And the Bride Wore...
Brides and what they wear have always been cause for gossip. But in the early 1900s, brides and their fashions weren’t just fodder for quilting bees—they were the subject of countless “news” articles and photographs.
Consuelo Vanderbilt & the Duke of Marlborough
It perhaps all started with Consuelo Vanderbilt, who married the Duke of Marlborough in 1895. This wedding attracted widespread attention not simply because through it “American royalty” and old stock European royalty combined, but also because so much money was involved on the part of the bride. (At the end of the ceremony, Consuelo’s ultra-rich father, William Vanderbilt, signed a check over to the groom for 2.5 million dollars plus 50,000 shares to one of his railroad companies). But what most captured the public’s attention was the clear fact that Consuelo hadn’t chosen her groom. She was kept under guard until the minute she walked down the isle, supposedly to keep her from running away with the man she really loved. This was the stuff of romance novels and popular plays. (Over 30 years later, her first marriage was annulled by the Catholic Church because it was found Consuelo had been coerced into signing a civil marriage contract.)
But despite all that, Consuelo was at least dressed to the hilt. Some period sources say her silk gown was made by the famous designer Charles Frederick Worth, but there are also stories of shock that say her gown was made by an unknown American lady dressmaker. It seems likely the Vanderbilts' wanted their daughter dressed by the most famous dressmaker of the era—Worth. Certainly they were very controlling over their daughter and were constantly trying to lift her up in society. Then again, perhaps Consuelo managed to gain some control over this aspect of the marriage and used it as a subtle statement against her parents and future husband. Whatever the case, the gown was lavish, with the humongous sleeves of 1895, a tightly corseted waist bound off with a wide sash, and a wide choker of pearls around her long, elegant neck.
The Duchess of Albandy & Prince Leopold I
A happier and more traditional marriage was that of the Duchess of Albany to Prince Leopold I (Queen Victoria’s youngest son) in 1905. The Duchess’ gown harkened back to an earlier age and was nothing if it wasn’t sumptuous and in good taste. She wore a crown of jewels and flowers supporting her long tulle bridal veil, her shoulders were bare and her short sleeves were adorned with jeweled symbols of royalty. Her bosom was swathed in tulle and ruched laces and was set off by a small bouquet of flowers. Her waist was tucked in neatly with a corset and her bodice was sharply V–ed to accentuate her good figure. Her skirt was ruched and trimmed like—well, like royalty. She was the ideal young bride. Every young woman wanted to be like her. And according to period photographs, on their wedding day many turn of the century brides were able to achieve a similar affect.
Sibyl Cadogan & Lord Edward Stanley
By the time Lord Edward Stanley (Earl of Derby) married Sibyl Cadogan in 1917 (pictured right), the fashionable bridal dress had transformed dramatically. Simple styles were favored, and Sibyl was the height of this new simplicity. She wore a long (but not floor length) dress, swathed at her narrow hips, with plain long sleeves, and a V–ed neckline. Her stockings—which actually showed!—were plain white. The only hint at bridal sumptuary was her veil, which did not fall over her face, but covered her head and fell backwards—and was long enough to require an attendant to keep it from dragging the ground.
Elizabeth Bowes–Lyon & the Duke of York
Lady Elizabeth Bowes–Lyon married the Duke of York in 1923 (pictured left) with all the pomp and circumstance expected of royalty, despite the fact the she had twice refused his proposals. (A hint at the sumptuousness of the affair: The wedding cake weighed 800 pounds and was filled with real gold charms.) Her gown was typical of the 1920s, but the look was softened from what Sibyl wore. The skirt reached the ankles, had a train, and was trimmed with lace. The bodice was entirely of lace, featured long sleeves, and was practically hidden by a lace veil. The bride herself designed the gown, and the veil was later lent to the future wife of King George VI.
Majorie du Cross & R.A. Jenks
In 1932, when Marjorie du Cros married R.A. Jenks (son of Lord Mayor; pictured right), she wore a similar, although not quite so strictly modern gown. It was of simple, ankle–length satin, gathered at the bust. The neckline was in a V, and her neck was adorned with jewels. She carried a large white bouquet, and her headdress harkened back to the Victorian era; it framed her face with white flowers, then trailed, long and flowing, down her back.
Wallis Simpson & King Edward
WWII may have made getting married even more popular, but it made brides far more down–to–earth. Even the wealthy usually forewent excessive wedding ceremonies; in an effort to be patriotic, they choose basic fabrics trimmed simply. Many bridal gowns were designed to be easily converted to evening dresses; when Wallis Simpson (pictured left) married King Edward in 1937, her oh–so–simple dress with its plain long skirt, wide fitted waistband, and simply gathered bodice— topped only with a hat, was widely copied in Europe and America and praised for it’s practicality. (Her trousseau, however, contained 66 dresses, with matching accessories, by Chanel, Schiaparelli, and Mainbocher—not exactly practical!)
Princess Elizabeth & Philip Mountbatten
Princess Elizabeth had the next big royal wedding, to Philip Mountbatten in 1947. Her extraordinary dress showed no sign that England was recovering from war. It was fashioned entirely from ivory satin and was decorated with 10,000 seed pearls. It had a 15 foot train of lace and the veil had more than 100 miles of gossamer silk thread. This was the look that most brides probably wished to emulate, but could not.
