Guide to Wedding Dress Styles

Many brides feel overwhelmed by the large variety of wedding dress styles. Planning a wedding can seem like wandering into a completely different world. Just picking a wedding dress can make you feel like you're lost in a strange dream with new customs, new foods, new styles and lots of new lingo. What are these A-lines, sheaths and Watteau trains the sales girl keeps mentioning?

Before you sit through a bridal show, it can help to know what everyone's talking about.

You may know exactly what kind of dress you want, but that's of little use if you cannot explain it. Even if you have no clue what your perfect dress is, it's always good to know the terms for the specific styles you don't want.

To understand a wedding dress shape, you must first understand the components of a wedding dress. Your basic dress is made up of a bodice and skirt. The bodice is a minor factor since it's really the skirt that creates the dresses' overall shape and silhouette. The last part of a wedding dress, the train, is optional. The train is used to enhance or alter the overall dress shape.


The main shape of your dress is known as the silhouette. Your silhouette refers to your skirt shape more than your bodice shape. The basic silhouette terms you'll hear thrown around any bridal expo, show, shop or magazine are A-line, ball gown, empire waist, mermaid and sheath.

A-Line. A-line skirts, also known as princess cut, are shaped like the letter "A," hence the name. They fall evenly from the hips and remain flat in front. The width of the skirt increases for a full bottom hem. A-line skirts are usually floor-length, but they can be cut as short as the knee.

A-line skirts look flattering on most figures and offer a ball-gown feel with cleaner lines. They can be matched with almost any type of train or veil, and they are one of the most versatile silhouettes for wedding dresses.

Ball Gowns. Ball gowns can have any type of fitted bodice, but they require a voluminous, floor-length skirt. They are the most widely identified bridal style and are perfect for that fairytale look. The skirts are usually made from multiple layers, or they require a petticoat for fullness.

Ball gowns look good on most people, especially pear-shaped or full-figured women. However, they can add width to your tummy if the skirt is cut too close to the natural waist. Most ball gowns do not use trains, but they can work with any length of veil.

Empire Waists. An Empire waist skirt begins right below the bust. The skirt comes softly down the torso and usually keeps a straight line to the floor. This style is ideal for masking the stomach or hip area. However, the dress can resemble a nightgown when worn on extremely curvy figures.

The advantage of an Empire waist is that it gives a hint of alluring curves without revealing that you may have skipped going to the gym this week. These dresses can have trains, but only when the train starts high, around mid-back, to match the waistline.

Mermaid Dresses. Mermaid dresses are another style that looks just like it sounds. Also known as a fishtail, this cut has a fitted waist and hips. The skirt continues tightly down the leg and then flares out toward the bottom, like a mermaid's tail.

The flare on a Mermaid dress can start anywhere from lower thigh to lower calf. This style can be unflattering to curvaceous hips and behinds, but it is useful for making short waists appear balanced. These skirts are often paired with formal jackets to create sophisticated bridal looks for older women.

Sheath Dresses. Sheath dresses are simple, straight and fitted gowns. They're usually floor length and made to reveal your natural shape. However, they won't flatter tummy pouches or plumper posteriors.

Sheath dresses with a perfectly tailored above-the-ankle hem are often used to help add a little height to petite brides. They're wonderful if you want a sharp, crisp look, and they're definitely the most popular style of wedding dress to reuse as an evening gown.


Trains are used in most wedding gowns to help extend the back of the skirt for a beautiful display when you are walking down the aisle. They add fullness and always look stunning in wedding portraits.

Most women prefer removable trains to attached ones, since this allows them beauty at the ceremony when the train is attached, and easy movement at the reception when the train is detached. The style of train is determined by its length and position on the skirt. The most widely used train styles are chapel, cathedral, grand cathedral, sweep and Watteau.

Sweep Trains. Sweep wedding trains, or brush trains, are the shortest traditional train used. They start at the small of the back and are usually simple, light additions that are just long enough to "sweep" against the floor.

Chapel Trains. Chapel wedding gown trains are shorter because they were styled for weddings held in small chapels. The train is usually a few inches to one foot longer than the dress. Their style tends to be simple, but chapel trains add a little refinement to a gown.

Cathedral Trains. Cathedral trains are longer, since there was simply more room to fit a big gown in a cathedral. They usually come from the small of the waist to fall in a wide, long oval. Cathedral trains are often heavily decorated and around six feet in length.

Grand Cathedral Trains. Grand cathedral wedding gown trains are another step up in length. The train usually starts below the small of the waist and can extend up to ten feet. Heavy beading and assorted decorations are popular with the grand cathedral style.Watteau Trains. Watteau wedding trains are attached at mid back or a little higher. They fall to at least floor length, but are usually even longer. They can be light and airy embellishments, or a heavily decorated focus point for the dress.

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