, due to the years of sacrifice of not having such luxury. As fashion has become more relaxed over the years, so wedding styles have diverged more, so that although each decade's brides are easily distinguished by the styles then in fashion. And the wedding styles haven't necessarily parroted the styles of general clothes either, yet at times have stayed close to fashion designs in one way or another.

The early 1960's showed little change from the late 1940's and 1950's on the bridal front lines. 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 style. By the middle years of the decade, however, things began to change as lifestyles and the revolution in all things began to affect even wedding dresses. Influenced by mod designs, some women got rid of the veils and put on floral bonnets or even floppy hats.

Sleeves were the big feature of 70's dresses, with flowing cuffs. 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 very popular, whether actually two layered, or just giving the effect with a contrasting sleeve and bib front.

The 1980's sent the message that every bride wanted a fairy-tale crinoline and tiara. Waistlines had already returned to their natural position. It seemed every bride wanted to be Princess Diana after the royal wedding was broadcast around the world on television in the early part of the decade. 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.

The 1990's brought about 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.

Loni Giraud fits a tiara to Shannon Heugly's head. There are many kinds of accessories that go along with a wedding dress.

In this new century wedding planners and designers are seeing a lot of new things coming down the pike, but styles are somewhat changing because people are changing their ideas, their desires and their image of style.

"People see their wedding dress as a unique statement," said Giraud. "Each person is an individual and they often go with a theme. It is something many girls dream about their whole lives."

One of the things many dress suppliers are finding today is that dress sizes are growing as Americans get taller and bigger. This isn't just anecedotal supposition either; it's a fact that has been proven by studies of the population over and over again.

"We can alter dresses, but only to a certain point," indicated Giraud. "We have one inch of play on each side. However, these days we carry a wide range of sizes from 0 to size 30."

Despite the fact that Giraud has over 100 dresses in her shop, she often finds that people want something different, and that is when special orders are put through.

"We have a lot of books to look at in the shop," states Giraud. "One of the companies we deal with, California Bridal, can ship within 72 hours of the order,"

Because of changing tastes and ideas, Giraud says it is getting harder and harder to know what to order so people will be satisfied. With a shop that allows viewings by appointment and also takes people who just walk in, she is never sure what each day will bring.

"I just try to keep lots of styles and sizes on hand for people," she said.

While women come in various sizes their ideas about what should be worn at a wedding is also very diverse.

"I have taken care of brides who were 16 and others who were 33," points out Giraud. "Some want modest dresses, others are looking for more immodest designs. I often have women ask me how they look in something they are trying on. For instance one may want a halter, but maybe that is not the best choice for her. I guess what I really see a lot of is daughters who have a very different opinion compared to what their mothers think is the right thing to wear."

In the 10 years Giraud has been supplying wedding dresses to the area she says she has only had one bad experience and that was when a groom accompanied a bride to pick out the dress.

"I didn't quite know how to deal with it," she stated. "Often fathers, mothers or sisters come with the bride, but seldom do grooms show up unless it is to look at mens wear. This guy came in and started taking photos of the girl in all the dresses she was trying on. It just didn't sit right with me."

As for accessories, Giraud has seen changes there too. Women are doing a lot of tiaras and still some veils, although the veil over the face has become less and less common.

Colors in wedding accessories, mens wear and in bridesmaids gowns have changed a lot in 10 years too.

"When I first started teal and silver were big colors, now things have turned to black, red and white," states Giraud.

Regardless of the changes, one thing is still for sure. Women want to look their best on their wedding and dresses may change, but the breathless beauty is what they are going for when they buy.

"It's a great business," she says enthusiastically, "I don't think I would want to do anything else."

Historical sources for this article include The History of the White Wedding Dress by Kelsey McIntyre and A Brief History of the Wedding Dress in Britain by Elizabeth Davies.

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