I do! Wedding Dresses from 1800-2000

National Museum of Costume in Portugal

From the collection of the National Museum of Costume in Portugal

Wedding dress 1800-2000
The Wedding dress is today, and has been since the XVIII century, the most emblematic element of the whole wedding feast. In contemporary times, the woman is enveloped in white for two reason: first, because Goddesses wore white, for the statues made in their image, be they Greek or Roman, were sculpted in white or pink marble and to this was added a value issued created by the Romantic mentality. 

The elements which are symbolic of marriage are the veil, the bridal wreath and the rings which are exchanged reciprocally and which express the idea of linked destinies.

Wedding Dress

To wear cotton garments was, at the beginning of the 19th century, a very daring act and to choose for one’s wedding gown a starry white was even more audacious. Fashion, as well as ideologies, came from France.

Josephine and Napoleon were that period’s archetypal lovers. They chose white and gold for their consecration ceremony as Emperors.

The whole of aristocratic Europe then adopted white, not because society and families wanted to convey their daughter’s maiden virtues, but because they wished to emulate the French and wear clothes which resembled those worn by the Goddesses of Greek and Roman mythology.

This fashion endures in the bridal gowns beyond Napoleonic times, as can be seen in the dress worn by a Portuguese bride married in Brazil, in 1838, which still reflects the taste of the beginning of the 19th century.

Wedding Dress

The bride with a low neckline, very much to the Romantic taste of the 1840s, suggest the importance the wedding had in the life of a girl, being the golden moment for which she wears a gown resembling in everything a ball dress.

The latter is organized in two parts: a very tight and corseted bodice, finishing with an accentuated triangle and a skirt. The colour white, the veil and bridal wreath give this dress its nuptial symbolism.

While the first Romantic trend is discreet and light, accentuating preferentially the volume of hairstyles and sleeves, the second Romantic movement, which this dress illustrates, heightens woman’s silhouette, by using more opaque textures and a huge inner armature designated as a crinoline.

The low necklines disappeared and the sleeves are wide, but in a different movement from the l830s ones, for in the 1850s it is at the height of the upper arm that the sleeves open, in a revivalism clearly inspired by the seventeenth century.

The form of the silhouette adapts to the current fashion, that is to say, the skirts are huge with a volume provoked by an subjacent structure - the crinoline.

The dress is composed by two items, the very tight and whale boned bodice and the skirt.

Wedding Dress

The enormous volume of the crinoline became larger as the years went by, leading in the end to its elimination, or rather, its substitution by a volume displaced to the posterior, called “tournure” or “cul de Paris”.

The walking stance was light and rhythmic, with small steps. The beads which decorate this dress contribute largely to heighten the delicious “frou-frou” effect.

Wedding Dress

This dress illustrates very well this coquettish trend, enhanced by the surcharge of ornamental beading, also place asymmetrically.

The decorated diagonals and the triangles transmit the current taste and date this item to 1885.

One of the characteristics of the last quarter of the nineteenth century is exactly the high collar, which will tend, as the century ends, to go up to the chin.

The bodice is tight, ending in a triangle as was the fashion, marking the wearer in a sexual fashion.

The most interesting characteristic of this work is its cut, for it is not the usual two pieces as was the rule in the 1880s but a whole dress, with a tailored cut, more in the lines of what would later be designated as a “robe-manteau” (a coat-dress).

It is, therefore, to be considered a very avant-garde work, bearing the influence of the famous English clothes designer Worth, who worked in Paris for Empress Eugenia, Napoleon III’s wife.

The skirt of this wedding dress has a bell-shape like an inverted corolla which evokes in its contour the appearance of a flower, which at this time was the idealized image of woman.

It is interesting to verify that the flounces which create the interior finish function so that the fall of the skirt is not abrupt and vertical but, on the contrary, oblige the fabric to remain slightly raised.

This technique creates the desired “frou-frou” effect ... The bodice is close to the body and has a very narrow belt. This wasp waist is achieved with the use of high whalebones which favour the bloused effect of which this dress is an example.

Wedding Dress

This dress evokes immediately a summer wedding or a wedding in very hot weather, for the sleeves are short.

