A Lovely History – Vintage Wedding Dress Exhibit

In January, the McCarl Gallery hosted a special exhibit of vintage wedding dresses. As we celebrate Valentine’s Day, we look back on the development of American wedding fashions.


Queen Victoria of England is certainly the wedding dress’s most famous and influential trendsetter. At her wedding to Prince Albert in February 1840, Queen Victoria donned a white satin dress, a surprisingly plain diversion from royal wedding dresses of the past. Brides who could afford dresses with extravagantly designs and rich embellishment, such as jewels, embroidery, velvet, or fur, took the opportunity to display her wealth.  Brides of modest means simply wore the nicest dress available to her, no matter the color. After Queen Victoria, however, the color white took precedence. Princesses in England followed the Queen’s color palette and simple dress structure, which included high necklines and long sleeves. The white wedding dress became a standard by the Twentieth Century. 


In the Twentieth Century, magazines, catalogs, and department stores featured the latest trends. The invention of cinema popularized fashions to the growing middle class. Movies put forward innovative styles, such as shorter dresses and the flapper dress, while also bringing back romantic styles of old, including large medieval gowns.  

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With the Great Depression and World War II, little money in Americans’ pockets and rationing cut back on luxuries, especially those associated with weddings. After the war, economic prosperity funded the resurgence of traditional fashion. Wedding dresses again featured a ball gown cut and subtle decoration, as in the two dresses featured in the picture above on the right. The 1970s saw unique breaks from tradition with the creation of modern, high-fashion dress styles, such as the mermaid cut, featured on the left in the picture above.


Dress details have been re-imagined throughout history – the dress in the top picture (1970s) is heavily beaded, while the two lower pictures (late 1800s) are intricate yet delicate.  

Today, wedding dresses are incredibly diverse and are chosen to compliment a bride’s individual personality and style. Although fashion has seen many changes and trends throughout history, weddings remain one of the most exciting rites of passage in a person’s life.

Read more about wedding dresses at these online resources referenced for this blog post:

Historic Costume and Textiles Collection – Wedding Traditions

Monroe County Historical Association – History of the Wedding Dress


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