History of Wedding Dresses and Pearl Embellishments

Pearl embellishments on a wedding dress

For many married women, a wedding dress is one of the most elaborate and intricate pieces of clothing they'll ever wear in their lives. Some unmarried spend years dreaming about the wedding gown they'll one day wear, making mental notes about what they do and don't like. They make Pinterest boards and save pages out of magazines, imagining how they'll look at the altar on their big day.

Choosing a wedding dress is an event in itself: the bride-to-be will gather her closest friends and female family members and then make appointments at one or more bridal boutiques. The store clerk will help her choose dresses that are most in line with her tastes and best suited to her body type. Champagne is usually involved. Then, the bride-to-be will model the dresses for her entourage until they all unanimously agree that she has found "the one".

After a customer recently asked us about pearls on wedding dresses, we became more intrigued by the history of wedding dress fashion. As a company that makes and sells custom pearl necklaces, especially as meaningful milestone gifts, we're fascinated by the various pearl embellishments that wedding dresses can feature. We'd like to share some of our findings with you.

History of the White Wedding Dress

According to Beth Montemurro, a sociology professor at Penn State University, "The white dress lets you be a celebrity for the day where all the attention is on you." (Source) It's so ubiquitous that it's hard to believe brides didn't always get married in elaborate white gowns.

In fact, wedding dresses only came into fashion in the mid-19th century. Before then, colored dresses were the norm. In 1840, Queen Victoria wore a white silk-spun gown accented with Honiton lace at her wedding to Prince Albert, and women started to take notice, wanting to copy her look.

The white dress was also a sign of wealth. According to one explanation from CNN.com (Source), prior to World War II, "most women exchanged vows in dresses they already owned, and there was only one group of people who could afford to own anything white: the leisure class...Buying a white dress was seen as extremely impractical, especially when one considered the festivities of a wedding." If you could afford to buy a white dress, then you were privileged. After the war, the middle class started copying the style of the wealthy, thanks to a boom of prosperity.

In other countries, different wedding dress colors symbolize different things, but in the U.S. white remains the norm, with 82% of brides choosing to wear white on their special day (Source). These days, there are even many shades of white, from "diamond white" to ivory white and champagne. In addition, dress designer Maggie Sottero refers to some of her gowns as "pearl white".

Types of Embellishments

Now that you know more about why wedding dresses are so special and what they represent to brides, you may be curious to know more about all the embellishments. Wedding dresses can feature details like lace, beading, sequins, border trims, fringe, ribbon, and more. The quality of these embellishments can vary greatly from one designer to another, with some using real crystals, and others using plastic beads, for example. In addition, the embellishments - and the labor associated with incorporating them into a dress - greatly affect the cost of any given gown.

As you can imagine, being a bride who's searching for a wedding dress can be extremely overwhelming, since it feels like there are as many different wedding dress styles as there are brides. One Fab Day recently put together a list of wedding dress designers, and the list is seemingly endless, with hundreds of designers featured. Entire publications and websites are dedicated to helping brides find the perfect wedding dress styles. The show "Say Yes to the Dress" is all about the process of narrowing down one special dress.

We're fascinated by all the styles and embellishments, but we're particularly intrigued by pearl embellishments, which lend themselves well to wedding dress design, since many pearls are white or off-white. In addition, white pearls symbolize new beginnings, the perfect sentiment for a new bride. We love the idea of pairing a pearl-studded gown with a cultured pearl necklace or other pearl jewelry. Continue reading to learn more about the various types of pearl wedding dress embellishments and to see how designers are using them.