Grace Kelly & the Prince of Monaco
When Grace Kelly married in 1956, her gown was undeniably
perfect. While it was simple, it was not austerely modern and was nothing
but feminine. With a wide, full lace skirt and a simple, fitted lace bodice
that went to the base of the neck and covered the arms, it was topped with a
crown of flowers and a simple white tulle veil. MGM designer Helen Rose
designed the gown with 25 yards of silk taffeta, 98 yards of silk tulle, and
300 yards of Valenciennes lace. Although many people thought they watched
the wedding ceremony on film, the movie of Grace Kelly’s wedding was only a
recreation for MGM.
Jane McNeil & the Earl of Dalkeith
Jacquie Bouvier & John F. Kennedy
When Jane McNeil and the Earl of Dalkeith
(pictured right) married in 1953,
her gown was similar to Grace’s, although somehow not as polished and
well–put–on. Another “American royalty” couple—John F. Kennedy and
Jacqueline Bouvier (left), married in 1953—and greatly influenced bridal fashions,
as well. Not as demure as Grace Kelly, Jacquie wore a full skirted design
that exposed both her chest and her arms.
Princess Margaret & Antony Armstrong-Jones
Princess Ann & Mark Philips
In 1960, Princess Margaret married Antony Armstrong–Jones (pictured below, left) in a simple yet elegant gown with a wide skirt of silk organza. The only trim was organza rouleau piping. The bride broke with tradition and bought her own diamond tiara to hold her tulle veil. The wedding was broadcast on television and got a Neilsen rating of 17, twice that of its competition: Rawhide.
When Princess Anne wed Mark Phillips in 1973 (pictured above, right), her gown was equally plain. Made of white silk cut in a princess–style, its only excess was pearl trim and Elizabethan–inspired full sleeves. Her headpiece was the same diamond tiara that her mother (the Queen) wore at her wedding.
Lisa Halaby & King Hussein
A much talked–about wedding was that of King Hussein (of
Jordan) to Lisa Halaby in 1978. In keeping with Islamic ideals, the bride
wore a dress that could have been worn to a nice dinner party—nothing
excessive here. It was made of white crepe, had a neckline that came to the
base of the neck, long bell sleeves, and a plain long skirt.
Diana Spencer & Prince Charles
The next big royal wedding was that of Diana Spencer to Prince Charles in 1981. I remember vividly the television broadcast of the wedding, watched by over a billion people worldwide. Setting new trends in what every bride wanted to wear, Princess Di’s gown harkened back to the age of Consuelo Vanderbilt—a fitting parallel considering how unhappy both marriages were. Princess Di’s gown featured huge, puffy sleeves trimmed with lace, a scooping neckline edged in ruffled lace, and a wide, full skirt. And who can forget that 25 foot train! The entire garment was trimmed with 10,000 sequins and pearls, and the lace used had belonged to the Princes’ great–grandmother.
Sarah Ferguson & Prince Andrew
wed Prince Andrew (pictured right) with a little less spectacle in 1986. Her gown was perhaps
more tasteful, while still echoing an earlier era. Fashioned from ivory
silk, it had a 17 foot train and a bodice nicely embroidered in gold. She
carried a small white bouquet and her veil was of tulle.
Marie-Chantal Miller & Prince Pavlos
In 1995, Crown Prince Pavlos (of Greece) and Marie–Chantal
Miller were married. The bride wore a heavy silk dress that took 25
dressmakers four months to sew. Designed by the bride, it featured a richly
embroidered hem, a lace bodice with long sleeves, and a train.
Sophie Rhys–Jones & Prince Edward
Mette–Marit Tjessem Hoiby & Crown Prince Haakon
When Sophie Rhys–Jones wed Prince Edward in 2001 (pictured right), her attire was far more simple. She wore a rather gaudy pearl necklace and a jeweled crown–like headdress, and her gown was trimmed with 325,000 cut-glass and pearl beads.
But the ultimate in simplicity has perhaps the gown Mette–Marit Tjessem
Hoiby wore (left). When she wed Norwegian Crown Prince Haakon in 2001, she not only
made a fairy tale come true (she used to be a waitress) but she rekindled an
interest in Medieval fashions. Her gown was of a simple cut, made of layers
of silk crepe, her train was long, but not excessively so, and her veil a
simple tulle concoction. Instead of a bouquet, she carried a long garland of
Catherine Middleton & Prince William
In April of 2011 Catherine Middleton married Prince William wearing a dress inspired by Grace Kelly's wedding gown. Made of ivory satin silk and created by Sarah Burton, Head Designer at the House of Alexander McQueen, the dress was kept a secret until the wedding. Beneath the dress, a corset was worn and padding for the hips, making the bride appear more voluptuous than she was. The bodice was created with French Chantilly lace and English lace and was hand embroidered. Lace appliqués of flowers representing the British Isles were also included: Roses for England, shamrocks for Ireland, thistles for Scotland, and daffodils for Wales. The veil was embroidered and was 8 ft. long.
Today, many women try to emulate these famous brides of history. Cinderella and “princess style” wedding gowns and accessories are some of the hottest sellers. (I succumbed to a crystal tiara and clear “glass slippers” for my own wedding, in 2001.) There’s no doubt royalty continues to ignite the imagination of women everywhere, and that whoever the next royal bride may be, she too will inspire thousands of women to sigh and swoon...and rush out to copy her bridal attire.