How Queen Victoria, new-fangled photography and rubbish laundry facilities created the iconic western tradition
Ever wondered why western brides wear white? Queen Victoria sparked the trend in 1840 and actually raised eyebrows by choosing white, which was usually only worn by debutantes for their presentation to court.
Before then (and for a while after), brides would wear their best dress, whatever colour(s) it happened to be. There wasn’t even a concept of a wedding dress as something you wore just for your wedding day. It was expected that you’d wear your wedding dress again for other functions ans indeed, Queen Victoria did.
This expectation helped make the white wedding dress aspirational as it was only really practical to wash and maintain white fabrics, especially silk, if you were mega-rich. Ideally, you had staff to take care of that for you. European royals and nobility did of course and so the white wedding dress became associated with wealth and high social standing.
Simultaneously, photography was becoming more advanced and accessible and white dresses looked good in the early sepia photographs. Even nearly 200 years ago, we were all about the ‘Gram.
All of this means that you can still consider yourself a traditional bride if your dress isn’t white. This week, I took delivery of this stunning lace-satin-glitter (yes, all of them, in one fabric) fabric and I am ridiculously excited about it.
Satin, lace AND glitter all in one fabric. BIG plans for this beauty. HUGE.
My brides and dresses are all so different. Do I even have a typical customer?
What do a pink glittery ballgown, a satin ivory shift mini-dress, and a two-piece embroidered lehenga have in common? Or a backless, barely-there lace dress with a long-sleeved, high-necked, satin-twill number?
I mean aside from the obvious, that they are all wedding dresses. And made by me.
The answer is in why I made them. Or rather why I had to.
UK brides are spoiled for choice whatever their budget with independent bridal boutiques, concessions in Harrods and Selfridges, chain stores like Wed2b and David’s Bridal, second-hand dresses and hell, even Asos is getting in on the bridal scene. If, and that’s a big if, they want a traditional ivory dress.
Not all brides do. Some don’t want ivory. Some don’t want a dress.
The very variety of styles I’ve made in the last year might suggest I don’t have a typical customer. But I have found that my brides tend to have some common traits:
1. All of my brides have a strong personal style. They know what works for them, what looks dynamite, and what doesn’t;
2. They know exactly what they’re looking for. Some had mood boards, others had lists of elements such as neckline, silhouette, embroidery details, etc, some had even produced sketches.
3. They couldn’t find what they were looking for ready-made in any shop. It didn’t exist.
That’s when they looked into going bespoke and found me.
So, do I have a typical customer? Yes and no. Do the traits above sound familiar to you?
In the bewildering days and weeks of the first lockdown in March 2020, I wished there was something tangible I could do to help. But I make wedding dresses. And weddings were cancelled. What help could I actually be?
I considered making facemasks but didn’t know the first thing about the antimicrobial properties of different fabrics. There was a call to make hospital scrubs from donated duvet covers, but my daughter was coughing and I was terrified garments from our home might infect entire hospitals.
Then at 8pm one Wednesday in my studio, I heard the town erupt in cheers. Guilt. I’d completely forgotten we were supposed to be at the end of the drive for the first weekly Clap for Carers. I realised that, just like my brides who’d had to postpone their weddings, there must be NHS staff doing the same AND doubling down on the front line against the virus.
Usually when (if) I have spare time, I’ll dream up some new designs and create experimental samples to put in photoshoots and display at wedding fairs. With my peak season cancelled, I’d committed to spending money on fabrics and time on making new dresses, so why not offer them to NHS brides instead, as a small way of saying thank you?
With no real expectation, I made my offer public. Suddenly, I was in The Guardian, the Observer, the Metro, the Telegraph and more, and the requests poured in. Boom. I was helpful.
I’d love to help everyone who contacted me (even the cheeky feckers who admitted they already had a wedding dress but could they have a going away outfit? Or a second dress for the evening?), but there were scores. I committed to three: one, a GP, for 2020, occupational therapist Immi in 2021, and nurse Sameen in 2022.