The bride would never enter the church or present herself before the guests uncovered in this way. It would be considered a lack of modesty. Gloves were, therefore, an indispensable accessory. Fashion dictated that the collar be very high and straight, up to the chin; small whale bones supported the structure.

The waist is very narrow, a “wasp-waist” as it was designated, from which issues an extraordinarily flounced skirt falling in a bell- shape, as was the fashion at the time.

The whale-boned bodice compresses the waist and pushes the rounded bosom upwards, forming what was called a “turtle dove breast”.

The floral motifs of the fabric are related to the Art Nouveau movement, as is the bell-shape of the skirt.

The collar is high, datable to the beginning of the 20th century.

This dress, which has straight cut, still maintains a structural link with the”Belle Epoque”, by the use of Guipure lace, but above all by the high collar which characterizes women’s clothes at the beginning of this century.

The train of the dress, geometric and rectangular, prefigures the typology of the trains which will be worn in the Twenties.

The main characteristic of this dress is its lightness and transparency.

At this time the influence of the “Ballet Russes” played an important role in bringing to Western fashion many exotic notions, among which are the styles taken from the “Thousand and One Nights”.

This dress is a Portuguese interpretation of the fashion revolution proposed by the designer Poiret. Although dated slightly later, it follows the innovatory precepts of the line created by that famous and celebrated French Couturier.

This represents a revivalism of the Directory style on the one hand, and on the other a renewal of the silhouette for the figure gains an Empire-like stance , fashionable at the beginning of the XIX century.

Poiret goes back to it with the intention of freeing woman and abolishing the whale boned corset which, apart from being uncomfortable, was vehemently condemned by a small, but influential group of contemporary physicians.

The main characteristic of this dress is its geometric cut.

Therefore, I believe that one can state that in this garment there are two major influences - the Western which manifests in the white tonality and the silk texture and the Guipure lace and the Eastern by the introduction of a tunic which gives the dress a monastic quality.

This dress is entirely made of lace of exceptional quality, giving the garment its rich appearance.

On the other hand the cut is very simple, reminiscent of the high-waisted Empire dresses designed at the beginning of the century by Poiret and Doucet.

The Empire cut is still detectable, although the waist had dropped slightly towards its natural anatomic place.

The bodice is slightly bloused, fastened with a large ribbon, marking the division with the skirt.

Wedding Dress

It should be emphasized that during the 1920s there was a deep revolution in the world of fashion, provoked by the end of the First World War of 1914-1918 and by the euphoria generated during the post-war period.

This dress, with its minimalist characteristics, is wholly representative of the 1920s. It has a wide cut which, in a certain sense, hides woman’s femininity.

The waist is non-existent and the amplitude of this great rectangle is caught on the left, leaving the skirt to fall a little.

The most interesting characteristic of this garments lies in its ambiguity.

On the one hand it is a geometrized dress, short in length and very representative of the 1920s in its texture as well as in its decorative elements.

We cannot forget to mention two important fashion revolutions: the event of short hair and of make-up.

Wedding Dress

Therefore, although the dress is conceived with a taste reminiscent of the previous decade’s fashionable trends, the fabric and the slanting cut look forward to the fashion which will characterize the Thirties.

The train is quite long and malleable.

This is obtained by a tightly flounced ruffle, which widens progressively and lets the fabric fall, with no lining, light and malleable.

The result of this composite design is a bride very much to taste of the 1940s, sober but sensual and with a gliding movement.

The main characteristic of this wedding dress consists in the way the fabric was laid down to be cut, on the bias.

This technique was invented by the famous French fashion creator Madeleine Vionnet who conceived a type of garment which is fluid, very feminine and malleable, accompanying the curves and counter-curves of woman’s body.

This dress is very interesting in its design for the ornamentation of the bodice recalls a waistcoat.

The sleeves have the usual 1940s shoulder-pads; they are narrow and long, flowing down below the wrist onto the hand.

The fabric which is malleable is perfectly adapted to the design, for all around the body a series of fine nervures create small horizontal lines which emphasize the verticality of the bride’s dress and constitute its sole decoration, creating for this reason an impression of great sobriety.

The main characteristic of this dress is its huge, enormous, very ample train. This amplitude contrasts somewhat with the simplicity of the dress’s cut in what could be described as a sober style.

