No woman wants to look back and wonder what on earth she was thinking, but how do you pick a gown that will stand the test of time?
Out came a foot. It was a pointed court, in white, of course. So far, so elegant. Then came the skirt: gentle folds of double-bonded silk cady, lined by flowing triple-silk organza, also in brilliant white. We held our breath as the rest of Miss Markle emerged from the car: the demure sleeves, the face-framing bateau neckline, the dazzling diamond bandeau tiara, the extravagant, embroidered veil – it was too much for our fragile hearts to handle.
The royal bride’s gown, by Clare Waight Keller for Givenchy, was an instant classic. Refreshingly pure, it threw radiant Meghan herself into focus and now her endearingly happy smile is what will endure. Job done.
Without Keller to help us, the worry for those of us in the midst of gown shopping is that the dress we’re hopelessly besotted with today will somehow transform itself into the most cringe-worthy monstrosity of tulle and lace by the time we whip out the wedding album to show our future children. Short of having a crystal ball, is it inevitable that our gowns will age as we do? (See: Diana’s creased ’80s puffball.) Or can we beat the clock?
Before you march into the nearest boutique and swipe every vaguely classical-looking gown off the rail and into the changing room, you need to educate yourself. “Take time to do research,” urges Glasgow and London-based designer Joyce Young. “Try to get a feel for how you ideally wish to look and the stores that will help you achieve this.”
Because wedding gowns aren’t exactly typical office attire, we need a springboard for our shopping journey – we need a history lesson. You want eternal bridal style? First, get acquainted with the icons. These women will become your reference points.
“One celebrity bride that will always be remembered is Grace Kelly,” says Pan Pan Bridal’s Huda Abdulgader. “The lace dress she wore to marry Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956 has been mimicked endlessly, even partly by the Duchess of Cambridge. The sales of lace jackets rocketed after her wedding as a result.
“Another idol is Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face,” she adds. “The high boat neckline of her dress has become a popular feature and feels as fresh now as it did when she wore it in the 1957 film.” Interestingly, this was also a Givenchy creation.
“Princess Margaret’s gown has certainly aged well – she looked absolutely sensational at her wedding to Lord Snowdon in 1960,” muses British designer Caroline Castigliano. “And Carolyn Bessette Kennedy (who married JFK’s son in 1996) had an entirely different vibe in her bias-cut dress, but one that has definitely stood the test of time.” That Meghan had previously cited Carolyn’s gown as a source of inspiration is no surprise.
Given the wide variety of styles these famous brides opted for, it’s clear there’s no magic formula, but there are recurring dateless elements you can tap into. Fabrics, for instance.
“Silk transcends time and has a captivating lustre,” argues Joyce. “It comes in many guises, from mikado, which is quite structured, to georgette and floaty chiffon.”
Caroline has a theory: “Fabrics that are eternal are the classics – satin-faced silk organza falls into graceful pleats and has a lovely sheen, while duchess satin lends itself to more architectural designs.”
Sarah Louise Bridal’s Lorraine MacLennan concurs: “I love duchess satin. It maintains its shape and creates romantically full skirts, with a subtle shine.”
Length is also important. “This is the one chance to live out the dream of a sweeping train,” points out Caroline.
And that dream will never die, according to Joyce: “I would recommend a full-length gown, just skimming the floor. Shoes can date quickly and I believe it is better to be reserved and not distract from the overall look by showing legs and feet.”
Speaking of modesty, this is another prerequisite of ageless bridal style – and it’s a challenge, given our penchant for sheer, sexier pieces this year. “The shapes that endure are those that flatter the body without showing too much bare flesh or hugging curves too closely,” warns Joyce. “A wedding dress should be demure and feminine, in my opinion.” Somewhere, your nervous gran is breathing a sign of relief.
If this is veering into spoil-sport territory, brace yourself: there are more current trends on the chopping block. “I don’t imagine illusion lace will survive,” reckons Caroline. “And plunging necklines won’t be around for long either.”
Cover-ups are on Joyce’s hit list. “I would avoid add-ons,” she says. “Very often, that is exactly what they look like! Capes, as well, tend to take away from the silhouette of the dress and can look frumpy.” Controversial!
Our courageous colour choices might suffer, too, as time races on. “Stick to ivory,” advises Huda. “If you do introduce colour, it needs to be a muted hue, like champagne, blush or pearl.”
And beware of accessories. These can kill a gown’s enduring appeal just as easily as they can elevate it. “Make sure they don’t over-power you,” cautions Caroline. “An enormous headpiece on a petite head is not flattering, and if your dress has a beaded neckline, don’t wear a necklace – they will clash.”
“One accessory that remains eternally impressive is the veil,” notes Huda. “Whether long or short, it finishes off the dress. Our favourite is a single-tier, soft, cathedral-length veil. Brides-to-be gasp when we put it on at a consultation.”
There is a positive outcome to all this trend and accessory bashing – it removes the pressure to conform. “I think brides should pick a look that suits their body, one that they feel comfortable in,” says Lorraine. “It’s not about wearing what people expect or what’s in fashion at the time. There’s a dress out there for everyone.” Hear hear.
The surefire way to safeguard your gown from the passing years? Be yourself. Be real. By all accounts, the directional YolanCris dress I donned for my big day, with its layers of illusion lace, will date quicker than you can say ‘Katie Price in a pink carriage’, but I view it as a perfectly formed time capsule. I was never going to play it safe, and if that meant I might one day wince at the sight of it, that’s a risk I was willing to take. As Caroline puts it: “If you’re somebody who likes making theatrical, outlandish statements and that is what makes you happy, then go right ahead!”
“Fashion by its very nature will date,” observes Joyce. “That’s what keeps the industry going – it has to keep changing or we’d never buy new clothes.”
Suzanne Neville, whose catalogue of sharply cut, impeccably tailored gowns are arguably some of the most classic on the market, has a more laidback, philosophical approach. “Every woman is different and it’s vital that she stays true to her own personal style,” she believes. “There are only a limited number of silhouettes, so they’ll all come back around eventually.
“A bride should settle on the gown that she adores most,” she concludes. “She needs to feel more special than she has ever felt before, whether that’s by being cautious or going all-out.”
Thanks to Meghan, you can expect a flurry of copycat, minimal numbers making their aisle debut soon enough. But my hope is that brides will take something else entirely away from the new Duchess of Sussex: to prioritise natural, unembellished, imperfect you, the woman wearing the gown. You are enough. You are what’s timeless.
And if you’re still in doubt? Wear a veil.