Wedding Dress Style Guide
A massive part of the wedding for most brides is the wedding dress, but even for a bride who is fashion-savvy, it can get confusing with all the options available when it comes to lengths, colours, styles and fabrics. Even more so when you start picking out the bridemaids dresses (where fabrics and colours in particular have numerous, seemingly unending options) It can seem like the bridal gown stores are speaking in another language entirely. So I’ve scoured the internet and brought you this guide to help downgrade the confusion.
Women come in all sorts of wonderful shapes and sizes, and whilst everyone’s body is different they generally fall into one of several general shapes. If you know what shape you are, you can narrow down what styles of dress will most flatter your figure. Remember just because Cinderella looks great in a ballgown doesn’t mean every girl will. Check out the comprehensive guide to body shapes by the girls at sheknows.com Beauty section.
Pear Shapes: Look for dresses with an ‘A-line’ skirt. A ballgown that is not overly poufy can also work well if you are average height or above. Spaghetti-strap bodices and v-necklines can flatter those ladies who are pear-shaped, show-casing a slender upper body. Go for sturdier fabrics that won’t cling such as duchesse satin or taffeta. A line (or princess) cut dresses tend to lend a formal air, but can be dressed down somewhat when fabrics like eyelet lace and shantung silk are used.
Apple Shapes: Look for dresses that are narrowed at the smallest point of your waistline, then flare out for a gradual A shape. Bodices with texture, such as ruching or lace detail that will camouflage and fit snugly, similar to a corset. Necklines with a deep V will be most flattering as they drawn the eye vertically, not horizontally. Avoid trumpet or fit-and-flare dresses as these will emphasize your widest part and then flare out where you are narrowest – the legs and knees.
Ruler Shapes: You want a dress that will create the illusion of curves you don’t naturally have. A sheath dress in a wispy material that’s cut on the bias – a curving side seam will give you a glorious silhouette. A ballgown that cinches in at your natural waist point and has a full, flowing floor length skirt would also look amazing. It capitalizes on the slender parts and hides a lack of hips. If you have a small bust, go for a bodice with some ruching to add a little volume.
Petite: You can go for mermaid, trumpet/fit-and-flare and modified A-line gowns. Try for styles that have a waistline above your own natural waist line to give an illusion of height. Don’t go for massive details, stick to small detail like lace embellishments or beading on the bodice area to draw the eye upward. Avoid styles with a dropped waist or cut calf-length which will cut you off at the legs and poufy ballgowns which you will just get lost in.
Tall Girls: A simple silhouette is going to look the best. You want to emphasize your natural shape, and thus the whole dress should reflect your longer proportions. If you are going to have sleeves, they should go just past the wrist or it will look as though you’ve borrowed the dress from someone shorter than you. Don’t overload the dress with to many large embellishments – such as ruffles and rosettes as they can look cutesy on taller people.
Big Busted: Dresses with a scooped neckline will look lovely on brides who are well-endowed. They open your face and show your décolletage (neck and above bust area) without letting the girls spill out everywhere. If you like a strapless look then opt for one that has a slight dip in the neckline, such as a sweetheart neckline which will flatter the bust area rather than make it look shelflike. If you are wanting to avoid adding volume to your bust, then avoid fabrics with a sheen or ruching in the bust area.
Plus-Sized: Empire dresses with a skirt that starts just under the bustline and have a soft, floor-length A-line cut to them are especially flattering. You nees to make sure that the empire seam doesn’t start on the chest area, and unless you are pregnant, avoid pleating which is very typical of maternity wear. The dress should enhance and play up your shape – if it’s too loose it will make you look bigger. Where possible find fabrics that will provide structure such as satin. If you like the look of flowy fabrics, try for a underskirt that is structured, with an outer layer of tulle or similar to get the effect.
Traditionally wedding dresses have been white and long. Nowadays they aren't always long in length. In fact, some locations make having a floor length dress a nightmare, so it has become practical to have dress styles that are shorter as well as the traditional longer lengths.
Mini: A great style for ladies with long legs and those who are after a casual feel. Mini dresses/skirts are short, short, short and rarely fall lower than mid thigh. Probably not a good choice if you're getting married in any sort of religious location.
Knee Length: This cut hits anywhere from just above the knee to about 3/4 of the way down your knee, depending on the length of your legs. A nice length for brides and bridesmaids who are in summer weddings, and also suits ladies who might be choosing to marry in a skirt-suit. Appropriate for most locations.
