Anatomy of a Wedding Dress

Are you up on all of the parts of your gown? Study up with our lesson in dresses 101.

Over the years, the wedding dress has become an iconic piece of clothing, one associated with joy, union, celebration and hope. For many women, the price of a bridal gown also constitutes their single largest clothing expenditure. And yet, few brides actually know what goes into the gowns they choose to wear.

Like many things in life, a bridal gown is only as grand as the sum of its parts. Every version -- no matter what its shape or size -- is the result of several dynamics working together to enhance the wearer in a specific way and to create unique vision. For instance, the inherent sex appeal of a sheath can be downplayed with the addition of flirty floral embroideries, or highlighted with a halter neckline and sexy slit skirt. A big tulle ball gown can celebrate its princess appeal with lots of lace, a Basque waistline, and tea-length hem, or it can be made to look more modern with a dropped waist and strapless or asymmetrical neckline.

Before you start shopping, take a moment to consider the following 12 gown elements, each of which must not only be right on its own, but must also work with the others to form a perfect union.


Silhouette refers to the overall shape of a gown. It's the most essential element to assess, because a gown's shape is its bedrock -- and it's what sets the mood for your entire look. The fitted bodice and full bell-shaped skirt of the ball gown, for example, channels a Cinderella spirit, making it the perfect selection for the princess bride. The empire, on the other hand, is a softer style that evokes a period feel with its high, feminine waistline. More form-fitting styles like the sheath up the ante on wedding dress sex appeal, and are a sleek and stylish option for the modern bride.


The neckline is very important for two reasons: Not only is it the part of the dress people notice first, but it's also the one that sets off the face. If a bride's face is a portrait, then her neckline is its frame. Some necklines -- the bateau, jewel and mandarin -- are designed to sit high on the neck and offer coverage. While others -- the portrait, sweetheart, one-shoulder -- are defined by what they leave bare. The right neckline can add character to a gown, show off an accessory, or highlight a unique figure feature -- be it a long, graceful neck, daring décolletage, or a strong set of shoulders.


Technically, the waistline of the wedding dress is the horizontal seam that joins the bodice and skirt. Along with the neckline and sleeves, the waistline works to add signature style to a particular silhouette. It's also the element responsible for bringing shape and balance to the gown. For example, the elongated V-shape of a Basque waist is the perfect compliment to a full ball gown, while a natural waist on an A-line dress will highlight the gentle curve of the design. The waistlines also dictate how a dress works on your figure. Dropped waists, which came to prominence during the flapper era, help create the illusion of a longer torso, while high empire-style waists are favored for their slimming properties.


Wedding dress sleeves can add extra interest to a bodice and provide balance for a skirt. Once closely linked to season, the selection of sleeve style is now largely a matter of how much -- or how little -- skin the wearer is willing to show. Long-sleeved styles include Juliet (as in Romeo and…), a dramatic fitted sleeve with a short puff at the shoulder; bell, which is narrow at the armhole, then open at the wrist; and gauntlet, which is characterized by a by a generous pouf at the shoulder and a detachable glove-like piece that tapers to a fitted point near the wrist. On the other end of the spectrum are alluring super-spare styles like tiny cap sleeves that just cover the top of the arm, and spaghetti straps, favored for their sexy, lingerie-like sensibility.


The hemline of a wedding gown refers to its length -- an element that's changed drastically throughout history. Dresses were generally floor length until World War I. Then, in the late 1920s, they rose to knee length, before dropping to the calf in the '30s. By the time the mini was introduced in the mid '60s, skirt length had become largely a matter of personal choice. The length of your dress can be used to dictate the formality of your wedding, however. Generally speaking, the longer the dress, the more formal the affair.
Floor-length gowns are considered the most formal. Gowns that fall anywhere from mid-calf to ankle are considered semi-formal. And a gown that's knee-length or shorter is said to be an informal, though today the minidress is considered a chic option for the unconventional sophisticate or second-time bride.

