Often a vast amount of time and money is spent searching for the gown that will transform a fiancée into a fairytale bride. But how do women really feel about the choice they made? Here, with remarkable candour, three writers look back on what they wore when they walked down the aisle...
From I was a child I had an intuition that I'd never walk up the aisle of our parish church as a bride, and that didn't change when Declan proposed to me at midnight on the cusp of the new millennium, in Times Square, New York. Parading around in a long white frock with all eyes on me wasn't my idea of fun, and I was so busy in the months before our wedding in Jamaica, two years later, that I left buying a dress to the last minute.
I regret that now. I absolutely HATED that dress and gave it away to Oxfam in Portadown when I got back. It was a £400 designer's sample, a hideous halterneck with a sprinkling of beading on the bodice. The girl in the shop in Dublin talked me into it because I had “no back fat at all”, at the time, and the A-line skirt was flattering.
In the mirror, the ivory silk did look nice but the soft shop lights created some sort of optical illusion and I must have needed stronger glasses.
It was the first and last bridal shop I went to. My sister Angela, who owns Naomi Bridal in Ballynahinch, has never forgiven me for not bringing her — or anyone else — with me to choose.
Anyway, I thought the ghastly backless creation was probably a good idea for the Caribbean heat. WRONG. It was heavy and uncomfortable and too tight. We’d arrived at Sandals resort in Montego Bay a few days before the wedding and had been feasting like Henry VIII the whole time. The minute I put the dress on in the molten hot light of day, I knew it was a mistake.
My sister Jo had flown from LA with her fiancé to be our witnesses and only guests. She assured me the ugly thing was lovely as we downed a glass of Champagne before heading into the tiny chapel in the tropical grounds of Sandals.
We’d both been plastered in make-up and given big, big hair in the resort’s salon, and had spent half an hour trying to rectify the damage. (On his way to a pre-wedding dip in a whirlpool, Declan had peeked in the salon’s glass door — I managed to hide behind a magazine but he caught a mortified Jo with her unruly whin-bush hair sticking straight up in the air as the stylist tried to tame the frizz.)
We were both a bit more presentable by the time we got to the air conditioned chapel, a three minute walk from our mini villa on the beach. Declan grinned when I dandered up to him, unescorted and slightly tipsy, but then he always does when he hasn’t seen me for a while. He didn’t comment at all on the dress.
Enough said, I thought, and when we came out for our official wedding picture on the chapel steps to a thump of 90 degree heat, I decided to get it off as soon as possible and suggested we get the rest of the pictures taken in the relative cool of the evening. Sweltered in a suit he’d bought in the neighbouring shanty town, Declan readily agreed.
And so it turns out that I’m wearing a simple white sun-dress by Ghost in our wedding pictures, most of them taken on the beach. (Declan’s in his favourite John Rocha shirt and pair of rolled-up chinos).
My mother and mother-in-law were not impressed with the lack of official photos, and only my auntie Bridie managed to get hold of the one of us at the chapel door, roasted alive.
I hope some other girl got better wear out of my original dress but I prefer my alternative, which still hangs in a wardrobe, 14 years on, waiting for our next trip to Montego Bay.
'I literally bought the first dress I tried on'
I don't think you could ever have called me a Bridezilla. In fact, and this may appall some readers, I literally bought the first wedding dress I tried on. It wasn't an entirely random choice. I had a firm idea of what I wanted; an ivory gown, with simple, clean lines, and no ruffles, frills, lace, bows or underskirts.
I wanted something classic and uninterrupted, a little Hepburn-esque high-necked hourglass number. When I ran through my wishlist with the shop assistant there was only one dress in the shop fuss-free enough to fit the bill.
The singular nod to “very special occasion wear” was the long row of pearls which ran down the centre of the dress's spine. I put it on, my mum gave the Hollywood gasp, and I knew.
The dress wasn't the first thing I thought of when my boyfriend asked me to marry him. Actually, my first thought was, ‘Will he still remember this in the morning?’
The proposal, which followed a Dionysian night in a Ballymena pub, involved my drunken seducer falling to his knees in the gravel outside his parent's garage and gazing up at me with a very happy flush. I couldn't be sure it wasn't the joy of a Jamieson's which inspired him until he confirmed his intentions the next morning.
What really appealed to me about marriage was that someone really honestly loved me enough to want to be with me forever. I was so taken with the notion that it was months before I really thought about the dress.
And when I did, after looking at a few wedding catalogues and old movie mags, I knew exactly what I wanted. I don't like fuss in my clothes, and even less so in my shopping. I didn't enjoy the free drinks, the intense, focused one-to-one service, the constant flow of expert advice. So when I fell for that first dress, my sense of relief was palpable.
With that potentially torturous experience out of the way I could get onto the fun stuff — drawing up a list of guests; compiling the music for the dancing (Sinatra, White Stripes, Ramones, Beyoncé, NWA); and designing the invitation (a mocked-up tabloid front page revealing the pending marriage and Ewan McGregor's consequent secret heartbreak — he was reportedly being “comforted by relatives”).
I had few doubts about my look, though its overwhelming simplicity probably meant it didn't have the absolute wow factor. That didn't bother me, because it meant it felt very much like the real me walking up the aisle.
My husband-to-be beamed when he saw me — an enhanced, “best of” version, but still very much me. He thought the dress cool and classy.
