Wedding Dress Silhouettes Through the Years

Written By Sharon Bell

Posted 03/07/16

Updated 04/01/24

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For many brides, their wedding dress is the most poignant symbol of their marriage, woven with symbolism and tradition as well as fashion and style. During the Fashionable Romance: Wedding Gowns in Film exhibition, we are thrilled to offer our guests a glimpse into bridal fashion spanning the 1700s to 1930s, showing how historic trends still influence today’s brides.

All of the costumes seen in Fashionable Romance were designed and made for the screen, but still adhere closely to the period they represent. Each was designed by Cosprop, a well-known design house that prides itself on authenticity, accuracy, and detail in recreating exquisite costumes. From dramatic full skirts of the 1700s, to sleek and slim fashion silhouettes of the 1930s, the gowns exhibited in Biltmore House tell a story of evolving styles and tastes.

One of the most intricate gowns displayed is the dress worn by Keira Knightley as Georgiana Cavendish in the 2008 film, The Duchess; designer Michael O’Connor won an Academy Award for Best Costume Design for his work in the film. This dress is an excellent illustration of a formal dress in 1700, with a wide silhouette and full skirt held out horizontally by panniers or hooped petticoats. In this film, the Duke of Devonshire is seen cutting the wedding dress from his new Duchess, which is accurate for this era, as many brides would be sewn into their dresses.

Well into the 1800s, the average women’s wedding dress was simply her best dress and it wasn’t until later that the white wedding dress became standard fare. During this time, dress silhouettes became slimmer and empire waistlines were popular. The gowns worn by the Dashwood sisters in the 1995 film, Sense and Sensibility are very different yet accurate to each woman’s status. Emma Thompson, playing Elinor Dashwood, wears a simple muslin dress and crushed velvet spencer jacket in her marriage to the refined but poor minister, Edward Ferrars, played by Hugh Grant. It’s a clear contrast to her sister’s marriage into wealth, in which Kate Winslet as Marianne Dashwood wears a detailed beaded gown with a full length petticoat. 

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, small waists were the desired look; to achieve this, corsets were commonly worn to draw in the stomach paired with frills on the bodice. High necklines and collars were popular, as represented by the gown from the 1996 Hamlet worn by Julie Christie, displayed in Mrs. Vanderbilt’s Bedroom.  Brides during this period also favored veiled hats and long trains—styles that are beginning to resurface in today’s bridal fashions.

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