A wedding dress is so much more than an article of clothing: it’s a symbol of romance, purity, commitment and joy – a fantasy of what life will be and a timeless manifestation of childhood dreams coming true. Traditionally, at the end of every haute couture fashion show, the final look is a spectacular wedding gown. The bridal dress holds pride of place even at the highest levels of design – which makes understanding its history and evolution worth any fashion maven’s time and attention (even those who aren’t hopeless romantics).
You may have heard that there’s a Royal Wedding coming up soon. We can’t wait to see the spectacular ceremony, and we’re particularly keen to see The Dress. In the meantime, this seems like the right moment to get smarter about the history of couture wedding gowns – and to gaze upon some fantastical creations to tide us over until the big day.
There’s just something about a wedding. We love them. It doesn’t matter where they’re happening – courthouse, park, beach, cathedral – and it doesn’t matter if we know the participants in the ceremony. It just makes us happy to watch, to laugh and to celebrate alongside the happy couple. It’s the ultimate moment of hope, love and happiness, and we’re up for living them vicariously as often as possible (although let the record show that we have never actually crashed a wedding. Just sayin’).
Among many other things, a wedding can be a great fashion show. Surely Meghan Markle’s dress will be hand-crafted by a leading haute couture designer (it’s probably being hand-sewn even as we write). While we wait for the big reveal, here are 10 excellent books (some just released and others newly revised) about the history and current state of couture wedding gowns, and the symbolism and evolution of wedding dresses themselves.
The Couture Wedding Gown by Marie Bariller. The couture wedding gown—a fashion show’s grand finale—marks the pinnacle of a designer’s creativity for the season. Consequently, these dresses offer particular insight into the designer’s creative process. Couture Wedding Gowns presents a collection of extraordinary dresses designed by some of the most respected designers from the 20th century to today. Profiling designers from Alexander McQueen to Zuhair Murad, Marie Bariller reveals what the wedding gown represents for each of them.
The Wedding Dress: Newly Revised and Updated Collector’s Edition by Oleg Cassini. Newly updated in February 2018, this classic tome features a wide array of luxurious wedding dresses in every conceivable silhouette. From gowns worn by Jacqueline Kennedy to Grace Kelly, and creations designed by the author as well as looks from Chanel, Dior, Armani, and Alexander McQueen, it’s a catalog of the some of the best couture gowns ever, photographed by Patrick Demarchelier, Benno Graziani, Horst, Arthur Elgort, Milton Greene, David LaChapelle, and Irving Penn.
The Wedding Dress: 300 Years of Bridal Fashions by Edwina Ehrman. This book draws on wedding garments in the V&A’s renowned collection along with photographs, letters, memoirs, and newspaper accounts to explore the history of the white wedding dress and the traditions that have developed around it from 1700 to today, when designers from Vera Wang to Vivienne Westwood continue to challenge the aesthetic. Paintings, drawings, and wedding photos depict queens, princesses, celebrities, and everyday women―including Kate Middleton―in their gowns. The text considers the dress in the context of the commercialization of weddings that began in the Victorian era. The Wedding Dress is not only about costume, but also about the cultivation of the image of the bride.
Vogue Weddings: Brides, Dresses, Designers by Hamish Bowles. Showcasing the work of legendary photographers such as Cecil Beaton, Patrick Demarchelier, Jonathan Becker, Norma Jean Roy, Mario Testino, Irving Penn, Arthur Elgort, Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, and Annie Leibovitz, this iconic volume crisscrosses the globe to display romantic settings around the world: castles, palaces, and cathedrals; weddings by the sea or in the countryside. For those interested in the hard work behind the scenes, it also includes fashion portfolios created by the magazine’s editors of bridal photo shoots featuring couture gowns. It’s the stuff of dreams made real, and a beautiful book over which to daydream.
Delphine Manivet (French Edition). A wedding dress designer since 2005, Delphine Manivet is intent on modernizing the look of the marriage party. Revisiting the traditional design codes of wedding gowns, the Paris-based designer creates elegant silhouettes with modest hints of femininity. It’s a creative universe inspired by timeless icons such as Marilyn Monroe and Lauren Hutton, revealed for the first time in this eponymous book, which traces her design process from the first sketches to the final retouches in the studio, with stops at sources like the fine lace suppliers in Caudry.
Paris d’Amour (French Edition) by Gérad Uféras unveils the secrets of more than 70 weddings and civil unions in the City of Light. Combining all backgrounds and beliefs, the book is a kaleidoscope of wedding days. The book’s atmospheric black and white photographs were the subject of an exhibition at Paris’ Hotel de Ville in July 2010.
Behind The Indian Veil by Sephi Bergerson. No reading list about couture wedding gowns can be complete without at least one entry from India, where weddings are a multi-day affair filled with stunning attire. This one chronicles an award-winning photographer’s 7-year journey documenting wedding traditions in India. It reveals the differences and similarities in Indian wedding traditions across regions and religious traditions, and provides a wide-ranging and informative overview of the vast array of fashions and rituals employed there.
Italian Dream Wedding by Enzo Miccio shares photographs that capture the timeless magic of an Italian wedding. With its stunning vistas and undeniable charm, Italy has played host to generations of breathtaking weddings. Each region boasts its own culture, traditions, and landscapes, and the weddings profiled here include both photos and practical tips for the location and event details, as well as a parade of gorgeous wedding dresses.
Guo Pei: Couture Beyond by Howl Collective, Lynn Yaeger and Paula Wallace. Just released this month, the first major book about one of China’s leading couture visionaries reveals the intricate craftsmanship and imperial glamour that led fashion publications worldwide to declare that Guo Pei’s creations are “the Empire’s new clothes.” Guo Pei dresses Chinese state dignitaries and American celebrities alike in richly bejeweled creations of imperial opulence. In recent years, she has been focusing her attention on Chinese wedding culture and reviving the art of the traditional wedding gown. The grandeur of her work – from the aureate cape that Rihanna wore to the 2015 Met Gala to a gown festooned with 200,000 crystals featured in the Beijing Olympics – has put her on the map as part of the next generation of haute couture.
Royal Weddings (English and German Edition) Revised Edition by Friederike Haedecke and Julia Melchior. For those who want a deep dive into royal European weddings past, this is for you. William and Kate, Charles and Diana, and more are on full display – if you want a quick primer before the next Royal Wedding, this will get you totally up to speed (just be sure to purchase the updated edition).
The big day’s almost here – in the meantime, dive into one of these to lift the veil on the many layers of meaning represented by the haute couture wedding gown.