The middle decades of the 20th century—between the 1920s and the 1960s—are considered some of the most romantic years in the history of European and North American bridal fashion. But what makes these styles so recognizable and why do brides still love them so much?
As brides across Canada shop for their own gowns, we thought it fitting to undertake a celebratory trip through the recent history of bridal fashion to pin down just what made these gowns so beautiful and their impact so lasting.
Here’s our recap of the most romantic wedding dress trends of the 20th century.
1920s Wedding Dresses: Flapper Fashion
The Roaring 20s were noted for luxury and indulgent attitudes towards art, fashion, and la vie Bohème (the Bohemian life). This culture, especially prominent in Europe, has given us iconic imagery of dancers in flapper dresses, the cabaret, and one of the first occasions where the wider population felt and embraced the impact of modernity. New technology, like talking movies, made everyone optimistic for the future.
No wonder the gowns of this era were so celebratory!
1920s wedding dress trends were marked by classic flapper fashion: sometimes sleeveless, loose fitting gowns that fell to mid-shin. These gowns were often adorned with tassels or gemstone accents and often incorporated the traditional white or ivory colour along with elements of gold or silver.
To dream up your own 1920s gown, look no further than popular contemporary movies like The Great Gatsby (2013) or Midnight in Paris (2011) for fun meditations on this classic era of bridal fashion.
1930s Wedding Dresses: Modest Flair
By the time the 1930s arrived, bridal fashion had found a new modesty. Bridal fashion took much inspiration from the still revelatory phenomenon of talking movies and women wanted their own gowns to emulate silver screen fashion.
For the wealthy, gowns became bigger and more lavish than they had been in the 20s. For middle or lower class women, embracing new fabrics became a powerful way to take part in a quickly modernizing world of fashion.
For many, this meant embracing silver screen silhouettes—like long trains, capes, modest necklines and form-hugging fits—in comparatively affordable fabrics like rayon or silk. These gowns were often unembellished but their simplicity made a strong statement.
1940s Wedding Dresses: Trim and Tailored
The 1940s brought hardship and wartime. As economies began to struggle, families did too—many couples were forced to delay their weddings or, in opposition, marry very quickly. As a result, bridal fashion pivoted to a similarly modest but more joyous style.
Many brides embraced more affordable fabrics like rayon or jersey; some were even wed in non-traditional colours, including patterns. High necklines and cap sleeves were a mainstay, but 1940s wedding gowns often had more shape than those of the 1930s.
Bodices often had more structure and the waistline nipped in a little more; gowns were often also adorned with striking sculptural, architectural embellishments in lieu of expensive fabric or other adornments.
These gowns managed to pay homage to the traditional legacy of the modest, white wedding gown while finding a defiant, celebratory tone. The structural elements found in 1940s gowns are still an excellent way to make a statement in an otherwise simple contemporary gown.
1950s Wedding Dresses: Ball Gown Fever
The “princess” ball gown to which the wedding world has become accustomed first found popularity in the 1950s. After the war ended, designers again sought to capture an optimism in their work; gowns became shorter, more voluminous and, well, more fun.
Tea length gowns found popularity amongst minimalist brides while big, bold ball gowns, both with and without straps, rose to prominence amongst the trend-setting crowd. It was from this era that bridal fashion truly became the spectacle we know today. The idea of the “perfect gown” emerged and the middle class began budgeting more and more for the dress of a given bride’s dreams.
The ball gown craze was also driven by the proliferation of mass consumer media. For the first time, films like Cinderella (1950) became simpler to access, home television sets became more common, and magazine ads for bridal fashion found their way into the hands of brides-to-be. In the 1950s, therefore, the rapidly changing fashion trends now familiar to bridal fashion became truly entrenched. Today, 1950s-style gowns continue to inform bridal fashion trends—perhaps more so than any other decade.
1960s Wedding Dresses: Modern Gowns for Modern Women
In the 60s, short shift dresses, graphic eye makeup, and bold patterns marked the sartorial industry. For brides, there was no exception: bridal gowns were more likely to be short, less likely to be well fitted, and were often nontraditional. Highly structured silhouettes gave fascinating shapes to bridal gowns, while birdcage veils and pillbox hats became commonplace.
While some brides continued to embrace the ball gown style of the 1950s, brides in metropolitan centres like New York, Los Angeles, London, and Paris took up new trends. This move away from traditional gowns mirrored the growth of the feminist movement, which began troubling the notion of the white gown—and the institution of marriage altogether!
In response, some brides opted for simple civil ceremonies with anything but a typical wedding dress. This was exemplified by Audrey Hepburn, who married her second husband in 1969 wearing a pale pink shift dress with a wide funnel neck and matching pink slippers.
The message of 60s bridal fashion is one we can all still embrace today: on your wedding day, just wear whatever makes you feel best. The history of global bridal fashion is so varied that the only thing which really matters is your own happiness in finding your uniquely perfect gown.