Your Ultimate Guide to Classic Wedding Dresses
Given one word to describe their big-day aesthetic, many marriers opt for "classic". It's a descriptor that evokes timelessness, sophistication, romance and elegance all wrapped up in one. But, a search for classic wedding dresses often casts a wider net than you might expect. Sure, anything can be called classic, but there are a few dress elements that are universally considered so (Anne Barge creative director Shawne Jacobs pegs strapless styles, box pleat skirts and jacquard fabrics as some of her favorite classic elements). And, there are a handful of designers who are known to do those elements well. The best test to confirm if a gown is classic? Thinking ahead or behind 10, 20, even 50 years. Does the gown hold up after decades, like Grace Kelly's iconic long-sleeve lace gown from 1956? For your own wedding dress, think ahead. Will you look back on it years from now and still want to wear it—or does it lean too far into an of-the-moment trend? Ultimately, choosing a classic or classy wedding gown is all about using your own judgment and following your heart. But, here we've provided some starting points to help you along the way.
Trendy vs. Classic Wedding Dresses
Trends come and go with each season, of course; bridal collections are typically released twice a year in April and October, and we see new and interesting ideas each time. Many trends are a direct reaction to cultural shifts—for example, in 2021 there was a trend toward shorter, more casual wedding cocktail dresses for intimate or courthouse ceremonies during COVID—or a reflection of non-bridal fashion trends, like asymmetrical one-shoulder necklines. Classic wedding gowns, on the other hand, feature elements that have stood the test of time: ball gown silhouettes, high necklines, strapless styles and long lace sleeves, to name a few.
So, which style is right for you? Take a look at your day-to-day fashion for a hint. Are you refined, sophisticated and classic on the daily, or do you dress with an edge? If it's the former, classic styles are for you. If you aren't sure, there is a best-of-both-worlds approach: Pull some classic elements, while leaning into other trends. It's what many top designers—like New York-based Amsale—aim to do in their collections. "While the silhouette may remain classic, for example, our design team is always finding new and innovative ways to refresh elements of the piece for the modern bride, including shape of neckline, embellishment or shape of the skirt," says Amsale chief creative officer Sarah Swann.
What to Look for in a Classic Wedding Dress
Determining just how timeless a gown is often comes down to the details—each individual element of the dress makes a statement all its own. Here are a few specific styles to look out for if a classic and timeless wedding dress is the goal.
The silhouette refers to the overall shape of the gown. You may have heard of some of the most common silhouettes: fit-and-flare, mermaid, trumpet and so on. Two of the most classic silhouettes for a traditional wedding dress are A-line and ball gown. An A-line wedding gown is typically fitted through the bodice to the waist, then begins to gradually flare out from the waist down, creating a literal A shape. It's been worn by some fashion icons, including Kate Middleton, and is both flattering and trend-defying. Ball gowns are also considered classic, though they cater to a more specific (re: fairytale) aesthetic. These feature a voluminous, layered skirt atop a fitted bodice. Note that a gown can certainly still be classic if it doesn't fall into these two silhouette categories; maybe it's the neckline or fabric that makes it classic, instead.
When it comes to the neckline for classic wedding gowns, modesty is key. A timeless wedding gown rarely shows a lot of skin, and the neckline is where we take that into account. Bateau (also called boat neck) is one of the most timeless necklines; it's both modest and fashion-forward—and, currently, it's also on-trend thanks to Meghan Markle and her Givenchy wedding gown. High neck gowns are also classics; opt for see-through lace if you want the high neck but don't want to feel too covered up, à la Paris Hilton or Naomi Biden. Finally, strapless (regardless if the cut is straight across or sweetheart-shaped) is a forever classic due to its universally flattering nature.
Of course brides can wear any length wedding gown they want—and many COVID-era brides went short—but a floor-length wedding gown will alway be the most classic. (If you want to mix it up, we love a classy tea-length frock for the lead-up events like welcome party or rehearsal dinner, and a fun minidress for the reception or afterparty.) When it comes to length, also consider the train: Opt for a modest sweep (slightly longer in the back) or a full cathedral-length train for an ultra-classic take—just don't forget the bustle!
Classic is often associated with clean design. An elegant yet refined gown—unbidden by trendy embellishments or adornments—is sophisticated, minimalistic and most likely to stand the test of time. Look for fabrics like crepe, mikado, duchess satin (for a bit of sheen), faille (with subtle texture) and even silk for the sleekest look. That said, lace goes a long way in lending classic vibes. A lace bodice or top with a clean, unadorned ball gown skirt is an utterly classic combination.
Bows, long sleeves, lace appliqués—these sophisticated elements can certainly adorn a classic wedding gown, but arguably the biggest signifier of a classic is few or no embellishments at all. When it comes to design details, it's often the lack thereof that makes a gown clean and classic; extra embellishments tend toward the trendy (bows and pearls are having major moments, for example), but may not stick forever in the wedding fashion canon. (For a trendy take on timeless, opt for detachable elements, like an oversize back bow, to make a statement or change up your look from day to night.)