This year, it was Immi’s turn. She and Jai postponed their wedding last year to 2 September this year, at the beautiful Polhawn Fort on a cornish cliff top.
After poring over design inspiration together, Immi and I came up with her perfect boho-style wedding dress over a year ago. It included dropped flutter sleeves, a plunging neckline on a sheer backless bodice and a full, floaty tulle skirt embellished with lashings of lace.
Working remotely, all our consultations, including taking her measurements and fitting her toile (the mock-up dress I make to test the measurements). Despite first speaking in April 2020, we only finally met in person for the first time in February 2021.
I made the wildflower lace for her bodice myself and cut, arranged and stitched on the motifs by hand.
The skirt had multiple layers of tulle, satin crepe, and glitter net to represent the oceans this surfer loves.
The lace on her skirt had to be cut and pieced together by hand to create the peaks at the front and back.
Immi was an absolute joy to work with and there were plenty of hugs and tears at Immi’s final fitting (which included Immi’s mum and soon-to-be mother-in-law).
Most of all, I am so grateful to Immi not only for putting her trust in me to make her wedding dress but for making me feel useful in a pandemic.
I’ve had to keep schtum about this custom creation since November and I’m so happy to be able to share it now, not least as it means that the bride has finally tied the knot after all the covid-related postponements and uncertainty.
Emma Haigh from Rotherham contacted me nearly a year ago with her idea of having a bespoke veil embroidered with a silver space shuttle and the phrase ‘To Infinity and Beyond’. We then had a chat via videocall and she told me that her fiancé is a big fan of Toy Story and that they had visited Cape Canaveral together to watch a shuttle launch.
I sketched some ideas and tried different fonts and we settled on having our silver shuttle lifting off from its launchpad in a whirl of smoke, into twinkling stars above. I added some metallic blue into the latter as a subtle ‘something blue’.
After postponing the wedding from 23 December 2020, Emma finally tied the knot on 10 August 2021.
Infinite love to the bride and groom and their growing family. 💕 🚀
Forget Pantone, this is ‘Pelling Pink’. It’s not a single colour but shifts and changes shade and intensity with movement and glitters in the light.
Emma Pelling had always wanted a pink wedding dress but finding the perfect shade, not to mention style, proved problematic. The main problem was that we simply couldn’t settle on any one shade of pink. The solution then was to simply not settle for a single shade and create a dress that subtly changed shades as Emma moved.
I designed a bespoke princess-style dress with multiple layers of silk, tulle and glitter I’m shares ranging from ivory to lilac to a hot dusky rose. We experimented inside and outside with great swathes of fabrics a spectrum of variations until, five hours later, we had the perfect combination. When layered just so, they would shift and slink and gather and flare to reveal all the different shades. I’m calling this Pelling Pink.
The skirt section featured the softest ivory tulle layered over a pink glitter tulle and a lilac-pink silk satin. The latter I just happened to have picked up in an eco-sale of designer dead stock with no plan for it but it was just too beautiful to leave. I’m so happy I got to use it for Emma’s dress.
The bodice included an additional extra-sparkly pale pink tulle layer and I created custom lace to embellish the illusion panel. A keyhole back and a corset fastening provided interest on the back, and a closer look at the corset lace ends revealed that I’d personalised them with Emma and her fiancé Sam’s names so they could literally tie the knot.
We made the front slightly shorter to show off Emma’s stunning pastel pink and blue shoes while the back dipped to a chapel train.
With Covid-19 wreaking havoc on wedding plans, this dress has been over a year in the making. I am absolutely delighted that Emma and Sam finally figuratively tied the knot on Sunday 13 June 2021, followed by a celebration with friends and family on Sunday 11 July. Loads of love to you both, Mr & Mrs Sullivan!
“I need help,” began Catherine’s first message to me. “I got swept up into buying a wedding dress. I love it on the hanger but on me, I just don’t feel right.”