Fabric & Finish

Style, cut, texture, drapery, and season are all important factors in determining the best fabric for a wedding gown. The same dress style can look and feel quite different in a different fabric, since each material is designed to produce a distinct effect. Some fabrics cling to the body, while others stand away. Some are cherished for their crispness, others for being light as air. Silk -- a natural fiber that exudes an innate quality of refinement -- is undoubtedly the most sought after wedding dress material, owing to its resiliency, elasticity, and strength. Among the most popular gown fabrics: satin, a densely-woven silk notable for its super-lustrous gloss; duchesse satin, a blend of silk and rayon that is lighter and more affordable than pure silk satin; charmeuse, a lightweight silk satin with a more subdued luster; and shantung, a low-sheen textured silk characterized by a rough, nubby quality. Then there are the gauzier, textured silks like chiffon, tulle, and organza -- all used in multiple layers for gown skirts since they are transparent, but lightweight.


Subtle yet strong, and rich with history, lace is the perfect parallel for the bride herself. It covers while it reveals, and adds a touch of centuries-gone-by grace while remaining utterly current. A bride who wears it pays tribute to a time-honored tradition. Lace-making -- which involves looping, braiding, and interlacing cotton, silk, nylon, and other types of thread to form a pattern -- developed from embroidery in the 15th century; by the Victorian era, few brides would marry without a touch of frilly threadwork somewhere on their gown. Today, lace is so widely used in wedding gowns, it's almost become synonymous with them. Heralded for its inherent romance, intricacy, and graphic detail, lace comes in hundreds of weaves and shades, from the bold decoration of Alencon, guipure, and ribbon, to the delicate finery of schiffli and Chantilly.


Embellishment is like icing on a cake; done right, it adds glamour and individuality to a gown. Throughout history, brides have taken to embellishing their wedding dresses. Queen Victoria added fresh orange blossoms to her otherwise pure ensemble back in 1840, and throughout the 18th and 19th centuries it was widely believed that the more elaborately trimmed a woman's gown, the wealthier she was. Today, it's the quality - not necessarily the quantity - of the embellishment that counts. Elaborate beading and embroideries are used to add richness and texture to plain fabric. Small, iridescent sequins and gems are sewn on to add light and give dresses their decorative twinkle. And layers of fringe, crystal droplets, and colorful beading that spill down the gown are all favored flourishes for adding movement.

Skirt Details

The skirt is where much of a gown's personality can be found -- a few well-placed details can make the difference between a gown that's average and one that's out of this world. They can add length and volume, romance and depth. Consider the bustle-back, the most popular of all skirt details. Characterized by yards of fabric that extend over the back of the skirt, "bustling" consists of gathering up all the material, then looping and securing it with a few discreet buttons or hooks. The end result? Swathes of fabric that add fullness and fun. Other skirt details -- strategically placed slits or pleats -- can up a gown's sex appeal, while still others -- delicate flounces, dramatic drapes -- can make it more poetic.

Bodice Details

In addition to embellishments like beads and embroidery, wedding gown bodices can be constructed with decorative details that add romance and individuality. The flip side of an unadorned tank-style gown may reveal a seductive corset-laced back; a high round neckline can be punctuated with a keyhole cutout; a strapless bodice gets a boost from a crystal-encrusted crumb catcher. Their purposes may be different, but fine points like these all have one thing in common: they make a lasting impression.


More than any other element of the wedding dress, the bridal train has the ability to transform. It's the elongated back portion of the gown that lies on the floor and trails out behind the bride as she walks, giving her a majestic appearance. Trains date from the Middle Ages, when length worn at court indicated rank. Today, gowns with long chapel and cathedral trains are considered the most formal, lending themselves to bustling following the ceremony. Watteau and court trains, which spill from the shoulders and fall to the floor or hem, are less formal. And the detachable train -- which can be any length -- is generally attached to the gown via buttons or hooks, then later removed to reveal a less imposing look.


There's no other tradition as synonymous with marriage as the white wedding gown. As the old English proverb goes "Married in white, you have chosen all right." Though increasingly, designers are using other shades for weddings, ranging from metallic platinum and gold to soft rose and lavender to pale blue. And more and more gowns are being designed with color in the details -- everything from azure crystal beads and pink bands of satin, to golden lace and garnet embroideries. Still, there's no denying that white is the most popular color for wedding wear, and the one most steeped in tradition. There's stark white, the brightest, crispest white which you can achieve with synthetic fabrics; natural white, a shade off stark white achieved with natural fibers like silk, and flattering to most skin tones; ivory, great for fairer skin brides; and champagne, a white with pink undertones that looks stunning on a dark complexion.

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