Seed Pearls

If you've never heard the term "seed pearl" before, you should know that they're generally small natural pearls, usually measuring less than 2mm in diameter. While some wedding dresses feature faux seed pearls, others actually have natural seed pearls. We loved seeing this vintage wedding dress from 1882 that includes tiny seed pearls and beads in an intricate design of scrolling flowers and vines. In 1947, Queen Elizabeth II wore one of the most iconic wedding dresses of all time, made from "duchesse silk satin, white seed pearls, silver thread, intricate appliques, and a silk tulle veil". In 1956, Grace Kelly wore a wedding dress - now featured in the Philadelphia Museum of Art - with Silk needle lace (rose point), silk faille, silk tulle, and seed pearls. For a contemporary example, designer Claire Pettibone's Pearle Gown has sleeves made of lavishly embroidered net tulle covered with tiny seed pearls and hints of rose gold metallic threads.

Baroque Pearls

Baroque pearls are unique because they have an irregular non-spherical shape and tend to be used in more contemporary jewelry designs. One of the best examples of a wedding dress designer using baroque pearls today is Danielle Frankel, who did a lovely job of incorporating them into her "Olivia" style from her SS 2019 collection. The cowlneck jumpsuit is a unique departure from the traditional wedding dress and features baroque pearl and lace trim detail.

All Over Pearls

We love seeing gowns that are absolutely dripping in pearls, whether the pearls are sewn closely together or scattered like stars in the sky. In her 2020 Fields of Pearls collection, designer Lee Petra Grebenau incorporated pearls into nearly all of her dress designs. Our favorite is the Zoe dress, which is a pearl-encrusted A-line gown with pearl inlay embellishments and a pearl belt. The Kodi gown by WATTERS features illusion tulle, soft netting, elastic tulle, matte organza, and pearl buttons sewn all over the gown in an ethereal and flattering pattern.

Pearl Backs

Famed wedding dress designer Galia Lahav has created some lovely dresses with dramatic pearl backs. For example, the Pricilla dress is a form-fitting lace mermaid dress with a sheer back with pearl strands. Similarly, the Jasmine dress is an embroidered French lace body tight dress drenched with strands of pearls on the back. The Rhiannon dress, with its crochet beaded lace and a vintage rose pattern, also features strands of pearls across the open back.

Pearl Buttons

Many wedding designers today are using pearl buttons to create a romantic, feminine, and even flirty look. For example, on their Willowby gown, designer WATTERS features a short row of feminine pearl buttons at the "V" of a sexy plunging back. Bridal designer Moonlight creates an enticing illusion by incorporating a long row of pearl buttons on a sheer tulle panel. Finally, this unique bridal jacket, perfect for a winter wedding, features pearl buttons for closure.

Mother of Pearl

Mother of pearl is nacre, the material of which pearls are composed. Iridescent in color, it's most commonly found in three types of mollusks - pearl oysters, freshwater mussels, and abalone. It also makes a beautiful addition to a wedding dress. At her 2018 wedding, actress Priyanka Chopra wore a Ralph Lauren gown featuring sheer overlay embellished with mother-of-pearl paillettes and crystal seed beading. According to one account, the dress featured more than two million of the paillettes! New for the fall 2020 season, Temperley London's Sabina dress boasts a design of camellia flowers, made from hand-glided stitch embroidery in soft ivory tones that's dotted with mother-of-pearl beads.

Pearl Sleeves

We love seeing all the unique ways that today's wedding dress designers are thinking outside of the box and how they're using pearls in unique ways to realize their vision. For example, designer Isabelle Armstrong created this dress-and-jacket combo in simple and modern white silk. However, the sleeves of the jacket are embellished with a pearl "ombre" look. Dramatic and unique, this gown from designer Riki Dalal's Valencia Collection features one pearl-covered sleeve that looks like an intricate vine trailing down the bride's arm.

If you're feeling extra crafty or creative, and you'd like to add some of your own pearl and other gem embellishments to your wedding gown, then you should check out this tutorial from Fire Mountain Gems. According to the writer, "More and more do-it-yourself brides are lining the aisles, customizing their wedding dresses with artful accents for style-on-a-budget embellishment that's stunningly simple."

Whether or not you ultimately choose a gown with pearl embellishments, you simply can't deny the fact that a meaningful jewelry piece like a custom pearl necklace is one of the most classic bridal accessories. To start building a necklace for yourself or a loved one, visit this page.

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