Tea Length: Generally mid-calf, although can be any where from just below the knee down, this length is a particular favourite of brides who are fans of the 1950s vintage style. A length that looks flattering on just about everyone, and is definitely appropriate for all wedding locations.
Floor Length: Traditionally this length just brushes the floor or the soles of the bride’s feet where they meet her shoes. Most dresses are designed for this length, and a majority of women will need dresses this length altered as they will be way too long for them. As it is a classic, it’s suitable for all locations although you may have more difficulty at a beach wedding.
Lots of girls grow up dreaming about getting married in a big poufy ballgown Disney-Cinderella style, and others just loved Duchess Katherine’s wedding dress on the day she married Prince William. Regardless of your preferences there is a style out there for you.
A-line: Also called a ‘princess cut’. A-line dresses tend to flare out from the hips and gradually widen into an ‘A’ shape, hence the name. They can be quite narrow at the waist, almost hugging the hips or they can be quite full. They are a style that flatter most people.
Ballgown: Has a full, bell-shaped skirt usually with lots of layers of tulle and fabric to create the very full effect, and a fitted bodice. The structure of the bodice cinches in the waist and the fullness of the dress hides the hips and bottom.
Empire: These dresses feature a higher waistline that starts just under the bust. They are quite fitted until the waistline. The skirt fabric then falls straight to the floor with a softly voluminous look.
Mermaid: Also known as ‘fit-and-flare’ these dresses are extremely fitted down the entire body to the knees, and then flares out at the knees. Can be hard to pull off but don’t be afraid to try one on as if they suit you they look amazing.
Sheath: Also called a column dress. This will follow your natural body shape and doesn’t have any extra fabric to create volume, but does flare out softly towards the ankles and feet. Generally fitted over the waist area to highlight your natural waistline.
Trumpet: Tightly fitting from bust to mid-thigh, then flares out from mid-thigh usually to the floor. Named as they do resemble trumpets. As with the mermaid, these can be hard to pull off, but are amazing if they suit your figure.
Princess, sweetheart, asymmetrical, off the shoulder. There are lots of different styles when is comes to necklines – and yes, even if you dress doesn’t actually have straps or sleeves, the top of the bodice is still called a neckline. There is a wonderful visual guide right here.
Bateau: Also known as a boat-neck. Follows the line of the collarbone to the very tips of the shoulders. A very elegant choice for a traditional wedding because it gives extra coverage. Lots of brides today are adopting this style with a lace or sheer overlay providing just a hint of skin.
Halterneck: This is a more contemporary choice for a wedding gown, and is becoming more popular with brides. They show of the shoulders and upper arms can help to make a petite bride look taller. It’s a perfect choice for tall or broad-shouldered brides, and if you would like to accentuate your curves. However if you are conscious of your arms, this is probably a neckline to avoid.
Off The Shoulder: Sits below the shoulders and accentuates the collarbone and shoulders. Sleeves (usually a very short cap-sleeve, but sometimes a long sleeve) coer the upper-part of the arm. Flattering for most women, if you have fuller arms or are uncomfortable with baring your shoulders, this is probably a neckline to avoid
One-Shoulder: Usually a strapless-style bodice but with a single strap. Another contemporary choice, especially for pear-shaped and bigger-busted brides. A style to be avoided by brides who are broad shouldered as it accentuates the collar bone.
Queen Ann: A high rising collar at the back of neck which then sculpts low across the chest in a very pretty neckline.
Scoop: A u-shaped neckline of various depths. This is generally not a neckline that you can go wrong with. It shows off your collarbone and can elongate a neck – it can also create a nice hourglass shape as it creates a balanced look between the upper and lower body.
Square: Straps that run straight up and down meeting a horizontal bodice at a 90 degree angle. Can also be strapless, in which case the top of the bodice is a straight horizontal line.
Sweetheart: A scallop-shaped neckline that forms heart shape across the bust area. It’s a classic ad romantic style, and one of the most popular necklines. Women who are medium to well-endowed wear this the best – although just don’t show too much cleavage. Usually strapless, but can also come with spaghetti or string straps as well.
V-Neck: Dips down towards the feet in a V shape. Most often a subtly sexy option, they can also plunge down deeply. It’s a style that highlights your face and elongates your body because it draws the eye downwards. For a subtle option, you could opt for a sheer lace piece over the front.
Basque Waist: This waistline features a low U or V shape where the bodice meets the skirt.
Dropped Waist: A lower than natural waistline that most often sits mid hip.
Empire Waist: Has a high waistline that starts just below the bust, where the skirt of the dress flows down to from the hem.
