1920s-1980s: How to Identify the Era of a Vintage Wedding Dress

by Sammy in , 5 Comments — Updated August 28, 2023

How to Identify Vintage Maxi Dresses by the Era

Hello and happy Monday everyone!

Last week was unofficial “Kate Middleton wedding extravaganza” week at Sammy Davis Vintage, where I highlighted some awesome wedding vintage tips like how to wear vintage to themed weddings and for the big royal wedding day, how to wear a vintage hat like the fashionable princess that Kate is!

Today I switch gears from royal wedding mania to focus on the more academic side of weddings, and how you can learn to distinguish between different wedding dress styles as influenced by the cultural circumstances of the times.

Keep reading after the jump to learn the key style characteristics of vintage wedding dresses across 70 style-evolving years, from 1920 to 1990!

I’d love to learn about (or even see!) your wedding dress! If you’re open to sharing, please send me your wedding dress memories and/or pictures by emailing me at [email protected]. Your big day history may be shared in a future post or on the Facebook fan page!

I recently contacted my mom to see if she still had her dress from when she married my father at age 20 in 1976. She still has it!! I plan on trying her now-vintage wedding dress on when I return home for my next visit. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be able to alter it into a future Sammy-Davis-Vintage-wedding-dress-to-be!

Have a GREAT rest of your day everyone, and as always please say hello & spread the vintage love on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and by contacting me on email!

xx, SD


How to Identify Vintage Maxi Dresses by the Era

THE LOOK: Hemlines rose from shoe length to the knee, and waists dropped below the natural waist to form free and loose waist definition.

THE ERA’S INFLUENCE: A decade earlier, America’s first fashion show was organized by Vogue Magazine’s Edna Woodman Chase, held in New York’s Ritz Carlton Hotel.

With fashion’s innovations further pushed to the spotlight and available to the public, it’s no surprise that wedding dresses of the ‘20s were some of the most envelope-pushing trends ever available for the contemporary woman up until that point.

As the women’s suffrage movement succeeded with the passing of the 19th amendment for women’s right to vote in 1920, the women’s “suffocation” movement further lost steam, thanks to the fact that dropped waistlines and sexier, leg revealing styles lessened the need for tight-fitting girdles.

BUY THESE DRESSES: (left) Etsy.com, $124 // (right) Etsy.com, $462



How to Identify Vintage Maxi Dresses by the Era

THE LOOK: While the ‘20s saw roomy & fancy free dresses emerge down the aisle, the ‘30s embraced the female silhouette for all that she had to offer.

For the first time, dresses were marketed as “gowns.” Like the royal gowns we know from the privileged upper class of the 19th century and before, the ‘30s wedding dress brushed the floor AND trailed feet behind in long trains.

Despite the change from ‘20s to ’30s wedding fashion seeming like a step “backward” for female fashion empowerment, advances were still made as the wedding dress train became detachable for the first time. These flexible pieces of material enabled women greater ease of movement on their wedding day festivities, also giving them additional material to make glamorous marriage outfits from without further cost investment.

THE ERA’S INFLUENCE: Times were hard, but glamour? It was harder to avoid this era’s trend of glitz and glam than it was to opt NOT to indulge!

Thanks to the growing popularity of “Hollywood,” women wished to emulate the attention-grabbing attraction of the silver screen’s most famous star wardrobes.

So even though the roaring ‘20s had rumbled into the great depression, the wedding dresses of the time were hardly depressing themselves.

BUY THESE DRESSES: (left) Etsy.com, $325 // (right) Etsy.com, $345



How to Identify Vintage Maxi Dresses by the Era
THE LOOK: Gone were the days of “gowns.” The ’40s wedding dress was not glamorous with a capital G, but rather practically designed with minimal accents and without use of frivolous materials or lace/sequin embroidery.

Dress design was more masculine in nature, with broad shoulders and a focus on slim, cinched waists.

THE ERA’S INFLUENCE: Wartime dictated much of the country’s consumption – from food consumption to fashion consumption, too.

Random (fun!) fashion fact: When there was a surplus of cream-colored parachutes manufactured, one company marketed the parachute material for sale to women so that they could sew it into 6 different dresses, one of which was a wedding dress.

BUY THESE DRESSES: (left) Etsy.com, $175 // (right) The Vintage Devotion on Etsy, $179

Photography (right) thanks to The Vintage Devotion



How to Identify Vintage Maxi Dresses by the Era

THE LOOK: Luxurious lace and girlie girl glamour! The ‘50s was like the ‘30s all over again, only with more contagious zeal for all fashionable fabrics and flattering function that was denied in the war era of the ‘40s.

Modesty still reigned supreme, but with sensual sensibility that embraced the female form to present her as a “woman.” The ‘40s was so smart and practical that the art of the lady was lost in some of the wedding dress design.