The Best Classic Wedding Dresses for 2023-2024
Moonlight Collection Style J6772
The princess of timeless wedding dresses is this sleek and chic gown, with a bateau neckline and illusion lace appliqué back. From bodice to ball gown skirt, the satin style is utterly seamless, creating a clean and oh-so-classic look. Classic doesn't have to mean ordinary, though. This gown's unique standout detail is its golden hue (it's also available in ivory), which subtly shimmers in the sunlight. Pair it with a rose gold tiara to complete the fairytale look.
Casablanca Bridal Annie Dress
If you were to make a checklist of classic wedding dress details, this one has them all: lace and layers of tulle, an A-line skirt and bateau neckline, demure cap sleeves and covered buttons. And yet, for all its classic elements, there's a bohemian edge to this gorgeous gown. We envision it in a garden setting—or perhaps in a field of wildflowers.
Theia Cardamom Dress
An homage to one of our favorite classic brides, Carolyn Besette Kennedy, this stretch satin wedding gown is all clean couture. The bateau neck puts a sophisticated classic spin on Carolyn's contemporary look, and a low cowl back adds statement detail.
Carolina Herrera Rosalie Dress
Equally as well-known for her celeb red-carpet gowns as her bridal styles, Carolina Herrera is high-end designer who has mastered the art of clean, classic elegance; her wedding dresses truly stand the test of time. This strapless style is no exception, with a slight V back that leads into a maxi floral lace ball gown skirt and train. Add a pop of color with your shoes or jewelry for a contemporary twist on the look, or keep it ultra romantic with diamond or pearl jewelry.
Justin Alexander Signature Leanne Dress
The jack-of-all-trades designer can certainly veer trendy, but his collections always include a selection of timeless stunners. We love that this one looks as though it could have been designed in nearly any era over the last 100 years, with its classic long sleeves and its textured organza jacquard skirt. A cathedral train adds an elegant air, and the deep V back and detachable bow are pretty finishes.
Amsale Thea Dress
"Thea is a modern evolution of the classic ball gown in a blooming floral jacquard fabric," says Amsale chief creative officer Sarah Swann "We've evolved the silhouette for the modern bride by adding an illusion plunge cutaway in the bodice." Each gown from the New York label is based on the founder's philosophy of elegant simplicity and understated glamour—and a must-see for lovers of classic style.
Pronovias Altair Dress
Bridal behemoth Pronovias has something for every style, and we love their classic-leaning options. This allover lace mermaid silhouette wedding dress has a deep V neck and draped cap sleeves that loop around to the illusion back. And, while the timeless style will always make a strong showing as is, you can customize it with detachable elements like a voluminous tulle overskirt or tattoo lace sleeves.
Viktor & Rolf Mariage One Shoulder Bow Fit and Flare
While this gown has some on-trend elements—an oversize bow and asymmetrical one-shoulder neckline, for instance—its slate-clean fabric and drape bring it firmly back into the classic category; it's the best of both worlds. Featuring a mermaid silhouette and lovely train, the timeless wedding dress is rendered in Japanese crepe.
Jenny Yoo Dylan Dress
As comfortable in a black-tie ballroom as an outdoor garden, this elegant wedding dress brings classic, timeless vibes to any type of wedding aesthetic. Crafted with a newer fabric in the Jenny Yoo repertoire—satin taffeta with a lustrous sheen—it has illusion panels at the side, demure spaghetti straps and a cummerbund waist below the deep V neck. Covered buttons along the back play up the classic feel.
Moonlight Tango Style T931
There are few more timeless wedding dress elements than a strapless sweetheart neckline; countless classy wedding dresses embrace the look. This one features a pleated surplice bodice atop an A-line skirt—with pockets!—that adds to the classic appeal. Detachable satin puff sleeves can be added for ceremony or reception to change up the look.
Maggie Sottero Artemis Dress
A dreamy, balletic gown, this traditional wedding dress brings the romance to your big day. It's available in two colorways: entirely classic ivory or—our choice—blush with silver and light pewter accents and natural illusion. Sequin and beaded bodice detailing and removable draped lace appliqué sleeves add a hint of glamour.
Vera Wang Meliora Dress
There's nothing quite as classic as a ball gown, and this version by Vera Wang has that timeless feel with a modern edge. The box pleats, strapless bodice and long train are pure elegance, and we love the detachable glove sleeves for a unique accessory.
Grace & Ivory Kefira Dress
Tulle is among the most classic wedding-dress fabrics, and this one has it in spades with a full structured tulle princess skirt. A long sleeve lace bodice amps up romance. Pro tip: Grace & Ivory makes a selection of their gowns available for try-at-home so you can make sure to get the sizing right.
