What makes for an iconic wedding dress? It’s difficult to say. Some sparked a seismic shift in fashion that’s traceable. Others simply endure in fond memories, impossible to erase. In an attempt to answer the aforementioned question, we’ve whittled our options down to give you the nineteen wedding day looks that we think constitutes a thorough, yet thoughtfully edited, list that spans modern western fashion history. You won’t find here every famous celebrity’s, nor society belle’s wedding dress. And you also won’t find the fictional variety of wedding dresses, which were made solely for the silver screen (we’re looking at you Funny Face and Sex and The City.) Instead, in chronological order, we lay out our case. Designer names are included whenever they are available, as are, when possible, the dress’s current location—in case you want to try and pay your respects.
Queen Victoria’s Wedding Gown
Wedding Date: February 10, 1840
Significance: Queen Victoria’s wedding gown is perhaps the most influential wedding dress in modern western history. Why? Because by choosing the color white, a color that was not seen as a requirement for contemporaneous brides, Victoria helped popularize the hue’s nuptial use. According to historian Julia Baird, Victoria chose the color to symbolize purity, and to help show off her (English) lace. Today, Victoria’s wedding gown is housed in the Royal Collection. Unfortunately, due to the gown’s fragility, and particularly that of its Honiton lace, it is not able to go on view.
Wallis Simpon’s Mainbocher Wedding Dress
Wedding Date: June 3, 1937
Significance: Mainboucher may not be a familiar name today, but in the nineteen-thirties, the house was considered to be the peak of chic. Today, the dress worn by the American divorcée who rocked the course of British history is in The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ironically, while Simpson’s simple dress, which captured the silhouette of its decade, was originally light blue, today it is white. The gown faded thanks to a defect in the dye originally used to make it Simpson’s something blue.
Queen Elizabeth’s Norman Hartnell Wedding Gown
Wedding Date: November 20, 1947
Significance: The world was watching when the young Princess Elizabeth married Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark. The happy occasion required the bride to save up all her ration coupons—which were still required in Britain after the conclusion of World War II—in order to be able to purchase the materials needed. The dress, which was designed by court-favorite Norman Hartnell, is remembered for its sweetheart neckline, and detailed embellishments, which depict flower varieties of the United Kingdom. The dress, like all gowns worn by other British royal brides, is housed by the Royal Collection.
Jacqueline Kennedy’s Ann Lowe Wedding Gown
Wedding Date: September 12, 1953
Significance: Jacqueline Kennedy’s ball-skirted, collar bone-baring wedding dress pretty much sums up the glamour that is associated with the Kennedys. But the dress, which encapsulated the nineteen-fifties New Look silhouette, barely made it to the altar. Jacqueline Bouvier’s mother, Janet Lee, commissioned the dress from the same designer who had made her own second wedding dress. However, mere days before the wedding, the design studio of Ann Lowe, a pioneering African-American fashion designer, was flooded, and the dress had to be remade. What’s more, despite the fact that Jacqueline’s mother commissioned the gown, the future first lady’s soon-to-be father-in-law was instrumental in its design. Jacqueline later said that she did not like the ivory taffeta dress. Today, the gown is housed by Boston’s John F. Kennedy Library Museum.
Audrey Hepburn’s Pierre Balmain Wedding Dress
Wedding Date: September 25, 1954
Significance: While Hepburn later became practically synonymous with the designs of Hubert de Givenchy, she first walked down the aisle in a distinctive dress by Pierre Balmain. With its high collar, dramatic sleeves, and complementary flower wreath, Hepburn’s gown was a modern redux of sorts of Medieval styles. The actress’s marriage to her groom, Mel Ferrer, did not last. However, this meant that later in life, she wed in another fashionable outfit—a sweet pale pink Givenchy number.
Grace Kelly’s Helen Rose Wedding Gown
Wedding Date: April 18, 1956
Significance: When Grace Kelly, the American-born Oscar-winning actress married Rainier III, Prince of Monaco, she walked down the aisle in a dress that was gifted to her by her studio MGM. The gown, which featured a silk faille skirt and a needle lace bodice encrusted with seed pearls, was made by the studio in its Culver City wardrobe department, and was designed by Helen Rose. Today, the dress resides in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was gifted to the museum by the princess, a native Philadelphian, not long after her wedding. And while due to its fragility it is not on view, its legacy is clear. Often referred to as the most iconic gown of the twentieth-century, the dress could be seen as a precursor of sorts to Kate Middleton’s similarly silhouetted gown.