The use of shoulder pads which enhance the upper silhouette, giving a somewhat virile, affirmative stance. As we know, it was during the war that women took their place among men, making way for an authentic and conscious emancipation.

This wedding was celebrated the year after the end of the war, so we can detect here that ceremonial display has become rather timid and unostentatious.

Wedding Dress

Once into the 1950s, the bride begins to show a greater appetite for pomp and for a visual effect that is richer and more theatrical.

This decade nicknamed The Happy Years corresponded to the end of the war and to the intense desire to live and extract the maximum pleasure out of existence.

This period corresponds to the event in fashion of the New Look (Dior, 1947) which becomes gradually popular in our country, so the bridal gowns gain a new amplitude in the large skirts topped by a small and very marked waist.

In the fifties the authoritarian regimes fell, although this did not occur in Portugal where these were years of a strict, religious sense which, together with the current political power.

It is, therefore, understandable that girls should dress as if they were going to their first communion with bodies restrained up to their neck and a flounced skirt,the only richness being in the beauty of the fabric.

Grace Kelly’s wedding to Prince Rainer provoked the greatest visual impact, both scenic and social.

In the West, the brides started to imitate the star-princess from that day onwards, using and abusing of the same materials, the same dress pattern, the headdress, the veil, down to the smallest details.

Wedding Dress

There is a compromise in this gown which is evident when one observes it in two parts.

From the waist upwards, everything points to it being the dress of a maiden. From the waist down, it could be a ballroom dress, since its skirt is very ample. The fact that it is made up with two different materials lends it suppleness and dynamism.

This bride must have been married in the summer for she chose a fine, light and transparent fabric, organza.

She opted for simplicity and left behind the desire for pomp and circumstance which characterized the marriages of the 1950s.

It is a very classical design where the intention was to convey some splendour by the integration of a long cape which issues from the shoulders in a regal way.

The main characteristic of this 1960s dress consists in the use of satin for its confection.

It was a fashion theme which was adopted at the time by the middle classes in European countries and by some of the crowned heads who were married during that decade.

The most interesting elements which make up this dress are the two ellipses which mark the design.

The first, smaller, is designed between the shoulders creating an orbit from which the head of the bride emerges as a royal star.

The second orbit is structured and open, the cut starting just below the waist and opening out into an enormous ovoid shape which ends by composing the train.

This gown seems to evoke space voyages and the fascination exerted by the cosmos.

The novelty and originality of this dress lies in the use of a wide pink organza ribbon which draws a strong and thick vertical line.

The innovation in this kind of garment consists in the outward use of an element which was used in the olden days as underwear.

This kind of ribbon and bow were often applied to undergarments and, therefore, this reference, quoted here in daytime wear, signals an inversion or a change of meaning.

A heavy shantung was used to make this dress in the Empire line, also designated as the Princess line which was taken up again in the 1960s by Pierre Cardin.

The richness of this dress lies in the brilliance which emanates from the sequins and beads which shimmer with rainbow colours, a highly desirable effect for a bride who wishes to be, simultaneously, discreet and luminous.

In a very unusual initiative this dress was made from a maternal grandmother’s “Belle Epoque” costume, in 1965, well before revivalism became fashionable.

This adventurous composition was idealized by the bride’s mother, transmitting the affection, cultural inheritance and family history in this project. The result is a mixture of contemporary elements and Art-Nouveau ones.

Wedding Dress

Dating from the 1970s, years which correspond to the revolution and to major social changes in Portugal, we have this characteristic dress.

The unusual touch of the dress is its stylized lace design featuring pink tulips.

The 70s were marked, simultaneously, by various avant-garde typologies and by the beginning of the revivalism which is associated with the end of the century and, in this case, the millennium.

It is in this context that this dress can be dated to the 1970s. It is a Neo-Romantic piece, for the lace and the silk nervures are evocative of the blouses worn at the beginning of the century.

This dress was worn twice, once in the sixties, when it was conceived and manufactured and another time when the bride’s daughter got married, thirty years later. We can, therefore, observe that the original gown, with all its characteristics, is very similar to a ball dress.

