Listen to this article
And you thought after the royal wedding that we had reached saturation point on all things nuptial. Next Saturday, however, a new exhibition exploring the evolution of British bridalwear over the past 240 years opens at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, timed for the summer wedding season (including the nuptials of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West), and just after the New York Bridal Week, where wedding-dress trends are always unveiled. Together, these events offer a reminder of how much gowns – and the industry itself – have changed.
“There’s no doubt that celebrity-oriented publications and TV shows have encouraged brides to aspire to more extravagance than ever before when it comes to a status-symbol dress,” says Edwina Ehrman, lead curator of the V&A’s Wedding Dresses 1775-2014, which will feature gowns worn by Gwen Stefani; Margaret, Duchess of Argyll; and Dita Von Teese. “Wedding days are their one chance to enjoy a glamorous, fantastical and fairytale existence – and millions will go to extreme financial lengths to do so.”
Ehrman believes that a powerful buzz has developed around bridal catwalk trends, fuelled by gossip magazines that since the early 1990s have increasingly featured the weddings of the rich and famous. “Until the late 1980s most weddings were simpler affairs and often so were the dresses,” she says. “But nowadays, as many celebrations become more extensive and expensive, similar patterns emerge in the lengths brides go to when searching for their wedding trousseau.”
Though still unusual, trouser suits, plunging strapless gowns and bare legs have all become more common in the past two decades as brands offer clients bridal refinements of their signature trends to help them stand out on their big day.
The catwalk stalwarts who showcased their designs in New York earlier this month were a case in point. A twice yearly affair, Bridal Week has grown from an intimate trade show to a four-day extravaganza, reflecting the impact that fashion brands have had on the luxury bridalwear market. Once solely the domain of independent labels and niche wholesalers, this year also featured leading fashion brands including Matthew Williamson, Giambattista Valli, Alice Temperley and Jenny Packham that have crossed over, seduced by the hefty creative and commercial returns. Although far less frenetic than their ready-to-wear fashion week counterparts, Bridal Week’s catwalk processions take place amid a flurry of cupcakes, champagne, goody bags and smartphones.
And why not? There were meringues of frothy taffeta and tulle from traditionalists such as Oscar de la Renta, Alberta Ferretti, Carolina Herrera and Monique Lhuillier – the latter creating her confections in a palette of pastels including blush, hydrangea, pistachio and mist. Alice Temperley and Marchesa anchored their designs in fitted, sleeved silhouettes of embroidered lace, offset by short cocktail-length frocks with a cool “mod” twist. Vera Wang, bridalwear’s original powerhouse, opted for 1990s minimalism, with pared-back silk sheaths, edgy column slips and structured two-piece separates, clearly designed to be worn more than once.
Worldwide marriage rates may be declining gently but women who are taking the plunge still covet that red carpet-like moment: today the wedding business in the US alone rings up $53bn, and about £10bn in the UK. According to New York research firm We Connect Fashion, American women spend an average of 16 per cent of their overall wedding budget solely on their dress, which can range from $550 for a J Crew Grecian style gown, to more than $25,000 for custom Vera Wang.
Indeed, many fashion brands chose to position themselves in the wedding market after the financial crisis. Despite rising prices caused by higher costs of materials including silk and lace, the consistent demand for high-quality wedding gowns held enormous appeal compared with the volatile market dynamics of seasonal ready-to-wear. “It’s not surprising,” says Ehrman. “Millions of women have cut down heavily on discretionary spending but continue to splash out on a special dress. Romance seems to be recession-proof.”
UK fashion designer Jenny Packham, who has seen her bridal business grow 60 per cent over the past year, says it holds creative appeal, too. “I love this side of my work,” she says. “Bridalwear has a huge amount of crossover in terms of construction with the evening wear collections but can often be much more exciting.”
Net-a-Porter, which started a dedicated internet bridal boutique in 2009, says its best-sellers still tend to be labels such as Lanvin and Roland Mouret, where prices hover around $5,000. Buying your dream gown online, rather than via multiple custom-order fittings, mirrors a broader trend of brides wishing to do things at great cost and consideration but in a simpler, more understated way.
“I think that, as many style-conscious working women marry later and are more financially independent, they feel far more comfortable doing what truly works for them,” says Ehrman. Packham adds: “A bride will always be timelessly beautiful and wedding dress trends are, and will always be, important indicators of changing times.”
The rise of Temperley: A marriage of function and fantasy
Alice Temperley’s first steps towards designing bridalwear came, rather unexpectedly, at her own wedding in 2002.
“My fashion label was still in its fledgling stages when my wedding – and the three dresses I wore at it – were featured in British Vogue. We quickly had brides calling to inquire about the 1920s-style gowns and how they could buy them,” explains the designer. “I began creating custom bespoke pieces regularly but, by 2006, it was clear the demand was steady enough for a standalone bridal wholesale line.”
Today, a whole floor of her Notting Hill boutique is given over to bridalwear, and the business now makes up 10 per cent of Temperley’s overall operations. Although the material costs are greater, annual sales are showing double-digit growth and the brand is not looking back.
New York Bridal Week, where Temperley has been showing her bridalwear since 2011, opened the brand up to an audience of global buyers and, earlier this month, she presented her latest collection, called Iris. While the line offered plenty of Temperley hallmarks – French lace, double satin, delicate beadwork and intricate embroidery – the dresses, as well as two beautiful evening coats, combined functionality with fantasy.
“I steer clear of pomp and overstatement – a bride must never feel overwhelmed by her dress. It must allow them to be the ultimate version of themselves and who they wish to be,” says Temperley.