The wedding dress dictionary - from the desk of a gown expert
Wedding dress shopping can be overwhelming, to say the least. Even before you try anything on, you’re bombarded with images and jargon: big white dresses, a million types of lace, satin, tulle and silk, words like column and bateau and illusion netting. It’s enough to make you grab the first white dress you see and be done with it!
As a dress designer, I can help. Of course, I know all the jargon, and I’m intimately acquainted with almost every fabric, lace and bead out there. Because I’ve created dresses for hundreds of gorgeous brides, I’m pretty good at knowing what suits different people.
The first step is finding a shape and neckline that works for you. The rest - fabric and lace, beads and buttons, trains and tulle - flows from there. I’ve listed the main shapes and necklines here, so you can figure out what you like best, narrow down your options, and waste less time trying on dresses that just aren’t right!
Shape and style
The shape, or overall structure, is the first and biggest decision you’ll be making. Most wedding dresses fall into one of five basic shapes, but different lengths, necklines, and details mean there are actually thousands of options out there.
Certain dresses can be more flattering on different people, I think the MOST important thing is that you feel amazing in it. The day belongs to your and future spouse, so you can do whatever you want!
Rather than worry about what will ‘flatter your shape’, I suggest chucking out the women’s magazine and picking a shape that you feel comfortable wearing in your day-to-day life (apart from your PJs J!). If your party frocks seem to often have full skirts and high waists, an A line or ball gown might suit you best. If you’re more of a slinky dress girl, a sheath dress could work. If you’re someone who doesn’t wear a lot of dresses, don’t worry! Have a think about your clothes in general – are they floaty and soft, or structured and tailored, close-fitting or more baggy? These are all clues about where you could start! To help, here are some descriptions of the basic shapes:
A-line dresses - high waist, slim over the hips, and a wide skirt - are a classic bridal style. Probably because they look great on everyone! They’re not quite as princessy as a full ballgown style but they do give you some bridal drama on your big day.
Column or sheath
Column and sheath dresses are straight and slim from the waist down. They should skim over your hips and bum for a curvaceous, sexy look. If you’re tall and slim, a column or sheath can be a great way to emphasise your long legs.
When a dress is fitted over the hips and down to the knee, then flares out into a wide skirt, it’s called either a mermaid or trumpet shape (we think mermaid sounds better, to be honest). This shape is very flattering on the tall and curvy, but can be a bit overwhelming if you’re shorter.
Think of Jane Austen and you’ll be able to picture an Empire Waist dress. The top is fitted, with a straight or slightly A-line skirt falling from just under the bust. It’s a great option if you’re concerned about your tummy. Bonus: because there’s no corseting over the waist area, you can eat all the canapes you want without feeling uncomfortable!
If you want to look like a princess on your wedding day a ball gown is the way to go. With a tight, corseted top, fitted waist, and dramatic full skirt, the ball gown looks gorgeous on most body shapes. If you’re very small and petite, the full skirt might take over a wee bit!
Necklines, straps and sleeves
There so many neckline styles, not to mention strap and sleeve options, but they all fall into three broad categories - low, high, and embellished.
Many of our dresses include illusion netting, which complicates the neckline issue a bit. Illusion netting or lace can create a second neckline, while leaving the first visible. For example, a strapless sweetheart dress with a high lace neck, or a plunging v neck dress with mesh or lace across the bust. Lace additions can be a good way to get the shape you want, but with a bit more coverage, if you’re not looking for that all-out va-va-voom look!
A low neck doesn’t have to be plunging. V necks, round necks, sweetheart necklines, less-common square necklines, and strapless dresses cut straight across the bust all fall into this category.
High necks are increasingly popular and give a sort of frenchy chicness (love!). High neck styles include the bateau, which goes from shoulder to shoulder with a slight curve; the sabrina or boat neck, which is cut straight across above the collarbone; the jewel, which is a high round shape; and the classic high neck (think turtleneck skivvy, only classier!).
This is the ‘other’ category for necklines. We don’t see these styles in wedding dresses very often, but they can be a great way to look a bit different on your big day. The Grecian neckline is like a fabric chocker, connected to the dress by a fabric strip. Cowl necks have draping around the bust, which can be low or high. Asymmetric necklines are pretty self explanatory - they fall from one shoulder, leaving the other bare.
Sleeves and straps
Sleeves and higher necklines are coming back into fashion. Straps include thin spaghetti or wider straight straps, wide off-shoulder straps, and halter straps, which are tied or buttoned behind the neck. Sleeves can be anything from tiny lacy caps, to wrist grazing full-length lace.
Wedding dresses tend to be pretty elaborate – which is why they require a bit more structure than your usual t-shirt or shift dress. This might make your gown trickier to put on, but it also means you’ll look great when you do. Boning, corsetry, padding and linings give you the shape and support you need to feel comfortable look your best.
Corseting and boning
Many, if not most, wedding dresses include some form of corsetry or boning. These are both forms of internal structure that help the dress keep its shape, so it nips you in where it should and flares out in the right places. Corsetry ranges from some very light internal structure to a fully corseted bodice, secured with ribbons or ties at the back.
Boning is the internal struts, which give the waist and bodice of a dress its shape. In the past, boning was made of whalebone (!) but now they’re usually made of plastic or wire. The best thing about boning and corsetry is that they give you support - so you can often get away with going braless on the big day.
Many wedding dresses include light padding in the bust and bodice. It’s not designed to make your bust look bigger, it’s there to make the dress sit against your body perfectly. Without padding, the fine fabric of many wedding dresses would sit against your skin, looking flimsy and, in some cases, embarrassingly transparent.
The lining of your dress is surprisingly important. At Daisy, we use fabrics like satin charmeuse, medium density satin, or tulle for the lining. These fabrics are comfortable and breathable, which is important, but they can also be tailored to the boning or corseting of your gown without affecting the overall shape. If your dress has lacy elements, lining is essential to prevent, um, transparency issues. Choose a contrasting champagne lining to make the delicate patterns of a lace overlay stand out.
For dresses with fuller skirts – like the A-line or ball gown – a petticoat might also be necessary. These are usually made from layers of fine tulle to help give your skirt the wide, dramatic shape you’re after.
We haven’t even covered trains, bustles, backless dresses, beading, peepholes, puffed sleeves...I could go on! But this guide should be enough to help you get started. If you find a shape and a neckline that you feel great in, the rest is easy.
Pop in to the Daisy Showroom to check out our options, or get in touch if you're not sure where to start.
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