Let me start by saying that I am not a wedding photographer. But I love bridal portraits. You may wonder what a bridal portrait is and how a photographer who doesn’t shoot weddings can claim a specialization in bridal portraiture. To answer that, let’s dig into the history and tradition of wedding attire and bridal portraits.

For centuries, brides have worn special, often impressive, gowns on their wedding day. In the modern era, we tend to think of wedding gowns as a garment worn once, on the big day, then carefully sealed away. But that trend is really quite modern – until the late 19th century and even into the early 20th century, brides often wore their wedding dress for years after their marriage. It became their best dress, worn on important occasions and events. In fact, it was often expected the bride would wear her wedding dress at the first party, dinner or other formal occasions after her marriage

So what does that have to do with bridal portraits? Quite a bit, actually. It wasn’t until the 1950’s or so that photographers began to routinely attend and photograph actual weddings. Their equipment was simply too cumbersome for the average wedding to be able to have a photographer on-site. Before that, portraits were taken at the photographer’s studio, and sitting for a photograph often took quite a while. A woman might visit a photographer in advance of her wedding day to sit for a portrait in her bridal gown. The newly married couple would visit the photographer to be photographed in their wedding finery, sometimes with their wedding party or family members. Although these portraits were intended to document and celebrate the occasion of the marriage, the reality is that they often occurred at a completely different time than the wedding!

Additionally, a married woman would naturally want to wear her best dress for a portrait, even one taken long after her wedding. For many women, that meant they would wear their wedding dress, though generally without bridal accessories like veils and bouquets. So there used to be numerous occasions and opportunities for a woman to be photographed in her wedding dress other than her actual wedding day.

Even after it became more common (and more affordable) to have a photographer at the wedding, the bride-to-be might still schedule a formal bridal portrait a month or two before the big day. She would wear her gown, veil, and other wedding accessories (though NOT a wedding band, that’s one way to tell if one is looking at a bridal portrait, rather than a wedding photo!). Her hair and makeup would be done as planned for the big day. The goal was to anticipate the bridal look as much as possible.

Though the details of the wedding were being preserved on the day itself, having a portrait of the bride in advance had several advantages. First, it ensured a photo of the bride was ready before the wedding – a real advantage at a time when marriages were announced in the society pages of the paper. With a portrait already made, the announcement could come in the next day’s paper, along with a photo. Second, it ensured a beautiful portrait was made of the bride at a time when she was relaxed and comfortable, free from the nerves, distractions and stresses of the wedding day. Third, it ensured a beautiful memento of the bride for her family, which might ease the transition of the bride from her family home to her new home. And finally, it offered a bit of a trial run for the whole bridal look  – if something was off about the dress, hair or makeup, there would be time to change it before the wedding. One other advantage to a studio bridal portrait was that it allowed the photographer complete control over the environment – the background or setting, the lights, the pose, etc – something that often isn’t possible at the actual wedding location.

That all sounds very quaint and charming, but perhaps you’re wondering what the history and tradition of bridal clothing and bridal portraits has to do with right now? Well, to start with, it’s never too late to schedule a bridal portrait, no matter how long you’ve been married. Think about it, do you have a portrait from your wedding day that shows off your dress and all the details? Perhaps you do, but the odds are good solo portraits from the wedding are more rushed and improvised against whatever background was available.

Second, do you love your wedding gown? If so, consider that you might want to wear it for a portrait just to have a reason to get it out again. While most wedding gowns are still pretty traditional and pretty unmistakable as a “wedding dress”, that doesn’t mean you can’t make like brides of olden times and wear your “best dress” one more time. This works even better if your wedding dress isn’t completely traditional – I photographed my wife for her 40th birthday and she ultimately decided to wear her light blue wedding gown. She loves the dress, it’s the most formal gown she has and she wanted to wear it again.

Portrait of Heather Fleing by Louisville Portrait Photographer Ben Marcum

What if you’re not married yet? Then you can schedule a bridal portrait in advance of your wedding and feel confident that you’ll have a stunning portrait of yourself in your gown and accessories, without adding time or stress to your wedding day. Trying everything on and seeing how it all works together can be incredibly fun but it can also give you more confidence that you’re going to love your entire bridal look on the big day.

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