Worse was to come: “I wonder whether it’s more me that is the issue rather than the dress. I’m just so worried I haven’t found the right dress and have wasted my grandmother’s money. Please can you help?”
That’s a lot of pressure for a bride, especially the belief that the reason your dress isn’t fitting is somehow your own fault (it’s really not).
I hear what Catherine said very often. It can be utterly overwhelming to be planning a wedding, making big (expensive) decisions and feeling anxious about being the centre of attention.
It’s a very common concern to second-guess your dress, especially before you’ve had it altered to fit you properly. It can feel like it’s not your dress and that you’re playing dress-up in someone else’s clothes! Of the hundreds of brides I’ve worked with, I’ve only known one actually change her mind and buy another dress (and she was already on her second when we met!).
It can make a world of difference just to have it fit you properly so that it feels like it’s your dress, it flatters you and it moves properly as you move rather than dragging on the floor under your feet, slipping off your shoulders, digging in in some places and gaping in others.
It’s MY job to make your dress fit and work for you so delegate that pressure to me.
Today, I received the loveliest message from Catherine, who married last month wearing her dress after I’d altered it to fit her. She ended it: Thank you. You really did make me feel like the bride I wanted to be.”
“This is the only part of our wedding that’s gone perfectly,” Gemma told me at her final fitting, and I don’t think I could get a higher accolade than that!
Gemma couldn’t find what she wanted ANYWHERE (and trust me, she’d looked!). For her Indo-Anglo fusion wedding to Shai, she wanted to mix the traditional Indian bridal three-piece lehenga (cropped top, skirt and dupatta/scarf) with contemporary Western embellishments and colourways. She was particularly smitten with the lace on a sleeve she’d found on Pinterest and also wanted to incorporate matching elements from her fiancé’s ornate Indian outfit.
A self-confessed ungirly girl, she also wanted to avoid anything too blingy. However, when my super-sparkly glitter tulle came out, all bets on no bling were off. 😁
Gemma’s ivory top featured guipure lace over a boned satin bodice and an illusion panel over her shoulders creating a keyhole back. When we couldn’t find a lace that matched the Pinterest sleeves she loved, I embroidered the sleeves with a bespoke design I created just for her (I design and make lace too). Lined with silk, the top also included hidden, in-built support so we didn’t need to worry about bra straps.
The skirt was a serious lesson in go big or go home. Its nine layers included satin, netting, glitter tulle, the softest floatiest plain tulle, silk organza and custom-cut guipure lace to match the top. I included a channel in the lining for in-built, removable steel hooping so she wouldn’t have to wear a separate underskirt and risk it peeking out above her skirt – they’re not the prettiest of undies. I hemmed the stiff netting with red, ivory and gold ribbon to encase the scratchy edges (a couture detail neglected in mass produced wedding dresses, resulted in irritated feet).
I embroidered her something blue, two butterflies, on the lining of the skirt in an ornate red and gold heart bearing her married name.
And OF COURSE it has pockets, as all wedding dresses should. And, because it’s 2021, a matching silk-lined face mask.
Finally, that beautiful ornate dabka embroidery on the skirt waistband and hem of the top was a bespoke creation by the talented hand embroiderers of Sindy Saggar Couture (@sindysaggarcouture). Finding a supplier to create the design to match Shai’s outfit was a major challenge given the timescale, lockdown in India and a wild goose chase with the original supplier but Sindy came to the rescue (thanks again to Deep, @thewellheeledcoach for hooking us up via The Luxury Wedding Lounge group).
I also altered the bridesmaids’ outfits when they arrived from overseas in the wrong sizes (one was 10″ too short, another 15″ too small!) with no time to exchange them. I made the matching face masks for them too in matching colours and fabric.
Gemma and Shai’s wedding on Saturday 12 June 2021 was a celebration of their love and commitment, a fusion of traditions from around the world and also marked the first time the wider family had been able to get together in two years. Even with a lockdown limit of 30 people and no dancing, THAT is worth celebrating in style. ❤💛❤🤍❤💛❤