Sometime ago I found an interesting dress from the 1950's in a thrift shop. It was pretty in it's own unusual way so I bought it with the view to one day using it for a photo shoot. This shoot evolved into a study of vintage bridal wear covering the bulk of the last one hundred years. A variety of suppliers willingly loaned me vintage dresses and accessories to help bring my concept into reality. I was very fortunate to also have time donated to me by models, a hair and make-up artist, a florist and many friends who were part of the process. In addition to satisfying my creative urge, I also made many new friends during my excursion into the history of vintage bridal wear. It was an exhausting but wonderful experience.
A little bit of trivia: Did you know that the white wedding dress became en vogue as a result of Queen Victoria wearing white for her wedding in 1840? Up until then fabric for a royal wedding had often been gold or silver, but as the Queen was already 'the Queen' before she married, she instead chose to wear white adorned with lace to encourage support for traditional textile industries effected by the industrial revolution. White cloth was much harder to manufacture for some years and remained a colour of choice only for the very rich. The rise of the middle class in the 19th century led to an increase in those able to afford white fabric wishing to emulate royalty. Everyone else simply wore their best dress, or a dress that could be easily altered and worn again. However, it wasn't until fabric bleaches improved and white could be produced economically that the white wedding dress became available to everyone.
When going back through the history of wedding dresses over the last century, it makes sense to start in the 1920's. This period in fashion, after World War I, was influenced and defined by rapid sociological change. The removal of distinctive elements of pre-war dress and customs consequently had a big impact on women's clothing. Did you know that, according to our friend Wikipedia, in 1917 the US War Industries Board asked women to stop buying corsets to free up metal for war production? This allowed for saving of enough metal to produce two battleships!
The post WWI sense of optimism and prosperity also changed women's roles in society. More women started attending college and going to work, and marriage, which would previously have taken place around the age of 18, was now delayed until the mid to late 20's. Western women had gained the vote and gender roles became less polarised. Previously worn constrictive and corseted dresses were moved aside to make way for the popular boyish look that defined the flapper dress of the 1920's. This first part of the century was one of the starting moments in the feminist movement which influences the way women live today, so of course changes in fashion were a natural extension of the era.
The Cloche(french word for 'bell) hat first appeared around 1908 and by 1916 had evolved into it's distinctive close fitting style. Despite appearing 10 years earlier, it is considered the iconic hat of the 1920's. The cloche in the images below is most likely made from Baku straw. Originally from Thailand, this material didn't make it to the West until 1926. The upturned brim of the hat and it's art deco styled broach puts it in the mid to late 1920's. I'll let you do the maths to assess how old this beautiful hat actually is. Thank you to Maudie's Millinery, who provided the cloche and the dress, for loaning me these wonderful and original pieces!
1930's and 1940's
In the years leading up to World War II, women's fashion was defined by two main things, the Great Depression and Hollywood. The economic slump which began in late 1929 and continued through much of the 1930's meant the roles of women largely took a step back to the pre-WWI era. A decrease in job availability encouraged women out of the workforce to enable men to remain the dominant breadwinner. In Hollywood the Motion Picture Association of America decided to lift its morally questionable image by adopting the Hay's Code in 1930. The 1920's Hollywood had consisted of some risque films and a few off screen scandals which did not paint the industry in a good light. Overall there was a return to previously conservative ideology. Shoulders and breasts were covered up and the feminine waist returned.
Whilst the frugal sensibilities of the Depression Era encouraged simple and non-flamboyant designs in some respects, the struggle of day to day life also drew people to the cinema as an escape. Glamour became the new black. The emergence of the bias cut, made popular by French designer Madeleine Vionnet, allowed for greater use of satins, silks, crepes and chiffons which draped across the feminine curves. The look and feel of the 1930's was long, figure hugging and sultry. The glamourous woman remained the ideal as the suffering from the depression waned in the late 30's. It was during this period that wedding dresses were first marketed as the wedding 'gown', a term previously held only for royalty and the rich upper class.
As World War II came along, rationing came with it. Silk was in high demand for parachutes and by 1938 rayon, first introduced in 1910, had become popular. The first part of the 1940's bridal fashion was influenced by an overall lack of materials and the wedding dress became more simplified, often borrowed as weddings were organised quickly. After the war there was an abundance of weddings and demand frequently outstripped supply. Although rationing ended in the US in 1946, it wasn't until 1948 and 1949 that clothing rationing ended for Australia and Great Britain respectively. Fabric remained scarce and many brides still borrowed their dresses well into the 1950's. Silk parachutes left over from the war were promoted as useful sources of fabric. How different things were then! Still, there was a distinctive look that came with the fashion of the time which incorporated long dresses matched with long sleeves tapering at the ends. Wax blossomed headpieces were a popular way to finish off the look. It was during this post WWII era that some manufacturers were able to hold their place within the industry and bridal branding began to emerge largely due to the huge demand for wedding gowns. The post war era boom was beginning.
A little bit of trivia: Queen Elizabeth II, (then princess) was married in 1947 at Westminster Abbey and although she had a designer for her gown, even she was required to use ration coupons to buy the material for it.
A big thank you to Can You Keep A Secret for loaning me the original vintage gowns featured below!
The dress below was originally worn by Lara's nan. It is circa 1946 and made entirely of lace. I have no idea how they managed to acquire the material for an all lace dress at this time, but it's safe to assume they were a wealthy couple. The other features of the design are typical of those from the era however.
Thanks to Lara's family for loaning me this beautiful dress and to Maudies Millinery for providing the original wax flower headpiece!
Dress and accessory providers
Hair and Make-up - Nicola Gangemi
Models - Lara Crompton, Emma Dorwood and Nate Swindale
Flowers - Emma Blak
Sylist - Ateca Roberte
Second Shooter - Jane Osborne
Assistant - Mike Wallace
Thank you also to the following websites for their useful information: