The couture shows, which just wrapped in Paris, presented one exquisitely-crafted staggeringly beautiful gown after another. But there's piece in particular that has always held our fascination--the last look, traditionally a bridal look. (How stunning was Lindsey Wixson as Karl Lagerfeld's Chanel couture bride?)
So we decided to delve into the history a bit more. Why is the last look always reserved for the "couture bride"? How did that tradition come about?
We talked two fashion history professors: Beth Dincuff from Parsons the New School for Design and Carmela Spinelli, who is the chair of the fashion department at SCAD. Turns out the history of the "couture bride" is actually, interestingly, all mixed in with the origin of the white bridal gown itself--dating all the way back to the nineteenth century.
Here's how the couture bride came to be--and why she's not going anywhere.
The Timeline: Pre-World War II
Before you can talk couture bridal, you need to understand a little bit about the history of the "traditional" white bridal gown. According to Spinelli, two different phenomena are generally considered to have inspired the frothy white wedding gown that we now consider traditional: The dress code for being presented at court in the late 19th century, and Queen Victoria's wedding gown.
• 1840: Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840 wearing a white lace gown. This was a complete departure from the tradition of the time. Up until then, women just wore their best dresses to get married.
• 1868: Charles Frederick Worth started his couture business in 1868. At the time, ladies had to wear white gowns with trains to be presented at court, and he dressed all the important society doyennes of the time. Spinelli explained that white was a sign of wealth and status because it was so difficult to keep clean.
•1895: Consuelo Vanderbilt married the Duke of Marlborough wearing a House of Worth gown. You can read this fascinating blurb about it in a vintage New York Times article here. The article notes that the bride's cream dress has a "train in the Court fashion." It's a great example of how court fashion found its way into bridal.
• Pre-World War II: Dincuff told us that couturiers like Lanvin, Vionnet, and Mainbocher all showed bridal looks at smaller summer shows. In addition to bridal gowns, they also showed mother-of-the-bride dresses, bridesmaids gowns, and appropriate trousseau items--sort of a precursor to the pre-season collections we see now.
• During World War II: Many couture houses closed; fabrics and materials all went to the war effort.
After World War II, though, everything changed.
The Timeline: Post-World War II
• Immediate post-war period: French designers spearheaded a movement back to bridal frippery. They were making bigger gowns with more confections.
• 1947: According to Dincuff, Dior's "New Look" collection didn't include a bride.
• Late 1940s and 1950s: Couture designers in Paris started showing a bridal look as the last look of every show. Dincuff found a Vogue article from 1957 which stated Lanvin-Castillo, Fath, Griffe, and Balmain “each traditionally closed with a presentation of a bride’s dress.” So by the late 1950s it was already considered a tradition.
• 1965: Yves Saint Laurent took bridal over the top with his now-iconic cocoon bridal dress (at left), which was inspired by Russian nesting dolls.
• Post 1980s: Spinelli points out that once Galliano and McQueen (who was the couturier at Givenchy) hit the scene, the couture bridal lines started to blur a bit. Designers started to present really extravagant gowns; in the past couture had been about smart daywear, elegant suits and supreme quality, Spinelli told us. The bridal look was the one traditionally reserved for the fantasy. But then designers started making every couture look a statement piece.
So where is the couture bride going now?
About a third of the couturiers showed a "bridal" look at the fall haute couture shows this past week. Is this a tradition that's dying?
Not really--it's just moving. We may see a few less of these lovely ladies on the runways, but the bridal business is booming in couture. "Bridal will always be very important with couture. Some designers aren’t showing it [on the runway] because they have their own bridal couture business," Spinelli told us. "The buyers are distinctly different. The couture designers don’t have to show just one of their fabulous creations--they can now show ten."
In this world of fast fashion and RTW designers showing day-to-evening looks, brides want the fantasy again. And when we're talking about couture, they're willing to pay for it. The bridal gowns are generally the most expensive, because they're usually the most elaborate. The Dior couture gown that Melania Trump wore (at left) to marry the Donald in 2005 cost somewhere in the area of $100,000 to $200,000 according to Dincuff.
And since couture really isn't going anywhere, it makes sense that bridal couture isn't going anywhere either; the ultra-luxury sector is booming. With brides being older and wanting something unique (and presumably having the money to pay for it), there are more potential customers for couture bridal gowns than ever before. Which means--much to our delight--that designers will continue to show these fantastical creations.
Click through to see couture bridal gowns through history, from the 1800s until now.