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wedding dresses

Your Gown: An Anatomy Lesson


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

Photo: Paul Costello

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.

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.

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.


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