The immense amplitude of the silk net skirts are very “New Look”, very close to the current neo-Baroque taste. The low cut bodice, held up only by small straps or no straps, leaves the shoulders bare. This was nicknamed “fall, fall” by the boys and was very much the fashion in James Dean’s time as was the bolero, which was a short jacket covering the bare shoulders.

In this way the dress was appropriate for church and for the following drinks and obligatory dance. The visual impact of this gown explains why one of the daughters chose to wear it on her wedding day, revealing the revivalist feeling prevalent in the 1980's.

Wedding Dress

This dress comes from a shop which specializes in bridal gowns and it should be mentioned that nowadays this choice is available to prospective brides. The main feature of this dress lies in the type of sleeve chosen.

It is a revival of the Renaissance sleeve. Between 1820 and 1830 this kind of sleeve made an appearance and this is true of the 1980s in this century.

The simplicity of this dress has its counterpart in the long lace veil, executed in silk thread, worn with a small tiara of pearls and diamonds.

This dress was created by the bride who was trained as a fashion designer and wanted to “sign” the garment she was to wear on her wedding day, fashioning her own image with an inventive spirit, a sense of freedom and feminine consciousness.

Wedding Dress
Stylistes Contemporains

Manuel Alves/José Manuel Gonçalves introduced into this exhibition a very hermetic colour, related to the 1950s This tonality emits the intensity and the density of cement and concrete architecture mixed with the blond patina of certain old bronzes

This evocation is possible due to a perfect, masterful cut, a feeling of idyllic summers, an image which belongs to the Happy Years when capitalism reigned and conquered, a time of financial abundance.

Eduarda Abbondanza/Matos Ribeiro wanted to be present in a rather literary way, linked to our imagination. From children’s fairy stories they took the image of Little Red Riding Hood for its theme of the innocent little girl, crossing a forest.

The dress chosen for Little Red Riding Hood is transparent, indicating her fragility and vulnerability. The values of the Romantic tradition are quoted here by a white embroidery characterized by quality and formal rigour.

Nuno Gama is the great name of the 90s, belonging to a cultural avant-garde and specially aware of values relating to national identity.

This young author present a bride dressed in satin, wearing a costume composed of a rather long coat worn with trousers. These are a heritage from Courrèges, the French designer who, in 1965, substituted skirts by trousers in his fashion shows.

This garment is also affiliated to the famous Yves Saint Laurent smoking with an added decorative touch.

Olga Rego proposal is related to the value of our national patrimony in textiles, for example the Island of Madeira and her characteristic embroideries. To create a bride with the typical Madeira embroideries was the challenge Olga Rego set herself here and the result was a costume in which the originality lies in its transparency.

The vision offered to us is of an intimate garment which is, on second thought, an outer one composed by shorts and by a corset with an innocent flavour, recalling the 20s underwear fashion. As we can observe, the result is almost provocative and naughty, daring us to look. The visual impact is very romantic, an effect which is accentuated by the width of the sleeves.

José António Tenente lent to the National Costume Museum a wedding dress made in a coloured fabric. The colour chosen is difficult to describe, since it can be seen as a pastel yellow evocative of the tonalities used by Watteau, which is to say related to the late Baroque values, the creme tones used in the Rococo style. Beige can be associated with white tonalities which have yellowed with time.

The fabric chosen is the one used during the 1930s for the confection of hats. The fashion designer created a very feminine bride - in this case a professional photographer. The fluttering quality of the material links this dress with the ballroom dances of the nineteenth century, where it would have whirled to the sound Strauss’s waltzes.

The Bride has the place of honour in this ceremony, both in the religious as in the civil wedding and her dress symbolizes the idealization of woman, as mother of the whole of humanity.

The wedding dress follows faithfully the fluctuations and alterations of fashion, in its formal and structural aspects.

Credits: Story

Texts: Madalena Braz Teixeira
Translation: Márcia de Brito
Online exhibition: Cândida Caldeira
Collection: National Costume Museum in Portugal
Photos: ©DGPC/ADF

- PORTUGAL. Museu Nacional do Traje; TEIXEIRA, Madalena Braz Teixeira; trad. Márcia de Brito - Traje de Noiva : 1800-2000. Lisboa : Museu Nacional do Traje, 1996. ISBN 972-8137-52-4

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