Before my relationships with wedding dresses began, I hadn’t given much attention to them as a garment. I was working as a trend researcher at the time (2007) when a close friend was getting married and I agreed to go to the National Wedding Show at Earls Court, London, taking my questioning mind with me. Intrigued by dresses people spent thousands on, I put the supportive friend act to good use by trying on dresses myself. To my surprise, one of the dresses, a grey blue silver princess dress no less, with lace trim and diamantes, was a perfect fit. It wasn’t the size, rather a feeling. Even though I was wearing a corset I didn’t think I’d like and so many underskirts I couldn’t find my legs, it was THE one! It was also £4,500, so I thanked the lady saying ‘I’ll think about it’ and begrudgingly handed it back. In that moment, the one where I didn’t want to let go, I got what all the fuss was about. I’d found MY dress.
From then on, my collection of far more modestly priced dresses began. I convinced my friends that I wasn’t planning for my big day, desperate to bag a mate, or moulding myself into Miss Havisham1 (‘You cold, cold heart!). I was curious. So much effort for one day, one special dress, or two if you’re that way inclined. All that money for 12 hours of your life, to take it off, stick in a bag way too small for it and shove to the back of your wardrobe. I wanted to celebrate the wedding dress, with it, in it. We went to parties together. It felt like I was giving second lives to these unwanted dresses, each with their own personality, that I’d found in charity shops or ebay, they were no longer sad when they were with me. They doubled as a series of housedresses; I could come home from work and read in them or casually socialise with friends. Most of my working day was spent wearing black – trousers, shirt with button down collars or a roll neck jumper, which I’d wear with special orthopaedic shoes, also black. Being boyish, with a bowl cut, and a degree in fashion, all that felt okay. But, suddenly, I had enormous silhouetted dresses, with hooped underskirts that changed me, just be putting it on, so extravagant and girly, and white!
When I saw the adverts for this year’s National Wedding shows, London and Birmingham, I deliberated my adventures with each of my dresses. A rejuvenated curiosity took over. What’s the market like out there since my first wedding show, the expectations of brides and grooms, and how much are they willing to spend on the big day in this financially wobbly time. During initial research, designers I’d spoken with had told me, they’d stopped making wedding dresses because more and more brides wanted dresses for under £500, which isn’t going to get you very far if you want the finest fabrics and a bespoke dress. Especially if you also want full command of the creative reins, and keep changing your mind, because ultimately, you’re not a designer. Online, you can buy brand new dresses, ready-to-wear for £12.98,2 and ‘custom made’ dresses for £55, with corsets, covered buttons, full skits and hand-sewn beading. You’re not going to get the best fabrics, I hate to think what state the boning is in, and I’ve got serious reservations about the conditions they’re made in. At the other end of the scale, Kate Middleton’s dress, undisclosed cost, with high-end fashion the sky’s the limit, so who knows. But, if the dressmakers at Alexander McQueen really did change the needles every three hours and took breaks every half an hour to wash their hands, we’re already well over budget on that £12.98.
Inspired, I got on a train to the last day of the Birmingham NEC show, 03.03.13. Looking for a commercial perspective I spoke with stallholders, to hear the current wedding story from their side. I kept it broad, interviewing people from designer, bridal, menswear, vintage and accessory zones. Do brides and grooms know what they want, and where did they get that idea from? How much are they willing to spend and how are they sold the experience?
The Head Office Manager for Connfetti & Lace3, told me people really like lace and antique vintage feel dresses at the moment. Princess and fairytale styles too. Sleeves have made a comeback since Kate Middleton’s wedding, she said ‘People are looking for sleeves again, dresses went through a very long faze of strapless, off the shoulder, Kate brought it back into fashion that a sleeve does look very nice.’4 Their customers prefer more traditional ivory, she said, in lace and tulle but they also stock satin, taffeta, chiffon or organza dresses with a wide selection of designers to choose from. Including; Ronald Joyce, Mori Lee, Ellis, Alfred Sung, Enzoani, Sophia Tolli, and that’s just a few of them. Choice doesn’t seem to be an issue with these classical wedding dresses, and decorative detail5, but do their brides know what they want?