Natural Waist: A waistline that sits at the natural waistline – the indentation between hips and the rib-cage.
Princess Waist: An A-line silhouette with vertical seams down the front.
Brush/Sweep: The shortest of train styles – usually the back hem that is only few inches longer than the back.
Court Length: Longer than a brush-length train, usually extends 3 feet behind the waist.
Chapel Length: Generally these trains are about 4 feet or longer from the waistline
Cathedral Length: Usually extends about 7 ½ feet from the waistline.
There are two main types of fabrics that wedding dresses can be constructed from: structured and soft. Often they are made of a combination of both structed and soft materials – bodices usually made from structured materials, the skirts from soft materials. Here I have tried to describe those that are most commonly used in wedding dresses.
Batiste: A lightweight, soft and transparent fabric, most often used on the top layers of skirts of a dress.
Brocade: A woven fabric with raised designs that is woven Jaquard-style, and is most popular in autumn and winter weddings due to its weight.
Charmeuse: A semi-lustrous lightweight soft fabric, that is stain-like to the touch, with a rich shine.
Chiffon: A delicate, sheer material that is usually made from silk or rayon with a lovely soft finish; often layered because of its transparency, making it a popular material for overskirts, sheer sleeves and wraps.
Crepe: A lightweight, soft and thin fabric that has a crinkled texture.
Damask: Similar to brocade with it’s lovely raised designs, but much lighter in weight.
Duchesse Satin: A beautiful lightweight material that is a hybrid or silk or rayon (or sometimes polyester) woven into a satin finish.
Dupioni: This material has a finish similar to shantung (see below) but woven from thicker, coarser fibres and has a light sheen to its finish.
Gabardine: a tightly-woven material that has a firm and durable finish with single diagonal lines on the face of the fabric.
Georgette: a sheer, floaty and lightweight fabric that is most often made from polyester or silk and has a finish similar to crepe. Often used for overlays and trains.
Organza: Similar to chiffon in that it is crisp and sheer, although stiffer in texture like tulle, but more flowing. As it’s a structured material which works well with a lot of other materials, it’s often used in veils, overlays, trains and skirts.
Rayon: A more elastic and affordable alternative to silk.
Satin: A beautiful woven material that is heavy-weighted and smooth, with a high sheen on one side. It’s one of the most popular choices for wedding dresses, although not so much if you are marrying in summer due to the weight.
Silk: The most sought-after and expensive fabric for wedding dresses. It comes in many types with varying textures and shininess. Raw Silk and Silk Mikado are just two types.
Shantung: A type of raw silk, characterised by its slightly rough, rubbed texture.
Taffeta: Fabric with a slight-sheen similar in appearance to silk but much lighter. This smooth and crisp material rustles when you move, works well for structured ball gowns and full skirts.
Tulle: A netted fabric most often made from rayon, polyester or silk fibres. Adds volume to skirts and is also popular in veils.
Velvet: Soft and thick with a felted pace and plain underside, popular for winter dresses and weddings located in colder climes.
We’ve all seen episodes of Say Yes to the Dress where the bride looks stunning in a gown and either can’t make up her mind, or has a horrendous entourage who don’t like anything she likes. Hopefully with these few tips you can avoid a date with dress-shopping disaster and just have a wonderful time instead.
Limit your entourage. The fewer (differing) opinions that you have to deal with on this important shopping trip the better. You don’t need all your bridesmaids, your 3 sisters, your mum, your grandmother and your Aunty Sue. Pick 2-3 of these people whose opinions you would listen to about your day-to-day or work wardrobe and only take them as well as your planner. She can help diffuse any tension that may arise.
Let whoever is helping you out at the store know exactly what you do and don’t like. You won’t hurt their feelings by saying ‘I don’t like poufy dresses’ or ‘I love the skirt on the dress’. It will make their job easier as it will allow them to further narrow down options for you to try on.
Try your dress on with proper underwear – similar to or exactly what you intend on wearing on the day. (And yes, you will need underwear on.) This will help with sizing, alterations, etc.
Don’t get hung up on the size of the dress. Wedding dresses are sized at least two sizes smaller than regular clothing. No one is really sure why, that’s just the way it is, so don’t freak out if your wedding dress needs to be a few sizes bigger than you were expecting.
Ultimately – it’s your day. Pick the dress that makes you the most happy when you have it on. While it’s lovely to have other people like your dress, it is YOUR dress. Try it with a veil or a bouquet (most stores/boutiques will have one you can borrow) and if you can’t wipe the smile off your face, then that’s a sure sign it’s the right dress.