When Kate Middleton walked down the aisle last spring to marry Prince William, the would-be brides watching out homed in on her dress.
Bridal industry insiders expected her gown to be copied many times over.
Some wedding dresses leave a legacy beyond the next-day knockoffs: Kate Middleton’s Alexander McQueen stunner, Princess Diana’s grand gown, Grace Kelly’s glamorous one, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy’s simple tank — and especially Queen Victoria’s white ball gown — changed the way brides dressed for years to come.
Diana’s dress helped define the grandeur of fashion in the early 1980s, said Millie Martini Bratten, editor-in-chief of Brides magazine, but Middleton’s might be even more influential because women relate to her as a 29-year-old with a developed sense of style, compared with the 19-year-old Diana, whose gown likely was chosen by committee.
Darcy Miller, editor in chief of Martha Stewart Weddings, noted that “it’s amazing how much brides are influenced by what other people wear, especially royals, celebrities, presidents’ daughters. Before Chelsea Clinton’s wedding was over, every bride saw that Vera Wang dress and wanted some version of it,” Miller says.
Celebrity red-carpet looks are adapted for the aisle, says Marchesa co-founder and designer Georgina Chapman, but many women have been thinking about their fantasy gowns for a long time and don’t turn on a dime. “Wedding gowns are unlike any other dresses,” she says, because brides’ decisions “are often less trend-driven and more personally focused on how they want to look and feel on their wedding day.”
Still, a princess holds particular sway because of the fairy-tale aspect of weddings.
“A royal element makes it more dreamlike, and a wedding day is your time to look like a princess,” says Kimberly Lee Minor, chief fashion strategist of the bridal label Priscilla of Boston, which made gowns for the daughters of presidents Johnson and Nixon.
Some famous brides who set fashion trends:
-- Queen Victoria. This was the game-changer — quite the feat in 1840. Until then, white hadn’t been the color of wedding dresses, explains Miller. Women wore their best dress, no matter the hue.
White was sometimes seen as a sign of affluence because it meant you could afford to get the dress dirty, but brides didn’t run out and get one just for this occasion until Victoria.
-- Jacqueline Kennedy. Kennedy “was a major fashion influence her whole life,” so Ann Lowe’s dramatic portrait-neck gown with an exaggerated hourglass shape and pleating details fashioned into flowers and a tiered hemline suited her, says Miller. The bit of skin showing at the neckline also fit the image of the socialite marrying a dashing young senator, ushering in a new guard.
But the dress might have been “too couture” and not princess-y enough for the masses, making it less influential at the time, Martini Bratten says, although she sees hints of this dress on the runways now.
-- Grace Kelly. Kelly’s gown, made by costumer Helen Rose and the wardrobe department of MGM, was “truly designed by Hollywood,” says Martini Bratten.
There was a high neckline, a cinched waist and a big ballskirt — all befitting a new royal. But the collar, sleeves and overlay were lace, so there was still a glimpse at the more revealing sweetheart bodice, more in line with what one would expect from a movie star.
“The silhouette was so classic and beautiful,” observes Marchesa’s Chapman. “It’s just as breathtaking today as it was over 50 years ago.”
The illusion lace trick also was featured on Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding gown in the 1950 film “Father of the Bride.” Rose also designed that.
-- Tricia Nixon. Her White House wedding in 1971 — and the Priscilla Kidder gown she chose — became the fantasy of young women across America, says vintage fashion expert Shareen Mitchell, host of the TV series “Dresscue Me” on Planet Green.
It’s not necessarily what was expected of a president’s daughter. There was little pomp and circumstance to the sleeveless, V-neck gown, which was covered in lace but still showed a slim-cut line underneath. “She wore what every woman wanted to wear,” says Mitchell, who still fields requests for this style today.
-- Bianca Jagger. Neither a princess, presidential relative nor movie star, Jagger created a sensation as a fashion rebel when she married Mick Jagger in a Savile Row-made pantsuit, also in 1971. She represented the other end of the spectrum from Nixon: Jagger was a cool jet-setter, not a princess bride.
“If you were into the ’70s and hippies, fashion people looked less at what everyone else was doing and made it about trying something new,” says Mitchell.
Some brides still like to make that statement, says Martha Stewart’s Miller, calling out a sleek suit on the spring 2011 Douglas Hannant runway, worn without a shirt a la Jagger.
-- Princess Diana. A princess couldn’t wear the prairie, bohemian bridal looks that closed out the ’70s, and Diana’s 1981 gown by Elizabeth Emanuel helped usher in an era of opulence and formality. The shoulders were exaggerated, the skirt full and the sleeves pouffy. The train was 25 feet long.
Minor remembers watching the wedding on TV and thinking, “That dress must weigh 100 pounds!”
-- Carolyn Bessette Kennedy. The extravagance of the mid-’80s largely went out with the stock-market crash in 1987, and wedding gowns started becoming simpler and chicer.
Bessette Kennedy’s bias-cut Narciso Rodriguez gown in 1996 became the quintessential wedding dress of the era, says Martini Bratten. “It was sexy, unadorned but beautifully cut. It was modern — and it came about just the time the destination wedding was picking up steam, which it was perfect for,” she says. “It was the dress worn by the woman who captured the heart of America’s prince, John Kennedy.”
Priscilla of Boston continues to make gowns in this sophisticated spirit — and they continue to be best-sellers. They aren’t a direct copy of the dress, says Minor, but the idea that you can be glamorous without frills has wide appeal.
-- Ivanka Trump. Her 2009 wedding wasn’t a global news event, but her lace gown by Wang became a sensation because it showed a fresh, feminine way to wear sleeves, which had largely fallen out of favor. Trump’s dress, with its illusion lace neckline, was inspired by Kelly’s, although this had a cleaner, more contemporary silhouette.
“The way Ivanka Trump presented herself was, ‘Even when you have all the money in the world and you’re glamorous, you can present yourself at your wedding as demure, understated, ladylike and beautiful,’ ” says Mitchell. “It was so refreshing.”
-- Michelle Obama. Obama’s long-sleeve, portrait-collar wedding dress was one of her few fashion decisions that didn’t move the needle. That was back in 1992, though.
Her one-shoulder, white inaugural gown by Jason Wu, however, turned into a bona fide bridal-gown sensation, says Miller.
It came at the right time, as designers continued to move away from all strapless all the time, Miller observes, and Obama wore it with the happy, confident attitude that brides strive for.
-- Chelsea Clinton. No one, including Clinton and designer Wang, expected the media circus that accompanied last year’s wedding, says Miller, but all of those photos and attention meant that a lot of gowns coming out now were inspired by the delicate strapless with a jeweled waistband. “It was copied in the industry immediately. It’s the classic, romantic, fairy-tale dress on a modern woman,” says Miller.
Clinton might not normally be considered a style influence, but in that dress, she became a trendsetter, agrees Minor.