Royal wedding dress: Everything you wanted to know and more
After weeks of speculation that at times has verged on the absurd, Kate Middleton emerged in a wedding gown by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen. The wedding gown was classic-looking, in silk gazar with long, intricate Chantilly lace sleeves and a V-shaped neckline, and it represents the grandest British fashion gesture the young royal could have made.
Burton has long been tipped to be the designer of the gown, but incredibly, the identity was kept a secret, with a new contender mentioned nearly every day. Middleton's choice was auspicious timing. A retrospective exhibition of work by McQueen, who died last year, is set to open at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on Wednesday. Burton was named as his successor in May 2010.
"We knew she would wear something classic, but having Sarah Burton as the designer added something modern," said Darcy Miller, editorial director of Martha Stewart Weddings magazine. "And that’s really been the running thread with this couple -- that they bring modernity to the royal family but are respectful of tradition."
McQueen began his career apprenticing on Savile Row, where legend has it he sewed a subversive message into the sleeve of a jacket destined for Prince Charles. His collections were often inspired by history, both the majesty and the macabre, including the Salem Witch Trials and the famous Highland Rape collection, inspired by the 1746 Battle of Culloden in Scotland.
Burton took over as creative director of the label after McQueen's suicide last year. She joined the brand in 1996 as an intern and was appointed head of design for women's wear in 2000. She showed her first runway collection for Alexander McQueen in Paris in October 2010 and during her short tenure has managed to temper McQueen's severe styles and tortured vision with a new femininity and ease.
The lace appliqué for the gown's bodice and skirt was handmade by the Royal School of Needlework, based at Hampton Court Palace. Individual flowers were hand-cut from lace and hand-engineered onto ivory silk tulle to create an organic design with rose, thistle, daffodil and shamrock motifs.
The skirt was meant to echo an opening flower, and the bodice to draw on the Victorian tradition of corsetry. The train was just short of nine feet long. French Chantilly lace was combined with English Cluny lace to be hand-worked in the Carrickmacross needlework tradition which originated in Ireland in the 1820s. The workers washed their hands every 30 minutes to keep the lace and threads pristine, and the needles were renewed every three hours to keep them sharp and clean.
Like Princess Diana’s, Middleton’s dress is likely to be a force of pop culture for years to come, influencing fashion trends and reinforcing the sociological significance of the white wedding gown.
"The royal wedding legitimizes luxury and reinforces the princess myth," says Cele Otnes, a marketing and advertising scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and co-author of the book "Cinderella Dreams: The Allure of the Lavish Wedding." (University of California Press, 2003). "We get to have a piece of that myth, whether we consume it vicariously by watching it on TV, getting a knockoff gown or modeling our wedding after it."
The royal wedding will live on in the ways that people choose to democratize it. "Most of us can’t have a princess wedding, so we have to tinker at the margins," she says. "We might be able to put trees in the church, or give a cool bridesmaid’s gift like Kate’s, or maybe even use a replica of her ring as napkin rings at a wedding."
The long-sleeved gown, which Middleton accessorized with a 1936 Cartier tiara borrowed from the queen, "will be a major shift in fashion. There are thousands of girls who will want to step into that fantasy," says Don O’Neill, creative director of evening and bridal wear label Theia, who created a $2,495 "Kate" gown with illusion sleeves before he even saw the big reveal on Friday. The style will be available in August at select Nordstrom stores.
JS Collections, another eveningwear label, expects to have a replica of the Burton for McQueen gown, priced under $1,000, available for pre-order early next week at Nordstrom and Nordstrom.com. (The gown will land in stores in August.)
Other designers already seemed to have the royal wedding in mind months ago, when they designed their fall collections shown in early April at New York’s Bridal Fashion Week. Anticipating that Middleton would want to show a modicum of modesty in front of the Queen at Westminster Abbey, not to mention an estimated viewing audience of 2 billion, designers showed a lot of gowns with sleeves, as well as feather fascinators similar to the ones Middleton has popularized as part of her everyday wardrobe. "We even spotted a 12-foot train," says Heather Levine, senior fashion editor at TheKnot.com.
Priscilla of Boston created an exclusive line of tiaras in anticipation of the royal wedding. "When we first decided to do it, my merchandise director told me tiaras don’t sell," says Kimberly Lee Minor, chief fashion strategist for the brand founded in 1945, which operates 19 bridal salons across the country. "We delivered them two weeks ago, and when girls come into the stores now, all they want to do is try on tiaras."
When it comes to fashion, royal weddings have always been influential.
"Princess Diana reinvigorated the idea of the big wedding," says Otnes. ‘Before then, we were still riding the cusp of the ex-hippie wedding. She gave the industry a huge shot in the arm."
When she wed in 1840, Queen Victoria broke with the custom of wearing coronation robes and chose a white gown in keeping with the fashion of the day, helping to popularize the color white for brides.
Even the coronation of George VI and Elizabeth in 1937 influenced bridal designs, by introducing the idea of wearing tiaras.
In 1960, Princess Margaret’s sleek, Norman Hartnell-designed wedding gown was a precursor to more modern-looking '60s styles.
And Diana’s poufy, romantic David and Elizabeth Emanuel gown reverberated through the fashion of the 1980s, with the flamboyant, neo-romantic designs of Vivienne Westwood, Christian Lacroix and others.
But the iconic white wedding dress was really a creation of the 20th century.
Before that, weddings were typically arranged, and women married in the best dress from their closets. Around World War II, clothing manufacturers saw an opportunity to establish a bridal wear market, says Cynthia Amneus, a curator of costume and textiles at the Cincinnati Art Museum and author of the 2010 book "Wedded Perfection: Two Centuries of Wedding Dresses." "They actually went to Congress to lobby to have war restrictions on fabrics eased for bridal dresses. They framed it as, ‘This is what our boys are fighting for, to come home and marry their sweethearts.’"
With that, the modern bridal industry was born, bridal magazines became popular, and the descriptions of brides began to change from "virginal" and "sweet" to "fairy princess" and "regal." (Walt Disney’s animated film "Cinderella" was released in 1950.)
Postwar bridal designers began to romanticize historical dress styles. In the 1950s, women were enchanted by the real-life weddings of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and Grace Kelly. Bridal gowns followed the fashions of the times, with nipped waists and full skirts reflecting the feminine, happy-homemaker ideal that had become synonymous with the American dream.
In the 1960s and '70s, as women’s roles began to shift with the dawn of feminism, bridal styles were equally transformed. A wide array of choices were available, from empire-waist gowns to chain-mail mini-dresses.
"Today, when a woman decides to get married, she’s stepping into a marriage willingly, she’s financially independent, educated and pretty much knows what she’s getting into. The dress is an expression of her self," Amneus says. "But in any age, women of lower economic status look up to monarchs and aristocrats to see what they are wearing and dream about what they have." In the U.S. they sometimes look to Hollywood or the political arena — our own versions of royalty — as well.
In terms of influence, the closest we have come to Middleton’s gown recently was the Vera Wang gown Chelsea Clinton was married in last year. "Everyone was so inspired by her modern spin on tradition, with that flouncy ball gown," says Levine from TheKnot.com. "But this is leaps and bounds more inspirational. Women look to Kate not just as a bridal icon but a style icon."
-- Booth Moore
Top photo of Kate Middleton / Gero Breloer / Associated Press
Middle photo: Dominic Lipinski / Associated Press
Bottom photo: Gero Breloer / Associated Press