Strapless Wedding Gowns: A Bit of Insight

Lately, I’ve noticed a lot of buzz about pockets in wedding gowns being a “BIG NEW TREND”. Usually with several exclamation points involved.

All I can say is, well.. Duh. As a former gown designer who was putting hidden pockets into wedding gowns over 15 years ago, I’ve been amused by this recent revelation. To me, it was just common sense. No one wants to carry a purse on their wedding day!

Anyway, as I’ve been suffering a crappy bout of ADD recently – of course, as I’m supposed to be finishing up my 2nd book, “Evil Cake Overlord” – I had to take the opportunity to tweet about my amusement over the whole thing.

Immediately, I was asked “When do you think the strapless trend will end?”. Huh. I haven’t been asked my opinion of anything fashion-industry in.. Gosh, I can’t even recall how long it’s been. Might have something to do with being a dowdy, overweight baker type now 🙂 Easy to forget how much fashion history, aptitude, and knowledge a person has when they are wearing jeans and a ThinkGeek shirt, I suppose!

My response was “ Hrm, hard to say. Am starting to wonder if it’s been popular enough to transcend “trend””. It’s hard to boil a ton of information down to a single – or even a couple of tweets, and there’s a lot of information to be had, when it comes to fashion trending.

Since it’s been quite awhile since my last rumination on fashion design – oh wow, almost 1 year exactly! – I’m gonna run with it. I’m not a fan of entire decades of knowledge going to waste, so this is awesome.

So, strapless wedding gowns. As far as fashion – and wedding fashion in particular – goes, strapless has been a very recent option / “trend”. I’m trying to pinpoint exactly when they’d become an official “rage”, it was definitely within the past 15 years, probably around 10-12 years ago.

Before that point, most wedding gowns not only had straps, but sleeves as well. Sometimes huge, monstrous sleeves that dwarfed the poor bride wearing them… but I’ll get to that in a bit. You really didn’t even see much in the way of sleeveless options before, oh, I’d say the early 90s.

Around that time, weddings – particularly wedding receptions – were changing. The 1980s had really changed the face of weddings, with the newfound culture of opulence, excess, showing off. The new materialism meant wedding receptions that were much more of spectacle than before, with people struggling to – and spending much more money – to display their status in their wedding reception and planning.

Of course, now we look back at those receptions and cringe but.. Well, it was really the puberty phase of weddings as we know them today. Growing pains, people.

As wedding receptions became more opulent and crazy, they started to trend out of church basements and “basic” venues, and into more unique venues. Couples brought more of their personality into the actual location of their weddings and receptions, and a lot of the time, that meant veering AWAY from the traditional church wedding.

At the same time, the trends in wedding culture / wedding receptions were influencing fashion. That applies universally, of course – societal trends impacting fashions of the day – but this particular trend would end up becoming more longstanding.

The thing with a large number of brides trending away from traditional church weddings is that it meant a huge segment of the bridal market would now have certain restrictions lifted. Many churches back then had very strict restrictions on what could – and could not – be worn as part of a wedding ceremony. By and large, this meant that the vast majority of brides were required to wear sleeves. As that was pretty much the standard, the wedding gown industry designed around it.

Of course, many churches today still have those same restrictions. Many others have relaxed their terms a bit, and others have become much more liberal in that sense. Either way, a whole new set of possibilities opened up to wedding gown designers.

I entered the fashion design industry after the styles of the 80s had already become laughably passe, but the wedding fashion industry was only beginning to adapt to this big cultural change. Even as late as 1996, the vast majority of gowns in any given bridal salon had full sleeves.

Ok, so there’s your history lesson. Now a bit on design itself.

The main reason I would hesitate to call strapless gowns a “trend” is a multifaceted.

For one, trends tend to be fairly short lived. At around 10 years now, I think that it’s been a popular option a bit long to be considered a (passing) trend. Also, there’s no real end in sight.

Secondly, and here’s the big one… designing a gown to be strapless is an almost foolproof, easy way to design a gown. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a crutch – I don’t totally consider it a “lazy tool of a weak mind” or anything. It IS, however, an almost perfect solution to many of the design challenges that bridal fashion presents:

Color: White is a ridiculously difficult color to wear for the vast majority of the population.

