The 18th century wedding dress: then, and now

The 18th century was the dawn of the modern wedding dress: it saw the first emergence of white dresses as a trend, the first dresses specifically for weddings, and it is the oldest century from which we have a reasonably large selection of extent dresses.

The 18th century is also a very popular era among this blog readers, and is a stunning, and unusual (at least at the moment) era to draw dress inspiration from.

So let’s look at some 18th century wedding gowns, and some more recent 18th century inspired wedding gowns.

First, a complete ensemble with excellent provenance, from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.  No, it’s not white.  And most modern brides aren’t into bonnets, but it still has so many elements I would instantly steal as a wedding dress designer.  That fabulous quilted petticoat…  The pinked fabric framing the face and bust…  The beautiful sleeve ruffles… Or you could just wear the dress exactly as it is, as it’s already a thing of beauty.

Wedding dress, 1742, Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Next, another coloured wedding dress.  The shape of this one isn’t quite so elegant, and the reproduction petticoat and front aren’t helping, but it’s still a charming design.  You can imagine  a woman wearing this to her wedding, and to many a gala afterwards.  Also, I want that fabric.  And a bride who wants a patterned floral dress.  Patterns are way too under-used in modern wedding dresses!

Wedding dress, 18th century, American, Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Now, how about a white dress?  The provenance of this stunning ivory frock as a wedding dress is not certain, as it is based on family history, but it’s certainly not hard to imagine a bride trailing down the aisle in it, feeling like the most beautiful women in the world.  Of course, I have to like this dress – I used it as a reference for Lady Anne Darcy’s wedding dress – my recreation of a 1780s wedding dress!

Robe a la francaise, probably a wedding gown, 1775-1780, V&A

Those poofs around the neckline, the puffs on the skirt, the hanging tassles…oh…it’s all so beautiful!

It’s not white, but we do have another example of a single coloured wedding dress, and I love it  It’s so elegant and simple, and that fabric is totally drool worthy!

Wedding dress, 1776, American, Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Moving on, this isn’t an actual wedding dress, but the doll’s outfit was made by the bride using scraps from her actual dress, so probably represents a reasonable copy.  Alas, the image does not show us the colour of the dress, but we can deduce that it was a light fabric.

Doll in a wedding suit, Mrs Powell, 1761, Collection of the V&A

Once again we see the most common elements of 18th century wedding dresses: the open skirts, the delicately patterned fabrics, the sleeve ruffles.

With a pattern established, how has the 18th century influenced later wedding dresses?

A particularly gorgeous example is this wedding gown from the early 1880s, which combines 18th century inspiration with Victorian taste with masterful flair.  It’s definitely a case of the best of both worlds!

Wedding dress early 1880s Met

Borrowing elements from the 18th century must have been a popular trend in 1880s wedding dresses, as evinced by these two examples

Wedding dress, 1881, American, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Wedding dress, 1881, American, Metropolitan Museum of Art

I don’t like the first one so much, though the very early 18th century inspiration is intriguing – it looks more like a manuta than a robe.  Isn’t the second one fabulous though?  The colours, the tassles, the lace sleeves, the collar, the smooth bodice…I love them all!  It really reminds me of the white V&A 1775-1780s dress.  If I had been married in 1880, this would have been my dress, hands down!

The 18th century stayed a popular inspiration period for the next decade, even inspiring one royal wedding dress:

Mary of Teck's wedding gown, 1893

The inspiration is slight, but the open skirt, pointed bodice, and luxurious tone on tone fabric all evoke the styles of a century and a quarter before.

Moving into the 20th century, what about this 1963 wedding dress, from Victor Stiebel’s final collection?  In some ways, it is stark and modern, completely unlike the 18th century.  The influences are still obvious though: the pleated watteau back, the 3/4 length sleeves, the pleating on the skirt, and finally, the faint patterning of the moire fabric all evoke the Georgians.

Wedding dress, 1963, Victor Stiebel, V&A

And what about today?  Where to look if you want an 18th century inspired wedding gown?  Well, there isn’t a lot out there!  You can go with designers who do beautiful but literal and slightly costume-y reinterpretations, or you can get a dressmaker to custom make you something.  Alas, you aren’t going to get Watteau pleats, 3/4 sleeves, flat stomacher fronts, or pinked trim in the collections of mainstream wedding dress designers, and even classic looks such as open front skirts are few and far between.  I guess it just isn’t the trend right now.  I guess we’ll have to change that!

22 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Tilia says:

    I love the Stiebel dress! Watteau pleats in a 60’s dress, so cool!

    • Aren’t they fab? A couple of designers did this actually, and they were worn for a few high profile society weddings (with matching just above the knee length identical bridesmaid dresses!)

  2. T. Sedai says:

    Stunning! I actually do like the pattern dresses (especially the 2nd one – so pretty), but I also don’t generally look good in paterns, so I don’t know if I could actually wear such a thing.

