How do you design a wedding dress for a period movie?

18th century wedding dresses with panniers

Wedding dresses - 18th century style. Keira Knightley wore the one with bows in The Duchess. The embroidered dress was for Helena Bonham-Carter in Frankenstein. Skirts over panniers or side hoops. (Photo CC-BY)

Planning a wedding dress for a period drama is not just a question of research plus design flair. It’s true the dress must look authentic for that particular era as well as suiting the actress, her character, and the overall mood and setting. Yet at the same time, the designer has to think about the audience’s expectations of a wedding dress – and that can work against historical accuracy.

What colour should you choose? White? White wedding dresses only started to come into fashion in Victorian times.  Wearing white at a wedding was never a “rule” before the 20th century. Most brides wore the finest dress they could, but until the later 1800s it was not often white. It could be any colour from blue to brown.

But designers and directors think audiences today like wedding dresses to look white. It should be obvious the bride is dressed for the marriage ceremony. And it’s best if she stands out from other ladies at the wedding by wearing a “bridal colour”. So while the dress is made to a genuine historical pattern with period trimming, the colour is usually near-white.

Creams and off-whites are good choices for filming for technical reasons since they don’t glare under the camera lights as much as a pure white fabric. They also create a more authentic feeling for any fashion history buffs in the cinema. Modern white clothes depend on modern chemicals like optical brighteners, so a gentle off-white is more realistic any time before the 20th century.

To make sure the bride’s dress is undeniably special even if it’s not gleaming toothpaste-white, designers can add as much embroidery, lace or ribbons as they decide. Even simpler period wedding dresses (for modest Jane Austen heroines, for example) benefit from subtle texture and shading to look good on screen. Film-makers must focus visual interest on the central character(s) in a marriage scene.

~ Read more about historic wedding dresses in Marriage a la Mode: Three Centuries of Wedding Dress Tradition by Tobin, Pepper and Willes ~

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