The Evolution of the Royal Wedding Dress

From Queen Victoria to the excitement over Meghan Markle's gown to be revealed on May 19, how the royal brides' style has changed (and not changed) over the years

By Cydney Contreras May 17, 2018 10:00 AMTags
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Lace, trains and long sleeves are just a few of the attributes that come to mind when describing the wedding dresses worn by royal brides when they married their prince charming.

Unsurprisingly, those same styles that drew gasps of envy when the brides stepped out of their carriage or Rolls Royce, were versions of the same style that have been worn by nearly every bride for years to come. Whether it was a classic white dress, as made popular by Queen Victoria, or the jaw-dropping lace dress that Kate Middleton wore when she married Prince William, the royals have consistently set the bar for bridal fashion.

One of the original trendsetters was the strong-minded Queen Victoria. She had perhaps the most profound impact on bridal fashion considering the influence she had for decades to come following her choice to wear a white lace dress for her nuptials to Prince Albert in 1840. Believe it or not, before Victoria opted for her white lace gown, white had been a rather unpopular color choice among brides-to-be. Her decision, which was both a political and stylistic choice, began the era of white bridal gowns that has continued to this day.

And contrary to modern-day brides, Victoria chose the delicate color, not for it's symbolism of purity—she used orange blossoms to symbolize that instead—but to highlight the handmade lace that she and her team of advisers had chosen for the special day.

Meghan Markle's Designer Dossier
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According to Vogue, the young bride is also to thank for creating the tacit "rule" that only the bride could wear white to a wedding—only it wasn't so tacit in her day. The then 20-year-old had so looked forward to marrying the man of her dreams, that she explicitly forbid guests to wear white to the ceremony, so as not to detract any attention from the queen.

Following in her footsteps was Queen Elizabeth II, whose 1947 wedding served as a grand escape from the economic hardship so many English people were facing in the aftermath of World War II.

In preparing for her big day, the princess saved up her wartime rations, which she combined with 200 coupons she was gifted from the government for the special occasion in order to pay for her cream-colored dress and 15-foot-long veil. Her admirers wished to help their future queen and sent her their own rations—but the royal family returned any donations, as it was illegal to transfer coupons at the time.

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The bride more than made do with what she had and designer Sir Norman Hartnell created an ornate gown made of silk, embellished with 10,000 seed pearls, all in under three months. Hartnell wrote that the dress' design was inspired by Botticelli's painting "Primavera," which he hoped would evoke a sense of "rebirth and regrowth" in the wake of the war.

Perhaps no royal wedding dress caused such a sensation—and provoked such mixed feelings—as the elaborate confection created by David and Elizabeth Emanuel for Princess Diana in 1981. The Emanuels, tasked with crafting a gown fit for a princess, were tasked with maintaining the utmost secrecy in order to protect the grand reveal when Prince Charles' 20-year-old bride ascended the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral.

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This was no easy task for the design team, especially considering the princess' growing popularity among the public and the lengths the paparazzi went to to dig up any clue as to what then-Lady Diana Spencer's dress might look like—including going through the trash of the Emanuels' studio.

David Emanuel reflected to E! News in 2017 about the life-changing experience, which included tracking down British silk worms and installing special blinds at their studio to shield the goings-on inside. "After the announcement, my tiny little studio and the roofs and every other conceivable building in the neighborhood were surrounded by paparazzi, long lenses, everything, every agency in the entire world," he said.

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The finished product was the result of barely three months of intense planning and fervent sewing, all with an eye on creating a real showstopper. And the nerves never ceased till Diana was on her way down that aisle—she had lost weight in the weeks leading up to the ceremony and her waist reportedly shrunk from the originally measured 27 inches to nearly 23 inches on the day of the wedding.

Her lace and silk gown with the blissfully '80s-style puffy sleeves would set the tone for a decade of decadent wedding dresses all over the world.

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By the time the Kate Middleton married Prince William in 2011, however, the style that Princess Di made famous in the eighties was long gone and had been succeeded with a more modern, steam-lined style. With the help of Alexander McQueen designer Sarah Burton, Kate donned a dress "marrying traditional fabrics and lacework, with a modern structure and design," reminiscent of Grace Kelly's when she became the Princess of Monaco in 1956.

The satin gown that the Duchess of Cambridge wore when she climbed out of the Rolls Royce was an understated but elegant gown with a train that reached a mere three meters, and featured delicate hand-embroidered needlework of roses, lilies and shamrock. And in the days following the televised wedding, designers like Valentino and Donatella Versace described the dress as a timeless and "classic Grace Kelly look."

Still hoping to emulate and pay honor to the mother-in-law she never got to meet, whose engagement ring she's been wearing since William asked for her hand in marriage, the Duchess of Cambridge also sewed a blue ribbon into her dress as Diana did she married Prince Charles.

Kate's dress is still replicated by brides all over the world, with the retailer H&M making a look-alike of the instantly classic gown for the masses.

And while little is known for sure about the dress, or even the designer, that Meghan Markle has chosen to wear when she marries Prince Harry at Windsor Castle's St. George's Chapel—initial clues were pointing to Ralph & Russo, but confidence in that guess is waning—the former Suits actress appears to be keen on following most of the royal wedding protocol, despite some seemingly nontraditional choices thus far.

Perhaps like Kate, Markle may take inspiration from another iconic look, while also taking into account her own style, royal tradition and all the other incidentals that go into picking out the most important dress she'll ever wear. The world can't wait to see how it turns out.

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