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How To: Spot a Bona Fide Vintage Wedding Dress
Each decade has a signature style that it’s most recognised for, and it mirrors the fashion that was popular at that time. We have a look at dresses from the 1920s to the 1970s, to give you some vintage inspiration for your wedding.
The Roaring Twenties were a decade of androgynous style, where women cut their hair short and rebelled against tight corsets and full skirts, in favour of baggy bodices and sleek, straight dresses. The most recognisable feature of this era is the dropped waist, and together with a loose-fitting bodice, it made women look flat-chested, hipless and quite boxy. Gowns were often sleeveless, necklines were a simple scoop or slight V, and hemlines crept up to the knee and then back down to mid-calf by the end of the decade. This shorter length was considered quite risqué, so many brides compromised by having an angular hem; short at the front and long at the back.
Wedding dresses from the twenties were usually beige, cream or ivory – not white - and they frequently incorporated geometric designs that were typical of the Art Deco movement. Although women chose to wear more masculine-inspired clothing, they embellished their outfits with delicate lace, detailed beading and flapper dress fringing, which gave their gowns an ethereal quality. If you’re inspired by this decade, don’t forget finger waves, T-bar shoes, a cloche hat and wine red lips.
Trend: Simple style with an athletic, boyish look.
Defining features: Dropped waist, straight lines and rising hem.
Fabric: Silk, cotton, linen, wool (usually mixed with cotton or silk), chiffon, jersey, georgette – with geometric Art Deco patterns.
Embellishments: Furs, feathers, fringing and beading.
Hollywood had a huge influence on fashion in the thirties, and brides looked to movie stars for inspiration. Gone were the tomboy shapes of the twenties – the female form was once again celebrated. The poor bust (which had been strapped flat for the past 10 years!) was now emphasised, and dresses became more feminine and sensual.
Aside from poofy sleeves everything else was fitted, from the bodice to the skirt, making slinky, sheath-style silhouettes the most common bridal choice, as it showed off a woman’s curves. The waistline moved back up, while the hemline headed south.
The Great Depression had a significant effect on the wedding industry, as lavish materials were too expensive for most people to buy. This is when rayon shot to fame, as it was a more affordable option. To emulate Old Hollywood opulence, wear faux fur, kitten heels, flamboyant veils or hats and of course, the visual cherry-on-top, bright crimson lips.
Trend: Modest Hollywood glamour and Parisian couture.
Defining features: Broad shoulders, cinched waist, bias cut skirt and often backless dress.
Fabric: Rayon, wool, velvet, cotton, satin, chiffon, crepe, silk - usually in floral or Art Deco prints.
Embellishments: Fabric or beaded flowers around the neckline and bows on the waist.
In a decade dominated by a war, it’s understandable that the conflict restricted and shaped fashion. Materials were scarce, which meant brides would sacrifice glamour in favour of pragmatism. Styles also became more conservative, with minimal accents and fewer embellishments. Sleeves were typically long and fastened at the cuff, and necklines were lacy and sweetheart-shaped but demure.
Women had to contribute to the war effort, and with this active role in a range of industries, their wardrobes began to look distinctly manly and military. Brides wore dresses with broad, slightly padded shoulders and a slim waist, and it was acceptable for women to wear pants. In a practical (but nonetheless romantic!) gesture, soldiers would bring back their parachutes, so that future fiancées could make them into wedding dresses. To save money brides ditched the veil, shortened trains and sewed hemlines to just below the knees.
Trend: Military inspiration, pants and repurposing old dresses
Defining features: Square shoulders (using shoulder pads), sweetheart neckline, trim waistline, shorter hemlines and peplum towards the end of the decade.
Fabric: Rayon, crepe, taffeta, faille, chiffon, wool and satin. Silk and nylon were restricted but you could use silk from parachutes.
Embellishments: Buttons and embroidery, and to add sparkle brides used sequins and glass beads on the bodice.
The fashion industry shrugged off the cautious style of the war-ravaged forties, and gave femininity a welcome home hug. With the war over, brides had a renewed enthusiasm for glamour and they wanted to wear luxurious fabrics like lace. Sweetheart, scoop and halter were the favoured necklines but they were often covered with a batching bolero – to preserve your modesty - and gloves were a standard accessory.
Brides accentuated their hourglass figures in dresses that had a high collar, corseted waist and a full skirt, and the most fashionable dress style was the tea length. This generally had a stiff petticoat underneath to lift, shape, and give the skirt volume. The short dress also meant that more attention was paid to shoes, and pretty stiletto heels were the footwear of choice. There was also an emphasis on foundation garments, with bullet bras and girdles doing heavy duty shaping.
Trend: Return to femininity
Defining features: A fitted bodice, cinched waist and flared skirt.
Fabric: Silk, cotton, wool, rayon, nylon, taffeta, tulle, chiffon, acetate and polyester – in solid colours or floral prints.
Embellishments: Beading on the bodice, sashes on the waist and pleated skirts.
The fun and flirty sixties embraced a range of styles, from the leggy mini-skirt to the floaty maxi dress. The nipped waist that was characteristic of the previous decade disappeared, and was replaced with shift dresses and baby doll styles that once again hid the body. Simple cuts – like the A-line and Empire - were preferred by brides, as were collarless outfits and scoop necklines. When it came to sleeves, dresses either had none or they were bell sleeves.
It was important for women to express their individuality during the sixties, and their quirky taste was shown through their accessories. Bouffant veils and pill box hats were the most popular headwear option, and brides regularly wore matching box jackets.
Trend: Modernity, the Space Age and inspiration from the youth
Defining feature: Straight lines, waist-less shift dresses and hemlines above the knees
Fabric: Polyester, nylon, acrylic, acetate, crochet, jersey, cotton, tulles, chiffon, taffeta – in bright colours, psychedelic prints, and bold stripes.
Embellishments: Daisy motif lace, oversized buttons, fur or feather trims, and bows just below the bodice.
This decade is one of the harder ones to nail down, as there wasn’t one dominant fashion trend, but rather a bit of everything. The seventies began with hippie chic, turned up the glam with disco, and ended with punk, so during these 10 years everything was acceptable.
Hemlines tended toward either the long, flowy and ethereal, or short and revealed a lot of skin. There was a return to the natural waistline, dresses had bishop or angel sleeves, and many women chose to get wed wearing a pant or skirt suit. On the accessory side, brides wore caplets, dangling earrings and big floppy hats or Juliet caps.
Trend: The “Me Decade” where you embraced your individual style
Defining features: From mini to maxi dresses, and princess gowns to pant suits
Fabric: Blended fabrics, polyester, rayon, cotton, chiffon, crochet, machine-made lace, wool, jersey – in floral patterns, flashy prints and ethnic designs.
Embellishments: Traditional elements like lace, beading and sequins, and a dust ruffle just above the hem or ruffles on the sleeves were popular.
Many modern brides are choosing to add a vintage element to their wedding. It can be a subtle touch, or an entire theme, but taking inspiration from a bygone era adds a bit of history to your day. Whether you’re going to be a roaring bride in a flapper dress, or a newlywed in a lace mini-skirt, make sure that your something old stays true to your personality and style.