Full princess skirts and full-coverage designs were most popular (and quite pretty!) for the decade.

THE ERA’S INFLUENCE: Thanks to the birth of prolific and mainstream mass communication, trends could be tuned into nightly thanks to the visuals of modern television. Now you didn’t have to get your wedding dress ideas from a luxury magazine or from the advice of your local dressmaker.

Thanks to the influences of television and its portrayal of contemporary fashion trends, women could take a more autonomous approach to what they wanted to wear on their big day. Their options gave their personal tastes power when communicating against the boiler plate opinions of industry insiders.

BUY THESE DRESSES: (left — link not to dress seen above, but similar piece!) Etsy.com, $60 // (right) Etsy.com, $325



How to Identify Vintage Maxi Dresses by the Era

THE LOOK: A bride’s nod to mod indeed! While the ’50s was all “I am woman hear me roar,” the bride-to-be of the ’60s paid more attention to the trends of the time (mini skirts and scoop necks, for example) than ever before.

Designers took note of what styles were selling in department stores as design queues for a gown version of those popular cuts. Mod mini dresses with scoop necks were the most desired (see left image) along with streamlined floor length dresses of embellished detail and personalized pizazz.

THE ERA’S INFLUENCE: Trends spoke of personal expression for the times — and so did the wedding dresses.

Like the ’50s, mass communication of “trends” and empowerment to women to dress as they please grew the industry of personalized bridal wear into a “trend” that has yet to disappear.

BUY THESE DRESSES: (left) Etsy.com, $125 // (right) Etsy.com, $160



How to Identify Vintage Maxi Dresses by the Era

THE LOOK: This was the era my mother married my father — 1976, to be exact. She was nearly 21 years old and of logically, an adapter of the trends thanks to her youthful energy and exuberance (what can I say, we take after one another!)

Her dress resembled what you see in the example, left: Maxi dress cut with bishop sleeves, an empire waist and conservative, full body coverage. Brides need not suffocate in the ’70s — the dresses were too comfortable for that!

Speaking of comfort, for the first time (and possibly the last, as we’ve yet to see this trend truly repeat itself) pant and skirt suits were appropriate “I do” attire. Yoko Ono wore a “skirt suit” when she wed John Lennon in 1979; as did Bianca Jagger when she married Mick in 1971.

THE ERA’S INFLUENCE: The popularity of synthetic materials like polyester and rayon were heavy influences on the design and “lay” (how the dress fell against your body and to the ground) of ’70s wedding dresses.

These materials constructed easy-to-produce softer dresses (read: less materials, less fuss!) that spoke to the “simplistic” trend of living as a peace-loving flower child.

But we can’t forget disco! On the other side of the spectrum was the fun-loving, over indulgence of ’70s night life. Perhaps that’s why the pant and skirt suit came into vogue — from the chapel, to the discotheque!

BUY THESE DRESSES: (left – no the exact dress, but similar!) Etsy.com, $150 // (right) Etsy.com, $32



How to Identify Vintage Maxi Dresses by the Era

THE LOOK: Styles of the ’80s are just as memorable — and roaring! — as those of the ’20s. Except this era around, the only “scandal” was forgetting to wear one of your removable shoulder pads!

Big shoulders, gaudy adornments and 3-dimensional “extras” (think big bow sashes and the like) with a very heavy favor toward lace & Victorian influence were the quintessential markings of an ’80s wedding dress.

THE ERA’S INFLUENCE: Like the fashion of the day, structured masculine design was en vogue because women were gaining greater grounds professionally, and the styles of the times reflected the blurring of gender lines within the workplace.

Big shoulders and big skirts made women appear bold, strong and independent. The dresses were so memorable because they represented a true changing of the times — much like the drop waist and raised hemline of the ’20s demonstrated in its scandalous day.

BUY THESE DRESSES: (left) Etsy.com, $65 // (right) Etsy.com, $300

5 thoughts on “1920s-1980s: How to Identify the Era of a Vintage Wedding Dress”

  1. Thank you for this great article and history lesson on wedding dress style through the decades! Very informative!

  2. I bought a wedding gown at a thrift shop and i would like to know what decade its from…can ayoe help me identify the era if i send a pic??? Thanks!

    • Do you have photos

  3. hi sammy. thx for the info :) but is this info applies only in usa? how about european trend in vintage wedding dress? and i wonder y 70s~8s so many “victorian capelet styles”? thx so much !!

  4. This is so interesting and helpful! I bought a dress recently that was marked 30s/40s. The dress is silk and has a 30s silhouette but the shoulders are puffed laced with a Peter Pan collar (very 40s). The back of the dress is all lace with all satin covered buttons. Maybe late 30s? More likely with the puffed sleeves and collar, very early 40s?


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