What’s the perfect wedding dress?

As an arena of fashion, bridal wear is so loaded with cultural and style references – not to mention a baffling diversity of choices – that it can be difficult for a bride-to-be to decide exactly what kind of dress she really wants to wear.

The bride should follow her intuition, according to influential, New York-based bridal-wear designer Amsale Aberra, whose designs have helped shape what is considered chic in bridal styles over the past three decades. The designer, who has also created costumes for film and television, was the subject of a recent reality TV series in the US, Amsale Girls, and has become known for the ‘forever modern’ look of her gowns.

It was Amsale’s search for a gown for her own wedding day in 1985 that led her on the path of becoming a designer. “I got my start right after my own wedding,” she tells BBC Culture. “I was looking for a very simple gown for myself and found little in the way of clean, sophisticated gowns. I thought ‘I can’t be the only person searching for something like this.’ It was then that I started my business and was delighted to learn that my intuition was correct and that others shared my taste.”

Amsale, who came to the United States from Ethiopia at the age of 19 initially to study art, also points to her upbringing as a contributing factor in her eventual career. “I grew up in a very caring, family-oriented environment. But in Ethiopia in those days, fashion design wasn't considered a profession. I had a strong interest in clothing. Because many of the fashions I liked were not available there, I used to make my own clothes. When I came to the US that skill turned out to be quite unexpectedly useful.”

Minimalism to the max

The designer’s ‘less is more’ approach for her own wedding dress has  become increasingly popular, with bridal-wear designers from Amsale to Vera Wang offering fluid, clean silhouettes and less embellished looks – a far cry from the overload of frills that had defined the wedding dress in the past. For unconventional bridal styles, bold minimalism has always worked well – from Bianca Jagger in her iconic 1971 white suit and wide-brimmed hat when she got married to Mick Jagger to the recent nuptials of Solange Knowles, who wed in a variety of modern, sleek styles, including a dramatic, plunging jumpsuit.

It’s perhaps no surprise that the decade that has influenced Amsale is the 1950s, known for its show-stopping silhouettes and clean lines. “Within that period Dior and Balenciaga [were] the most influential,” she says. But she is keen to stress that for her, the perfect wedding gown transcends fashion. “I try not to focus on trends,” she says, concentrating instead on “creating timeless gowns that a bride can look back on 20 years later and still love as much as she did on her wedding day.”

Still, even with the most pared-back looks, couture-style detail plays a key role. Amsale’s Mercer dress, for instance, is unfussy and minimalist, but with an outsized, angular, origami-style bow at the back. “Often, when designing, I like there to be a single focal point,” says the designer. “With the Mercer dress the bow is that key point… and the scale is very important.”

So how has the bridal-wear industry changed since Amsale began her business in the 1980s? “The main change I've noticed has been that as women have become more independent, they have taken over more control of the design and planning of the wedding from their parents. More recently it seems that not only the bride but also the groom has gotten more involved, and increasingly the couple's circle of friends. And brides have more choices, there is more diversity.”

When she was asked to design dresses for film and television – she has designed for The Runaway Bride, 27 Dresses, The Hangover and Grey’s Anatomy among many others – Amsale did not hesitate. “I like to approach movie weddings as though they were real weddings, and conversely I like to think of real weddings as fantasies, so in the end there is no big difference for me between the two.”

From the aisle to the runway

Like Amsale, British designer Alice Temperley designed her own wedding dress. “The theme of my wedding was Ethereal 1920s, and the celebrations were in the place I grew up in Somerset,” she tells BBC Culture. “We had a colourful mix of 220 great friends celebrating late into the night in the beautiful orchards of my parent's cider farm. My own dress was created out of antique French lace that I carefully collected for years scattered with original 1920s 2mm sequins I had since I was a child.”

In her bridal collections, Temperley draws on a variety of influences.  “I look to many different places and eras. In particular I look to the ‘20s and ‘30s for silhouettes, and to Victoriana pieces for detailing.” Her favourite is her Temperley Bridal Classic Jean gown, she says. “Because of the intricate embellishment and beading. I love the attention to detail and ‘20s silhouette.”

The bridal gown is such a rich aesthetic vein that many non-bridal-wear designers continue the convention of ending their catwalk shows with a showstopper wedding dress as a triumphant finale. Even enfant terrible of British fashion Gareth Pugh – whose outrageous, sculptural creations have adorned the likes of Lady Gaga and Kylie Minogue – has designed a bridal gown, for his friend the fashion director Katie Shillingford. The result was a stunningly romantic creation with intricate detailing, recently exhibited at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

The dialogue between designer and bride-to-be is intrinsically important, according to Pugh. “It’s definitely a conversation,” he tells BBC Culture.  “With Katie we had a lot of meetings where we just sat down and talked. We then went through things that I had previously made, tried things on, threw ideas around, looked at fabric options, and colour… I was very aware that she needed to be involved in the creation of the dress in order to feel connected to it, rather than simply being presented with a few sketches. 

“Katie has a very specific sensibility, and I wanted what we did to be right.  As a designer it’s very important to listen to what the bride-to-be wants, rather than trying to push an idea on her that she doesn't feelcomfortable with… luckily though, we were both very happy with the final result.”

So does Pugh think that a wedding dress makes a statement about the bride’s sense of identity? “Ultimately, everything we choose to wear is an expression of who we are. A wedding is a meaningful and significant day for those involved, and as one of the traditional centrepieces of the event, the dress should be meaningful and significant to whoever is wearing it.”