The image of the perfect fairy-tale bride is in the midst of a makeover. And fashion has everything to do with it.
The shift may be slow, but it's far from subtle: Lacy bracelet-length sleeves are popping up within a dress market once dominated by strapless styles. Sparkling tiaras paired with fingertip-length veils mean baby's breath and cathedral-length headpieces have some competition.
Slimmer A-line bias cuts are featured alongside the pretty poufiness essential in the early millennium. Sashes and lace overlays are besting boring bateau necklines and faux diamond crystals.
All of this pushes the style pendulum more toward medieval maiden than the cookie-cutter, Barbie-gets-married look that is all too familiar.
"It's a simple elegance," explained Kimberly Lee Minor, chief fashion strategist for the New York-based Priscilla of Boston Group. "For about 15 years, being a princess bride included very over-the-top, full-of-satin skirts and big, heavy ball gowns. Everything had to be strapless. Now we are evolving; she is much more demure and classic."
We would like to point to the Duchess of Cambridge's tailored sense of style and choice of a modest, long-sleeve gown with a sexy sweetheart neckline as the catalyst for the new era of bridal fashion. (Her choice to wear a second gown for the reception might start another trend.)
But it's more accurate to say that Sarah Burton, the creative director for Alexander McQueen, took cues from the red carpet to come up with the on-its-way-to-iconic silhouette. After all, a May David's Bridal survey of 1,200 brides showed 70 percent were inspired by red carpet looks.
Maybe armchair fashionistas thought Kate Middleton's ensemble didn't have enough oomph, but it's likely the Chantilly lace gown just didn't look like what they were used to.
In any case, whether your preference is sleeved or strapless, Middleton's choice is symbolic of a larger fashion evolution.
It turns out the royal wedding was the culmination of emerging eveningwear trends that included a comeback for teardrop earrings and soft shoulder-length tresses. You might recall that at this year's Golden Globe Awards, Angelina Jolie, Anne Hathaway, and Leighton Meester all wore long-sleeve gowns by fashion-forward labels Atelier Versace, Armani Prive, and Burberry Prorsum.
Or that when Nicole Richie wed rocker Joel Madden, she wore a lacy-sleeved gown with a swirly tulle skirt by Marchesa. And Ivanka Trump's bridal confection by Vera Wang featured short lacy sleeves as well.
"Sleeves are becoming more and more important because they signal change, not to mention they give the bride options," Priscilla of Boston's Minor said.
David's Bridal introduced a handful of lacy-sleeved dresses before the royal wedding. And afterward, said design director Dan Rentillo, gowns with sleeves enjoyed an immediate uptick in sales.
"We have a dress in the Vera Wang White Collection that was doing just OK, with three-quarter-length sleeves and an illusion yoke, and it shot up to No. 2," Rentillo said.
Speaking of illusion, manufacturers are offering sleeves in the form of lacy bodysuits that can serve as layering pieces, said Danielle Adrian of Bridals by Danielle in Center City. That helps brides - those who want to be covered up during the service but bare more skin at the reception - find a happy fashion medium.
And locally, Adrian predicted illusion pieces, both bodysuits and shrugs in lace or mesh material, will go mainstream even before sleeved bridal gowns get popular. These days, maybe two in 100 brides who enter her boutique ask for sleeves - a sign Philadelphia brides might be a little behind the medieval-maiden curve.
But that's to be expected. Brides-to-be might start devising their look from fashion magazines even before they're engaged. So by the time they're ready to make a purchase, they're still looking for the dress they spotted a year ago - and bridal manufacturers acknowledge this, keeping their inventory diverse and introducing new looks slowly.
Adrian predicted local brides would continue to lean more toward frothy yet whimsical evening-gown looks. Favorites include slinky mermaid-style silhouettes and strapless numbers with full-length ball gowns fashioned from layers of tulle.
"Our brides are into beading on the bodice, sashes, bows, feathers, and petals," Adrian said.
According to Catalina Maddox, David's Bridal's Conshohocken-based fashion director, brides can achieve dress drama just as much from color as silhouette. Blush pinks, ivories, champagnes, platinums - even printed gowns - are becoming more popular with brides who aren't as concerned about donning virginal white.
"The beautiful thing about weddings today is that it's not just one look," Maddox said. "There are many ways to express yourself. The manipulation of the fabric makes these gowns look like works of art, unlike the boring, A-line strapless dresses of the 1990s."
It may take a while for our eyes to adjust, but we have time. The new princess bride will be with us for a while.
To see more fashion photos visit www.philly.com/bridalfashionEndText