Ines Di Santo Quice Gown
Many of Ines Di Santo's gowns are adorned with florals and dramatic detailing—she's an artist, after all—but the Quice gown from her spring 2021 collection proves she can be the queen of clean and classic, too. The strapless neckline, cummerbund waist and voluminous ball gown skirt are timeless details, but this dress has a modern edge, too: peekaboo side detailing, an illusion V-neck and sultry high slit.
Anne Barge Buckingham Gown
Creative director Shawne Jacobs pegs the Buckingham gown from Anne Barge's fall 2023 collection as an instant classic. "Buckingham features a luxurious, soft, gold metallic brushed jacquard and elegantly twisted drape at the neckline," she says. "The classic box pleating in the ball gown silhouette creates a timeless look." We couldn't agree more.
Stella York 7119
This simple yet stunning gown is the epitome of classic-meets-modern. We love the mix of high and low necklines—the illusion plunge offers a subtle, slightly sexy style. The double-banded waist and A-line silhouette have a flattering effect. We particularly love the square open back as well as one of the hallmarks of classic wedding dress style—covered buttons all the way down the train.
Wtoo by Watters Laurie Square-Neck Bow Satin Wedding Gown
Most recently rocked by Nicola Peltz Beckham, the classic square neckline is having a bridal moment, though it's long been a timelessly sophisticated style. The picture of refinement, this Wtoo gown is just as beautiful from the back, where a removable oversize bow sits at the base of a rounded back and drapes to a long satin train. Pair the classic wedding dress with elegant opera gloves topped with diamond bracelets.
Cynthia Grafton-Holt Couture ZAHA Two-Piece Wedding Dress
This two-piece gown definitely has a vintage air, but the high neck lace top-and-ball gown skirt combo is giving off major Kate Middleton vibes. The British designer is known for her romantic bespoke pieces—and the supreme craftsmanship that sets them apart—and it shows in this classy wedding dress.
Monique Lhuillier Bliss BL23109
Monique Lhuillier is a master of making everything old new again, incorporating ultra classic elements like lace and florals into of-the-moment designs. Here, she does it again, giving an off-the-shoulder ball gown contemporary detailing—a fitted bodice and high slit—in this gown for her Bliss collection. Top it with a tiara for a classic and regal look.
Essense of Australia Style D3457
Sophisticated in its simplicity, this soft crepe wedding dress is ideal for the understated bride who still wants a wow factor. The fit-and-flare silhouette is a modern classic and a row of covered buttons to the circle train is a timeless detail. The lack of embellishment means you can play up this gown with accessories, like a stunning diamond necklace perfectly centered toward the V neck.
Notable Designers of Classic Wedding Dresses
The bridal fashion house—founded by Amsale Aberra, the first Black female inducted into the CFDA—has a classic and refined ethos. When Aberra launched the label in the 1980s, she pared down wedding fashion, eliminating the frilly embellishments so trendy for the era. It's a formula that's proven to stand the test of time. "From ball gowns to fit-to-flare, AMSALE's timeless silhouettes are what brides gravitate to year after year," says chief creative officer Sarah Swann. "Many of Amsale's archival design elements still remain refreshed into the collection today. The house's ethos honors Amsale's lifelong pursuit of enduring style that evokes feeling and connection."
President and creative director Shawne Jacobs takes the most timeless elements of a wedding gown—strapless silhouettes, long lace sleeves or traditional jacquard, for example—and imbues them with modern romance, promising a classic but never stuffy style every time. "Our collection represents an aesthetic that is everlasting," Jacobs says. "We design unique looks, while also incorporating the classic and vintage foundation of our brand. Sourcing the most luxurious fabrics, we strive to create gowns that are not defined by the boundaries of 'trends,' but instead by our individual style."
The queen of clean design, Herrera is all about a flawless fabric. One of her signatures is an oversize bow, our pick for most timeless detail. Herrera has outfitted brides like Emmy Rossum, Olivia Palermo and Jessica Simpson.
She's put her own spin on classic more recently by incorporating large-scale florals into her fabrics, but Monique Lhuillier's silhouettes are the epitome of romance. Sweeping trains, ball gown skirts and stunning lace details are hallmarks of her statement gowns.
Oscar de la Renta
The designer cemented his status back in the 1950s and '60s dressing none other than Jackie Kennedy, and when he launched bridal in 2006 quickly earned a place in the upper echelon of classic designers. Case in point, he designed Amal Clooney's wedding gown; she's universally known for her sophisticated style.
Though many of her most recent designs lean heavily into an edgy, cool-girl aesthetic, classic is Vera Wang's bread and butter—and the fact that she's been one of the most revered names in wedding dresses for decades on end is proof her style has staying power. Just look at some of her celebrity brides, from Victoria Beckham in 1999 to Ariana Grande in 2021.