Something old, something new: bridal jumpsuits, black dresses and repurposed gowns are welcome at the wedding

Kailee Knight Bull’s favorite holiday is Halloween and her favorite city is New Orleans, the voodoo capital of America. So when it came time for the neonatal nurse to wed her longtime boyfriend, she wanted a wedding dress as distinctive as she is.

When she and Trevor Bull exchanged vows on Nov. 4, 2022, she was wearing all black, from her custom cathedral veil to the mermaid gown by Casablanca Bridal that was cut low in the back and embellished all over with an intricate sequined pattern reminiscent of a fleur-de-lis.

The 29-year-old bride, who lives in Severna Park, Maryland, looked — and felt — stunning.

“As soon as I saw a picture of the dress on Pinterest, I knew it was perfect,” she said, referring to the fashion, decorating and design website that people often use as a vision board for events.

“I went on a manhunt for this dress. I called every bridal store in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia until I tracked one down that I could try on. It was sparkly and dramatic, Gothic and elegant and a little spooky. When I put it on, I felt as though it made me look like myself.”

Bull, who bought her dream dress at Amanda’s Bridal Loft of Annapolis, Maryland, is one of an increasing number of brides who are breaking away from the traditional shades of ivory, cream, ecru and white to try something a little different and daring.

Kailee Bull wears a non-traditional wedding dress she purchased at Amanda’s Bridal Loft in Maryland. She had the black sequin lace dress customized with a cathedral veil. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

“COVID-19 happened, and weddings changed,” said the store’s owner, Amanda Ritchey. “When couples couldn’t have the big weddings that they had always dreamed of, the dress became more important. Brides were looking for a way to stand out.”

Out were the strapless, lace, fit-and-flare dresses so popular before the pandemic, that made, Ritchey said, “every bride look the same.”

In were sophisticated black dresses and romantic floral prints that seemed to have floated out of an impressionist painting.Some brides have eschewed dresses altogether and opted for wedding jumpsuits. Still others have created custom wedding dresses from gowns that once belonged to their mothers and grandmothers.

Skirting tradition

Gina Samuels, owner of Cameo Bridal Salon & Boutique in Glen Burnie, Maryland, said that in addition to jumpsuits, pantsuits are a popular choice for lesbian couples.

Some of the trouser ensembles come with a traditional floor-length overskirt that brides wear for the wedding ceremony. The skirt can cover the bride’s legs fully, making it appear that she’s wearing a dress. Or, the skirt can be slit up the front to the waist so that it billows out behind, creating the impression of a train. In either case, the skirt is detachable, creating two entirely different looks for the cost of one outfit.

“Some brides wear the skirt for walking down the aisle and then take it off for the reception or after-party,” Ritchey said. “It’s a presto change-o kind of moment.”

Amanda Ritchey, owner of Amanda’s Bridal Loft of Annapolis, shows off a Casablanca Bridal bridal jumpsuit. It is chiffon and lace with a transparent corset bodice and off the shoulder straps. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

And why not?

Though white wedding dresses with a veil and sweeping train have been de rigueur in the Western world as long as contemporary Americans have been alive, historically they represent a relatively recent development.

Before the 19th century, trendsetting royal brides usually dressed in their best outfits, with red being an especially popular color, according to a 2020 article in British Vogue. White was reserved for debutantes being presented at court.

But when England’s Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840, the fashion-conscious monarch opted for a then-untraditional gown in a creamy silk-satin and a flowered crown.

Not only did the queen’s choice become the rage, it also became a status symbol, the article says. White dresses are difficult to launder and keep clean, so choosing one for a wedding indicated that the bride’s family was wealthy enough to afford a fancy dress that likely would only be worn once.

Outside of the Western world, white never really caught on.

Wedding dresses in red, the color of joy, have been a tradition in China for 650 years, according to the wedding software company Carats and Cake. The event planning business Sunshine Wedding Spain reveals that traditional Spanish brides wear black to symbolize they will remain devoted to their partners until death. Morocco World News reports that for the premarital henna ceremony, brides in that country usually wear green and gold, the colors of good luck.

Wearing the bouquet

Samuels estimates that perhaps 10% of her customers opt for a nontraditional dress.

But while women who buck convention tend to be confident brides, store owners say that in other ways, their personal style varies greatly.

“The girl who buys the black dress is the edgy girl who is not afraid to break rules,” Ritchey said, “while the girl who opts for the floral dress is all about nature and romance.”

Amanda Ritchey, owner of Amanda’s Bridal Loft of Annapolis, wears a La Perle by Calla Blanche floral wedding dress made of Organza with sweetheart neckline, off the shoulder sleeves and a slit. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

Black dresses often feature black sequins or lace layered over a nude slip, which makes the design pop and creates the illusion of sexy glimpses of skin.

Floral dresses, in contrast, have roots in the recent revival of 1970s boho style. But the modern interpretations of this look can range from all-over prints in soft, muted pastels on fabric as light as a summer breeze to embroidered flowers or appliquéd vines set against a solid background.

Floral dresses have been in demand since the COVID-19 pandemic began pushing weddings and other social gatherings outdoors according to Mary Feeley, owner of Mary’s Designer Bridal Boutique in Annapolis. Not surprisingly, floaty florals are particularly popular in the warm weather months and for rustic-themed weddings celebrated in gardens and barns.

“These dresses are about getting back to nature and living a life that is more organic,” Feeley said. “Floral dresses have a whimsical, ethereal look that a lot of my brides like.”

Repurposing a memory

In addition to owning the store that she founded 40 years ago, Feeley also is a designer, a skill that comes in handy when she works with brides desiring a “repurposed” wedding dress from garments that previously belonged to the couple’s relatives.Feeley cuts the old outfits up and stitches them back together to create an entirely new dress tailored to the bride’s size and style.

But while repurposed dresses have strong sentimental associations, Feeley said they are so labor-intensive they can be considerably more expensive than a premade dress purchased off the rack.

“I’m making a dress now for a bride in which I’m incorporating pieces of wedding dresses from three generations,” she said. “I’m using dresses that were worn by her mother, her grandmother and even her great-grandmother.

“I’m using the sleeves from one dress, the lace from another and the foundation from the third to create something new that will fit this bride’s dream.”

For brides on a budget, Feeley has a workaround:

“If their mother or father or a grandparent has passed,” she said, “we can cut a piece of fabric in the shape of a heart from their mother’s old wedding dress or father’s old shirt. We sew that piece into the lining of the new dress.

“That way, the bride can literally keep her loved ones close to her heart as she walks down the aisle.”

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