There are variances in white that can be more flattering to certain skin tones, of course, but that also presents a problem. Offering a design in 1-2 color options is one thing, but expanding beyond that to cover a multitude of options is not only inefficient and expensive, it can have an adverse effect on the original design itself. A sleek gown with precise lines, designed to be crafted from stark white fabric will look very different when done in, say, rum pink. Add in external items such as lace, beadwork, buttons, and other trims, and you’ll see how offering a gown in many flattering shades is really not feasible.

There IS an option that works beautifully, however. Move the white away from the face! Designing a gown to be strapless allows for an unbroken expanse of skin between the white fabric and the face, making less-than-flattering fabrics look much better on a larger number of brides.

Line: Simply put, not having to worry about straps / sleeves is a relief. Straps can really break up the line of a gown that is otherwise gorgeous. You really have to go in knowing that you WILL be having straps, and design the gown around it. It can hamper creativity to have that sort of restriction.

Canvas / Cut: In addition to white being difficult to wear on its own… with a wedding gown, there is just so MUCH of it. The average gown is floor length, and usually with a lot of skirt involved.

Good fashion design is all about balance. In the 80s, with the church restrictions on gowns, this meant balancing the big, billowy skirts with big, pouffy sleeves. This, in theory, is a proper way to do it… in execution though, it’s a good way to lose a bride in a cloud of marshmallowy fluff.

Without getting too ridiculously detailed on design theory here, designing a strapless bodice / the bride herself balance the top part of the gown allows for a wealth of creative potential, while still being respectful to the eye, and – theoretically – being flattering to the bride.

Theoretically being the key word, here. The engineering behind a well made strapless gown are a thing of beauty themselves, even if invisible. The precise nature of a WELL MADE strapless gown is exactly what makes them sort of a rarity – and why so many people hate this “trend”.

Those women with the perfect “sample size 6″ body – not only measurements, but shape as well – have nothing to worry about. It’s those on either side of that golden size that have issues.

Those smaller – presumably with a smaller chest, proportionately speaking – really need to have a gown built around that, preferably incorporating something to fill out the top. This can be padding in the gown, a special undergarment, or external design – ruffles, bows, etc. Below a size 6, everything I said about “balancing out” earlier on goes right out the window. A strapless gown can make a small woman look flat, undefined, and waif-like… not the look many people are aiming for.

On the other side of the spectrum, a poorly made / ill fitting strapless gown can make many women look fat – no matter how in-shape they are.

The thing is, many designers will cut corners to keep the price down / profits up. When it comes to engineering a strapless gown, this can manifest in a bodice that doesn’t *really* fit well, but is tight enough up top to hold the dress up.

This is SO very wrong!

A strapless bodice needs to be engineered much in the same way as a corset, with enough internal structure to hold everything up from BELOW the chest. Period. To rely on a tight upper edge will cause even the most in-shape people to have skin spill over the top, a strapless “muffin top”, and/or squash the boobs in. Not flattering. A properly made and fit strapless gown could actually flare OUT at the top edge, and still stay up!

The thing that many people don’t realize is that a strapless gown CAN be flattering to almost anyone, any size, shape. It just needs to be made right, and FIT right. In an industry built on mass production, however, finding a well made mass-market strapless gown that *fits* really can be a needle in a haystack proposition.

When in doubt, have it custom made. Seriously.

So, that’s that. Why strapless gowns are popular, and why I believe that they are here to stay. Fashion is SO ridiculously fickle, if strapless gowns were destined to be a passing phase, I really think they’d be gone by now.

One scary thought, though. Fashion recycles itself roughly every 20 years, which means that we are gearing up for a return of the heyday of pouf in just a few years, if tradition holds. If designers do bend to tradition and start incorporating gigantic Leg of Mutton sleeves on everything again… I guarantee that strapless gowns will be a welcome relief. Oh lord.

In any case, have any questions about the wedding industry? Want to know my opinion about any of it? Send me an email, and I’d be happy to consider the subject for an upcoming blog entry/rant!

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