The recent Bridal Fashion Week in New York, which previewed wedding gowns for the Spring 2016 season, featured all the things you'd expect: lace, crystals, tulle. (So much tulle!) It also featured, however, something you wouldn't, necessarily, expect: skin. (So much skin!) Skin not just of traditionally exposed bridal body parts—arms and shoulders and calves—but also of stomachs and sides and backs.
There was the Marchesa gown that leaves its wearer's back bare save for a line of covered buttons. There was Theia's pants-based ensemble, the focal point of which is a bra worn under an iridescent blouse. There was the spate of dresses that, taking their cue from ready-to-wear trends, featured cutouts—at the waist (Reem Acra), in the back (Monique Lhuillier), between the breasts (Angel Sanchez). There were the many two-piece affairs, with fits both boxy and snug, showing flirty flashes of midriff. There were the nearly invisible nettings—draped, wantonly, over shoulders and backs and necklines—that offered, in everything but the most up-close of views, the illusion of bareness. There were the many dresses that took their plunging necklines to their logical conclusions: their wearers' waists.
But the most revealing pieces in the latest bridal lines—revealing, in every sense of the word—were Vera Wang's mermaid-cut sheaths, staunchly traditional in their ribbons and lace, but innovative in their most striking features: The gowns are almost fully translucent, from their necklines to their hems. The lingerie their models wore, dainty and daring at the same time, was on full display under the fishnet and lace bodices of the gowns. The lingerie was, in fact, an elemental part of the dresses.
This—the be-boudoired bridal outfit—may be designed to shock, but it isn't at all surprising. It's simply another step toward something that has taken place both gradually and seemingly overnight: the sexification of the wedding dress. The gowns that have for so long involved sweeping hoop skirts and demure lace and virginal white have been, of late, getting steadily saucier. They've been showing more shoulder, more cleavage, more back ... more of pretty much everything, except fabric.
It's worth taking a moment to consider that shift. Which is simply about fashion, yes, bridal trends following broader ones. But which is also, bridal gowns being what they are, about changing attitudes toward marriage, and weddings, and feminism, and femininity, and the many other things that accompany a woman as she walks down an aisle in a dress that she will, if all goes according to plan, never wear again.
We tend to think about wedding dresses in terms of "tradition"; there's actually very little, however, that is traditional about the white confections that have been the focal points of so many ceremonies throughout the years. (Or, for that matter, about any of the other "traditional" components of wedding pageantry: Today's bouquets are the descendants of the floral crowns worn by both brides and grooms; these sometimes included garlic, to ward off evil spirits.) White, as the de-facto color of the (Western) bridal gown, became popular only after Queen Victoria wore it to her wedding to Prince Albert in the 19th century; before that, women wore whatever color their finest clothes happened to be. For most, that meant dark colors, which don't show stains as readily as light colors do. (In the U.S., following the Great Depression and the economic hardship of two World Wars, women again tended to eschew impractical whites and creams for dresses and suits that could be worn again; it wasn't until the economy boomed, in the 1950s and 1960s, that white would again became the norm.)
The dress we tend to think of as iconic today—the white ball gown, Cinderella-style, with a tight bodice and an enormous skirt—didn't come about, as a matter of standard bridal fashion, until the 1990s, when the strapless silhouette—an insistently elegant response to the puffy-armed, conservative affairs of the '80s—rose to prominence. Then, in the mid-2000s, the bareness shifted to the other side: Monique Lhuillier and other designers began experimenting with open backs (followed, quickly, by plunging ones).
The bridal scene of 2015, partly as a result of all this, now involves "bridal boot camps" that promise to tone, in particular, bridal backs and arms. It involves the reality-TV juggernaut Say Yes to the Dress, which assumes first that a wedding dress is something a woman "has been dreaming of since she was a little girl," and second that the fulfillment of that dream should cost a bride—or her family, or her fiancé—several thousands of dollars. It involves sites like Pinterest, and social networks like Faceboook and Instagram, which put a new premium on weddings—their clothes, their decorations, their overall productions—as vehicles of meaning and creativity and self-expression.
Which is also to say that the bridal scene of 2015 sucks brides into a paradox. On the one hand, what you wear on your wedding day—the collection of garments that may well form the most expensive outfit of your life—is sold as a sartorial symbol of Who You Are, with all the freight that comes with it. On the other hand, though, bridal clothing is, by its nature, constrained—by expectation, by convention, by tradition. The various hegemonies of length (trains!) and cut (strapless!) and color (white! or maybe cream, if you're feeling daring!) have meant that even the most avant-garde approaches to wedding dress-ing have tended to be, in their way, conservative.
You could read Vera Wang's transparent wedding dress—which functions as wearable art much more than sellable merchandise—as an extreme answer to those often rather cruel tensions: What better way to criticize the constraints of the wedding industrial complex than by creating a dress that is, effectively, invisible?
You could also read it, of course, as an overt rejection of the sexual mores at play in the traditional wedding dress. Wedding dresses have always been, on some level, about sex: the white as a sign (and a reassurance) of the bride's virginity; the expanse of fabric as a tacit promise that, while sex will be had, it will be had in the proper way. Women are getting married at older ages than they used to. Which means, among so much else, that they're less inclined to opt for princess-driven designs—and also that they're less inclined to designs that emphasize the virginal. “For my generation," the soon-to-be bride Natasha Da Silva told The New York Times in 2008, "looking like a virgin when you marry is completely unappealing, boring even. Who cares about that part anymore?”
The transparent, lingerie-evocative gown takes the tradition of the sex-symbolizing wedding attire, but flips it: It implies that the sex will be had on the bride's terms as much as the groom's. It's reveling in a woman's sexuality, rather than stifling it.
Which is not to say that the wedding season of 2016 will feature visible bridal bras. Runway styles are, of course, not the same thing as ready-to-wear, and Vera Wang's insouciant takes on the wedding dress are as much a proof of concept as they are a straight-faced entry into bridal fashion. But if wedding clothes are always, on some level, a reflection of the times, then the move toward more revealing dresses that Wang's designs represent—dresses that flaunt a bride's sexuality, rather than concealing it—is itself a revelation. Sex is part of marriage, the dresses insist. Sex is part of life, they add. They refuse to be ashamed of, or be shy about, any of that.
Brides regularly come to Kleinfeld, New York's behemoth bridal salon and the real star of Say Yes to the Dress, in search of the designs from the store-exclusive designer Pnina Tornai, whose corset- and bra-bearing designs plunge every plunge-able element of a dress. The brides want their "Pninas." And they will happily pay many, many thousands of dollars for the privilege of owning one—of being, as Kleinfeld puts it, proudly, "the absolute, stunning, sparkly, and sexy center of attention."