Source: Address Publications
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Hannah is the owner of Noble & Wright Atelier6, who sources her designers and one off vintage style accessories, largely from London. Her goal, to provide a feeling of quality, unique pieces, with streamlined silhouettes and refined detailing.7 Two of her favourite designers are Alice Temperley, ‘She has unique classic dresses with a little bit of a twist’ And David Fielden, whose dresses are made in England, a selling point for Hannah’s customers ‘…they love the thought that someone’s sitting there, the fabric’s arrived in, you know and David’s there, in the studio, you can actually see him making the dress, I think that’s really important.’
Source: Address Publications
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Audio: Director Hannah
Rose, an employee for The Dressing Rooms8, is part of a very warm team, who told me their brides become like friends by the time they’ve got their dress, and I believe them. They sell adaptable headbands like the one she’s wearing by Helena Talbot, so the bride can turn it into an every day band after the wedding, by removing the netting. Emma, the Manger told me, shorter dresses are really popular, introducing me to the latest ranges from both Ivory & Co (as worn by Rose) and Mooshki, just that name alone is an experience! Colour is also a growing trend for their market, and not just for the bold brides, the shy ones too ‘..it’s kind of their way of coming out a little bit and showing their personality’ The Director, Rebecca, talks about buying dresses now, compared to when she got married, 18 years ago. Rebecca told me ‘Bridal is a really strange thing, it’s like you have a subconscious image of what you want to look like but you don’t actually know what that is until you see it in front of you in the mirror, and that’s when it all clicks into place. And it’s a really wonderful thing to watch with a bride, because they’ve no idea. It’s a really really strange thing too, to watch, when a bride finally gets in front of a mirror, and that’s her dress.’
Assistant Rose, Source: Address Publications
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Audio: Manager Emma
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Audio: Director Rebecca
Dave, is Marketing Manager for Moss Bros9. He says he urges grooms to try things they perhaps think might not suit them ‘It’s about taking a risk, to think, this isn’t something I’m going to be wearing everyday, to come at it from a different angle’ The newest part of the business is Moss Bespoke10, made to order and made to measure suiting. Prices start from £295 which you can personalise by having the bride and grooms name embroidered on the inside pocket, matching buttons and fabrics to the rest of the bridal party. This ranges up to the current average price for a bride to spend on a wedding dress, based on my conversations, £1200. Wide range of cloths and fabrics and a lot of colour too. Suits to buy start at £129 and they also offer a hire service starting at £100 for the whole outfit. They’ve got a new range launching on 1st May, a suit developed in conjunction with Ted Baker, ‘Tales of the Unexpected’. Although part of the hire range, you can keep the tie & hankie as a gift from Ted. ‘Men are much more conscious now to look their best, something we hear a lot is that guys who are maybe not 6ft tall, think that tales may not be flattering for them, I would argue it the other way that guys who are a little bit shorter can wear tales quite nicely because the curved front gives a graduation between the top and bottom half of the body. Where as some traditional full length or frock coats give a definite distinction between the top and bottom half.’ He said, although women very much seem to be the main planners still, men are much more interested, inspired largely by celebrity culture, in particular sports personalities. And what about the current trends?
Source: Address Publications
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Audio: Marketing Manager Dave
Grace, has her own company Grace Elizabeth11, making hand made bridal and occasional shoes following a fashion and textile course in Somerset. She uses fabric manipulation to add something different to shoes12, which take eight weeks to design and make each pair, starting from £350 to about £500. She uses, cotton and lace, and silk satin fabrics and she’ll work from your own shoe design if you have one. She likes to take a bit of a trend and make it more her own, vintage styles are the inspiration at the moment. Grace enlightened me with the end bit, that often gets missed off, from ‘Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue…’ And the end bit is?13
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Audio: Director Grace