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