Princess Margaret’s Norman Hartnell Wedding Gown
Wedding Date: May 6, 1960
Significance: Over a decade after her older sister wed in Norman Hartnell, Princess Margaret said yes to the same British designer. However, in more than one respect, this dress was its predecessor’s polar opposite. Where Elizabeth’s gown was embroidered, Margaret’s was devoid of any embellishment. Margaret’s skirt was also far more voluminous, while her neckline covered more skin. But like Elizabeth’s dress, Margaret’s gown was a sign of its times.
Mia Farrow’s Wedding Dress
Wedding Date: July 19, 1966
Significance: While not much is known about this wedding dress, it personifies wedding day skirt-suit style. Farrow’s double breasted jacket was as boxy as her skirt, and made for a quintessential nineteen-sixties look. When Farrow walked down the aisle in this ensemble and her pixie cut she was just 21. Frank Sinatra, the groom, was 50.
Minnie Cushing’s Oscar de la Renta Wedding Gown
Wedding Date: August 12, 1967
Significance: The dress worn by Minnie Cushing to wed photographer Peter Beard in 1967 is the first (well-documented) instance that the imitable Oscar de la Renta designed a wedding gown. The couple’s New York Times wedding announcement stated: “The bride wore a long organdy dress with appliqués of organdy flowers, crystals, and chalk beads on the hem and long sleeves.” The same style of small flower appliqué is regularly used on wedding gowns from the house of de la Renta today.
Yoko Ono’s Wedding Ensemble
Wedding Date: March 20, 1969
Significance: Yoko Ono was a style renegade in every aspect of her life. Therefore, it’s no surprise that her 1969 wedding ensemble would go down in history as highly influential. When Ono married John Lennon, she wore a white hat, white miniskirt, sneakers, and knee-high socks.
Bianca Jagger’s Yves Saint Laurent Wedding Ensemble
Wedding Date: May 12, 1971
Significance: Like Ono, Bianca Jagger didn’t feel the need to wear a literal wedding dress. Instead, when Bianca Perez-Mora Macias wed rocker Mick Jagger, she opted for a white Yves Saint Laurent Le Smoking jacket. The look was completed by a glamorous, wide-brimmed hat which was swathed in a sheer veil.
Princess Diana’s David Emanuel Wedding Gown
Wedding date: July 29, 1981
Significance: If the nineteen-eighties had to be a dress, it would, without a doubt, be Princess Diana’s wedding gown. With its voluminous pouf sleeves, ample frills, and never-ending train, the dress served as a bellwether for the decade’s coming styles. It conjured up a fairy tale, and could barely fit in the princess’s horse-drawn carriage. Other details of the dress, from its hidden good luck charm to the existence of a back-up copy, just go to show how much thought went into the making of this gown. The dress itself was apparently left to Diana’s sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, in her will.
Caroline Kennedy’s Carolina Herrera Wedding Gown
Wedding Date: July 19, 1986
Significance: Like Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera produces its fair share of floral appliqué gowns today. And for the house of Herrera too, this can be traced by to an early, famous gown. In 1986, Mrs. Herrera designed her first wedding dress for Caroline Kennedy (the designer was a favorite of the mother of the bride, Jackie O). The dress in question featured puff sleeves and a drop waste—both hallmarks of its 1980s date. But the floor-length frock, which was in fact covered in tiny shamrocks (a nod to Kennedy’s Irish heritage), launched Herrera’s bridal career. The next year, after an onslaught of press coverage, the designer launched a full bridal line.
Carolyn Bessette Kennedy’s Narciso Rodriguez Wedding Dress
Wedding Date: September 21, 1996
Significance: Carolyn Bessette Kennedy’s wedding dress captures two distinct aspects of late twentieth century fashion history: the minimalism that proliferated the nineteen-nineties, and the seismic shift that took place in the wedding dress industry as the millennium approached. The dress, a custom bias-cut, figure-hugging, number by Narciso Rodriquez, was a far cry from the frippery that characterized designs of the 1980s. Rightfully, it put Rodriquez on the map, and made many a bride yearn for a similar dress.