    1776 single color dress – LOVE the fabric. Love.

    Early 1880s dress & second 1881 dress – I would seriously wear either of those. They are absolutely AMAZING. Serious dress love.

  3. MrsC says:

    Agree,more patterns would be great!! I’ve made several dresses closely inspired by both styles of 18th C fashion, but alas no photos to share. I’d love to see more polonaises and robes a l’anglaise type weddign dresses, they were in in the early 90’s when historical inspired dresses were THE thing, and hopefully the trend will return.

    • Elise says:

      Man–I miss the 90s and all of the fun historical elements. What a fun decade!

      What do you think of the corset-top and fully bottom? The bottom part has widened over the years, but I always thought it looked vaguely reminiscent of how we imagined underwear in the 19th and 18th centuries. Ok–18th century underwear a decade ago, but still…

      • Are you asking me or Mrs C? I know the corset top and full bottom are inspired by Victorian underwear, or (if the corset is very flat fronted) 18th century stays, and how good they are depends entirely on how well done the ensemble is.

        • MrsC says:

          If you’re talking about the 90’s fashion for corset topped dresses with full skirts (which I adore!) then yes I remember them being pretty underweary – probably enhanced by the ivories and whites :) They weren’t generally very historically accurate either, especially in construction, only superficially inspired, but lots of fun :) I made heaps of them and I so miss the variety; dresses with hoops, figure hugging, fishtail, pleated, just about everything. Not just the same old A line over and again *le sigh*

          • Elise says:

            It was all fun, wasn’t it? And my high school self loved the dresses-even if they weren’t correct. Thanks to both of you for your thoughts.

  4. Steph says:

    I think my design for Kate’s dress will draw heavily on that Stiebel. It’s pretty perfect for her- trendy-vintage but not over the top, pretty, grand but quiet. Make it up in Ahimsa silk to raise awareness for ethical silk, and we have a royal wedding dress…

  5. MD Smith says:

    “Borrowing elements from the 18th century must have been a popular trend in 1880s wedding dresses”

    1876 – 1883 were the Centennial celebrations of the American Revolution and fashion strongly reflected this, just as in 1976.

    The Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition “The Ceaseless Century”, curated by Richard Martin, broadly explored design 18thC elements’ recurrence in fashion. One of my favorite dresses in that exhibit was a pretty little number in blue/yellow/white @ 1910. No time to hunt up the pic right now.

  6. Taylor says:

    I saw somewhere in a wedding magazine a recommendation for gowns with watteau backs. Check this out:
    http://www.myidress.com/Mermaid-V-Neck-Watteau-Train-Satin-Wedding-Dress-For-Brides-2010-Cheap-Simple-Wedding-Dresses-Myiwdsi0904_p13407_dress.html

    Not exactly watteau but reminiscent!

  7. Gail says:

    I loved everything on the cream wedding dress with the ruching.
    http://thedreamstress.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/W-Dress-early-1880s-Met.jpg
    Personally, I dont like the modern styles because they are so plain and cookie-cutter dull. Plus I cant really see why they would be so expensive at times (probably because they resemble decked out white prom dresses to me) whereas I can see why the historic ones would be expensive because they have more to them than pretty draping.

  8. Laura says:

    Would eny one happen to know where i could get a wedding dress made with the 18th century style? Im having a maquarade (if spelt rite) themed wedding and my dress has to really stand out and i love these styles. Any info would be greatly appreciated :) x

    • Laura,

      Congratulations on your engagement! If you are looking for a 18th century masquerade themed gown, I’d suggest you either contact a local seamstress, or, if you want something a little more accurate (and probably a bit more spectacular), go with a historical costumer. There are a number of historical costumers online who do 18th century gowns, including myself. They aren’t cheap though – I charge $3000+ for gowns similar to the reproduction 18th century wedding gown in my portfolio.

      Good luck in finding the perfect dress!

      Kind regards, Leimomi

  9. Jennie says:

    I was wondering were I could find a pattern for the first dress on the page?

    • Hi Jennie,

      I don’t use traditional commercial patterns for historical garments, so can’t direct you to a straight-out-pattern, but do have links to helpful sources for building a robe a la francaise on this page. I also use Janet Arnolds scale patterns extensively.

  10. Heather Griffin says:

    When do you think white dresses were adopted for weddings…I have seen some 18thc dresses purporting to be wedding dresses the earliest in my collection is 1850 I also have an 1870 1 piece wedding gown in cream silk which I think is unusual BUT I have an 1863 wedding dress in brown silk with dyed beds lace to decorate which is exquisite and was an expensive dress in its day

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Leimomi Oakes is the Dreamstress, a textile historian, seamstress, designer, speaker and museum professional. Leimomi is available for educational and entertaining presentations, textile and fashion advice, special commissions and events. Click to learn more

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