Halfway through the meal, in his over-excited state, he spilled red wine all over it. Oddly, for an usually impatient woman, I didn't mind much. I regarded the stain as the stamp of a happy, hedonistic day of drinking, dancing and merriment. It also gave me an excuse to have the dress cropped, dyed and transformed into a top-end mod-style mini-dress. And who knows, maybe one day I will.
'It was the only dress I tried on that made me and my mum feel emotional'
A lot of women I know look back on their wedding photographs and cringe. Puffball sleeves and big hooped skirts which were once a bridal must-have are now so dated.
I don’t think of mine like that. I like to think my dress was classic and is timeless. It will never date. It was one of the first dresses I tried on but I dismissed it due to its price as it was way over our budget.
In the end I was left standing in tears in Coleraine, after visiting every bridal shop in the province and releasing that nothing came close to “the one”.
Tears and negotiation down the phone with my poor father meant that I actually rang the shop, Isobel Love, from Coleraine and told them that was my dress and that I would be in the next day to pay the deposit.
How was I so sure that it had to be this dress? It was the only one which I had tried on which had made both my mum and I emotional.
It was an oyster colour, which was very unusual for a wedding dress 19 years ago, and it had boxed pleats at the front and a small train at the back.
The neckline was off the shoulders and trimmed in gold lace. Small oyster buttons ran down the back of it. I felt special in it and at every fitting I went to I never wanted to take it off.
I got a custom-made headpiece to match the lace in the dress and surprised everybody, including myself, by not choosing purple bridesmaid dresses — my favourite colour — as I knew they would clash with the oyster shade of my dress. Instead, I went for blood red dresses which Isobel Love made and trimmed in lace to match my dress.
As I am allergic to flowers I had a large bouquet of dried red roses and the bridesmaids, my oldest friend Tracey and my best friend from university Aine, had smaller rose posies.
My husband Tom and I met while we were children and grew up together. We went out on a few dates when we were younger but it was only after we met up again after uni that we both knew it was for keeps. We got engaged a year later and married the following year in 1995.
So excited was I about the wedding and moving into our new home that once again I had negotiations with my poor father and brought the wedding forward by 10 months.
While involved to a lesser degree, Tom left most of the planning to my mum and me. And now that both she and my dad are no longer with us I always look back on that year of planning and the special times we had with real joy.
I will always be thankful that both my parents got to be part of my special day.
I know my dad was the proudest man in Dromore the day he walked me up the aisle in the Cathedral.
My favourite photograph from the day is one of him and I, taken just before we entered the church — he is beaming and looking at it brings back
all the feelings of anticipation and excitement I had upon entering the church.
In the run up to the wedding Tom said little about what he thought my dress would be like even though I bombarded him with magazines and different styles to see what he liked.
All he wanted was for me not to go for a bridal up-do but to have my long curly hair down which resulted in a sleepless night wearing large rollers the night before. Alas, there were no fancy GHDs or curling wands nearly two decades ago.
On the big day itself, as I met him at the top of the aisle and he reached for my hand, all he said was wow but that was enough of a seal of approval for me.
Sadly, my wedding album has since been stolen so any photographs I have of ‘that dress’ are very precious, as are my memories of what was one of the happiest days of my life.
Wedding dresses that grabbed headlines all over the world
Perhaps the most famous wedding dress of our time - the oyster-coloured taffeta silk confection that Princess Diana wore for her 1981 wedding to Prince Charles - epitomises the fascination and the debate that often goes along with this most singular piece of clothing.
And if you think that a wedding dress is only important for one day, then think again.
The leading art and design museum in London, the Victoria and Albert, is currently featuring a major exhibition that spans the history and the changing trends of wedding dresses from 1775 to the present day.
Running to 2015, the exhibition shows dresses from designers such as Charles Frederick Worth, Norman Hartnell, Charles James, John Galliano, Christian Lacroix, Vivienne Westwood and Vera Wang.
It includes some important new acquisitions as well as dresses on loan, including the purple dress worn by Dita Von Teese for her marriage to Marilyn Manson and the outfits worn by Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale on their wedding day.
While eyebrows were raised at tragic Paula Yates’ scarlet silk dress (designed by Jasper Conran) that she wore to her wedding to Bob Geldof in 1986, she was simply following the previously accepted trend of women wearing any colour of dress to marry — a convention that changed dramatically after Queen Victoria decided to wear white to wed her beloved Albert in 1840.
However, even the Queen’s dress did not create as much excitement as the one worn by the then Lady Diana Spencer on that sunny day in July.
Designed by husband and wife team David and Elizabeth Emanuel, the dress became iconic, despite its much-criticised creased appearance, which foreshadowed the much deeper wrinkles in the relationship of both the bride and groom, who divorced in 1996, as well as its designers, who themselves divorced in 1990.
The lace used to trim Diana’s wedding dress was antique hand-made Carrickmacross lace from Northern Ireland. The dress was also adorned with 10,000 hand-sewn pearls and had a 25-foot train.
The Duchess of Cambridge ignited fervour again with the stunning 2011 dress she wore to wed Prince William.
Designed by Sarah Burton from Alexander McQueen, the dress was heavily influenced by another memorable creation, that worn by Hollywood princess Grace Kelly for her 1956 wedding to Prince Rainier of Monaco.
Royal and demure in tone, the Duchess’s dress was made modern by Burton’s subtle use of side bustles that defined her trim waist to perfection.