December 2, 2023

For centuries, women have looked to royal brides for inspiration when choosing their wedding dresses, whether it be the virginal white gown of Queen Victoria in 1840 to the simple boat-necked creation worn by Meghan Markle in 2018.

Royal wedding dresses over the years have become historic artifacts, made available for thousands to see in person at royal palaces and museums, in addition to the millions able to study closely each design through news footage and photographs.

Here, Newsweek looks at six iconic royal wedding dresses that have made fashion history.

Royal Wedding Dresses: Grace Kelly Kate Middleton
The Princess of Wales (L) photographed in her Alexander McQueen wedding dress, April 29, 2011. And Princess Grace of Monaco (R) wearing her Helen Rose wedding dress, April 19, 1956. And (inset) Queen Elizabeth II wearing her Norman Hartnell wedding dress, November 20, 1947.
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images/AFP via Getty Images/Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria’s wedding dress, worn to her February 1840 wedding to Prince Albert at St James’s Palace in London, is perhaps the most influential wedding dress of all time.

The elegant full-skirted gown with close fitting bodice and bateau (boat) neckline is credited with being the dress that started the tradition of brides wearing white on their wedding days.

Until then, women had been married in whichever of their clothes had been their best, owing to the high price of textiles. Royal brides and aristocrats had ordered new dresses but these were usually in rich fabrics of any color, including cloth of gold or silver.

Queen Victoria Wedding Dress
Engraving of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on their February 10, 1840 wedding day (L), circa 1844. And the queen’s white silk wedding dress on display at Kensington Palace (R), March 2012.
Samir Hussein/WireImage/Heritage Images/Getty Images

When marrying Albert, Victoria wanted to do so in a way that did not highlight the fact she was a queen and he a mere prince. Therefore she did not wear a crown, tiara or robes of state. Instead she wore a wreath of orange blossoms in her hair and the simple white gown.

The queen’s choice soon set a trend replicated by women throughout Britain and, through colonial rule, the British empire around the world, contributing to the tradition still observed today.

Queen Elizabeth II

Queen Elizabeth II Wedding Dress
Sketch for Queen Elizabeth II’s wedding dress by fashion designer Norman Hartnell (L) circa. 1947. And Queen Elizabeth II with Prince Philip on their wedding day at Westminster Abbey (R), November 20, 1947.
Central Press/Getty Images/Bettmann/Getty Images

When Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) married Philip the Duke of Edinburgh (later Prince Philip) in 1947, she did so as Britain was still feeling the aftereffects of World War II, when clothing and food items were still rationed.

The wedding dress became a symbol of Britain’s post-war recovery, and Elizabeth appointed favorite royal fashion designer, Norman Hartnell, to undertake the commission.

Hartnell based his design on Botticelli’s Primavera painting, embroidering the symbols of spring onto the long-sleeved gown with open neckline and fluted skirts.

Princess Grace of Monaco

Grace Kelly Wedding Dress
Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier III of Monaco photographed on their wedding day in Monaco, April 19, 1956. The princess’ wedding dress was made by Hollywood costume designer, Helen Rose.
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A Hollywood fairy tale came true in 1956, when Oscar-winning American actress, Grace Kelly, married Prince Rainier III of the small principality of Monaco in the French Riviera.

Kelly married at the Prince’s Palace and Saint Nicholas Cathedral wearing an elegant white gown with full skirts bound at the waist with a wide band from which fell a train, and a close-fitted bodice with lace overlay and sleeves.

The dress was designed by Hollywood costume designer, Helen Rose, and has formed the basis of a number of famous wedding gowns in the years since, including the one worn by the Princess of Wales at her 2011 wedding to Prince William.

Princess Diana

Princess Diana Wedding Dress
Sketch for Princess Diana’s wedding dress by designers David and Elizabeth Emanuel (L) circa 1981. And Princess Diana with Prince Charles on their July 29, 1981, wedding day at St Paul’s Cathedral (R).
Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images/Anwar Hussein/Getty Images

Princess Diana’s 1981 dress worn for her marriage to Prince Charles (now King Charles III) at St Paul’s Cathedral was an exercise in 1980s excess.

The gown, designed by David and Elizabeth Emanuel, featured layers of ivory silk taffeta with a bell-shaped skirt and close-fitted bodice, accentuating the bride’s small waist with oversized puffed sleeves and ruffled neckline.

Department stores hired teams of dressmakers to create replicas of the dress after it made its debut at the cathedral on July 29, 1981, and after the princess’ untimely death at the age of 36 in 1997, it was inherited by her two sons, Prince William and Prince Harry.

Princess of Wales

Kate Middleton Wedding Dress
The Prince and Princess of Wales photographed on their wedding day at Westminster Abbey on April 29, 2011. And the princess’ Alexander McQueen wedding dress on display at Buckingham Palace, July 21, 2011.
Ian Gavan/GP/Getty Images/LEWIS WHYLD/AFP via Getty Images

When Kate Middleton married Prince William in April 2011, she surprised some fashion followers by appointing Sarah Burton from Alexander McQueen to design her all-important dress.

The McQueen label is known for its out-of-the-box designs, drawing on dark themes combined with British heritage and expert tailoring.

The resulting dress was classic in its aesthetic, drawing some inspiration from Grace Kelly’s 1950s gown with the sweetheart neckline bodice overlayed with lace-paneled neckline and long sleeves.

Where the McQueen twist was implemented was in the expertly tailored skirt which featured engineered silk panels, designed to fan perfectly to their full volume as Kate took the long walk down the aisle of Westminster Abbey.

Duchess of Sussex

Meghan Markle Wedding Dress
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex photographed on their wedding day at Windsor Castle on May 19, 2018. And the duchess’ Givenchy haute couture wedding dress on display at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Scotland, on June 13, 2019.
OWEN HUMPHREYS/AFP via Getty Images/Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Meghan Markle broke away from the traditional British royal custom of ordering her wedding dress from a U.K. designer, instead looking to the haute couture salons of Paris for inspiration.

Meghan’s gown was made by Givenchy, designed by creative director Clare Waight Keller, and was the height of simplicity in its longline shape with open neckline falling to the peak of the shoulders and paneled train.

Meghan’s dress was accentuated by the cathedral length veil, which was embroidered with all the floral emblems of the Commonwealth nations as a nod to the institution she was marrying into.

James Crawford-Smith is Newsweek‘s royal reporter, based in London. You can find him on X (formerly Twitter) at @jrcrawfordsmith and read his stories on Newsweek‘s The Royals Facebook page.

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