Royal Wedding Dress Designers

>> Monday, August 15, 2011

What do Norman Hartnell, David and Elizabeth Emmanuel, Lindka Cierach, Molyneux, Mainbocher, and Mme Handley Seymour have in common? All of them designed memorable royal wedding dresses. With Catherine Middleton’s wedding dress, Sarah Burton from the House of Alexander McQueen joined those illustrious ranks.

Royal wedding dresses conjure up images of fairy tales and happily ever after. Each designer is called upon not only to create a personal statement for the bride but also to redefine the fantasy image of the ultimate fairytale princess – Cinderella.

Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent
Some designs retain a timeless quality to them, such as Princess Margaret’s 1960 dress. Some are a product of their time – such as Princess Anne’s 1973 Tudor style sleeves or Lady Diana’s Spencer’s meringue creation from 1981.  Some are classic, such as Grace Kelly’s. Many have set trends. Queen Victoria set the ultimate trend, which continues to this day, of choosing a white dress for her wedding. Prior to this, brides had not always worn white. Roman brides wore yellow. 16th and 17th pale green was a popular choice – because of their association with fertility. But most brides wore their best clothes, wearing the dress she could afford. Now, wearing anything other than a dress within the white range of color, especially for a royal bride would be inconceivable. Though it has happened, the Duchess of Windsor’s dress, by American designer Mainbocher was pale blue. Lady Alice Montagu Douglas Scott’s dress was of a deep ivory that it had a blush pink hue.

Princess Alexandra,
Princess of Wales
Queen Victoria wore white silk satin court dress for her wedding in 1840. Made by Mary Bettans it used materials of British manufacture. Using British materials and even British designers is a custom that continues to this day. In 1863, her daughter in law, Princess Alexandra of Denmark, was given a beautiful dress of Brussels lace by King Leopold of the Belgians as a wedding gift, but as it was not British, it was considered inappropriate to use as a wedding dress. Instead, a dress of English silk was made by Mrs James, a favored dressmaker in London.

Like Queen Victoria and Princess Alexandra, Princess May of Teck’s 1893 wedding dress also used materials of English manufacture and was made by an English dressmaker, Linton and Curtis. In 1923, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon’s ivory chiffon dress was made by Madame Handley Seymour, a court dressmaker to Queen Mary, who not only made her wedding dress but the dress she wore for her Coronation too.

Looking back at these gowns and the designers who made them it’s a shame that their names have been, in effect, lost to the sands of time. Royal Wedding dresses tended to be made by royal dressmakers who did not get the same attention as designers do today.

Duchess of Windsor
The next royal bride, Princess Marina of Denmark would choose Edward Molyneux, Known for his elegant silhouettes, he was a couturier to society and the stars. He was a perfect choice for Princess Marina who was known for her chic and poised style.

Then there would be Norman Hartnell, a court dressmaker to the Queen Mother and to the Queen for many years. He was also well known for designing fashion costumes for films. He designed wedding dresses for Lady Alice Montagu Douglas Scott. Princess Elizabeth – the present Queen, whose dress was inspired by the image of Flora by Botticelli and had intricate embroidery. By contrast, his dress for Princess Margaret in 1960 was striking in its simplicity, as was Birgitte, Duchess of Gloucester’s dress in 1972. He also designed the present Queen’s coronation dress and robes.

Princess Alexandra and her new husband, The Hon. Angus Ogilvy on their wedding day in 1963
Princess Alexandra 1963
Via British Monarchy Flickr
Some lesser known designers have included John Cavanaugh, who started his career working for Molyneux, designed the wedding dresses of both Katharine Worsley, Duchess of Kent in 1961 and her sister in law, Princess Alexandra of Kent in 1963. In 1973 Princess Anne would choose a relatively unknown Maureen Baker, chief designer at the firm Susan Small to make her wedding gown. Maureen Baker was not a household name but had been making clothing for the princess for several years.


Out of all of the royal wedding dress designers, up until 1981, none were more famous or well known than David and Elizabeth Emanuel. And 3 decades later they remain famous. They too were relatively unknown, having only graduated from the Royal College of Art only four years before Lady Diana Spencer approached them to create her iconic wedding dress.  Beating out more established designers such as Hardy Amies, dressmaker to the Queen, and the front runner Bellville Sassoon.

The Emanuel’s creation, with its record 25 foot train, is remarkable in its excess, though it reflected the fashions of the time it is also seen as the ultimate fairytale dress, setting many trends in the process. Most royal wedding dresses since 1981, including Catherine’s have been compared to it and no doubt will continue to be compared to it.

Wedding dress designers that followed would not gain the same level of fame or notoriety. Though they created beautiful dresses, few would be as familiar with the designer names Linka Cierach, who made Sarah Ferguson’s dress or Samantha Shaw who designed Sophie Rhys Jones’ wedding gown.

The Duchess of Cambridge's wedding dress
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge's wedding dress
via British Monarchy Flickr
After William and Catherine’s engagement was announced, speculation began on who would design Catherine’s dress. Unlike other royal brides, she did not announce the name of her designer, preferring to keep everyone in suspense until the big day. Names of possible designers included Bruce Oldfield, a favorite of Diana, Issa who had made many clothes for Catherine, including her engagement dress, Sophie Cranston, and Sarah Burton from Alexander McQueen.

On the day itself the design and the designer were revealed as Sarah Burton. According to the press release for the dress:

Miss Middleton chose British brand Alexander McQueen for the beauty of its craftsmanship and its respect for traditional workmanship and the technical construction of clothing. Miss Middleton wished for her dress to combine tradition and modernity with the artistic vision that characterises Alexander McQueen’s work. Miss Middleton worked closely with Sarah Burton in formulating the design of her dress.
Burton started as a personal assistant to Alexander McQueen in 1997. She was appointed as Head of Womens wear in 2000, with clients including Lady Gaga, Michelle Obama, and Gwyneth Paltrow. After McQueen’s death she was named as the creative director of the company in 2010. Though her name was mentioned as a contender for designing the dress she denied any involvement. Though she almost gave the game away when she was seen arriving at the Goring hotel. Up until the day of the wedding no one knew for sure who the designer was, just as Catherine wanted it to be. Will other royal brides follow suit in keeping the names of their designers a secret? We’ll have to wait and see!

© Marilyn Braun 2011

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