Photos: Britain’s royal wedding dresses, from Queen Victoria to Kate Middleton

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, in her stunning Alexander McQueen dress, with Prince William.
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, in her stunning Alexander McQueen dress, with Prince William.
Image: Reuters/John Stillwell
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Another British royal wedding is upon us.

On May 19, Britain’s Prince Harry will marry Meghan Markle, an American actress. For many watchers on both sides of the Atlantic—at least those who care—one of the highlights of the event will be the reveal of Markle’s dress.

Royal wedding gowns can be a spectacle in themselves, as they aspire to match the fairytale grandeur of their circumstances. Extravagance isn’t demanded; the dress Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon wore to marry the Duke of York in 1923 was known for its simplicity, even if it was still elaborately embroidered. But a lavish gown is often the choice. These dresses can also set a course for the wedding fashion that follows. The ivory dress Queen Victoria wore for her 1840 union to Prince Albert is credited with helping to make white the standard for wedding looks in the West.

The designer Markle chose to create her look hasn’t yet been revealed. The speculation at the moment is that Britain’s Stella McCartney won the job, though previous odds favored Ralph & Russo—Britain’s only officially-recognized couture label and the one Markle chose for her engagement photos.

Whichever designer has the honor, the dress is sure to be another noteworthy entry in royal fashion history. Here’s a look back at a few of our favorites of the past.

Queen Victoria, 1840

Photography wasn’t well-developed enough to capture the 1840 ceremony, but Victoria’s silk-and-lace gown has thankfully been preserved.

FILE - In this Feb. 10, 1840 file image, an illustration depicts the wedding of Britain's Queen Victoria, centre right, and to Prince Albert, centre left, in The Chapel Royal at St. James's Palace in London, England. The celebrated silk-and-lace bridal gown worn by Queen Victoria offers some clues about what Kate Middleton will wear when she walks down the aisle April 29, even if much has changed since Victoria's low-key wedding in 1840. Just as Victoria used English lace and silk woven in London to show support for British industry, Middleton faces overwhelming pressure to use a British designer. (AP Photo/File)
An illustration of Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert in 1840.
Image: AP Photo
The ivory silk wedding dress worn by Queen Victoria in her marriage to Prince Albert in 1840 is displayed and then reflected in mirrors as part of the exhibition "Victoria Revealed" in the building where she was born, Kensington Palace in London, Tuesday, March 20, 2012. Kensington Palace has been transformed following a 12 million pounds ($19 million, 14.4 million euro) restoration project timed to be completed for this summer's Queen Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee and the London 2012 Olympics. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
The ivory silk wedding dress worn by Queen Victoria in her marriage to Prince Albert in 1840 was displayed as part of the exhibition “Victoria Revealed.”
Image: AP Photo/Matt Dunham

Queen Mother, 1923

Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, later known as Queen Mother, in a very 1920s, loose-fitting gown.

26th April 1923: Future Queen Consort to King George VI, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (1900 - 2002) leaving her Bruton Street residence for her wedding to George, Duke Of York. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon leaves her residence on her way to marry King George VI in 1923.
Image: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Duchess of Windsor, 1937

Wallis Simpson, an American socialite, married the Duke of Windsor in 1937. Their romance was a scandal. Until a few months before, the duke had been King Edward VIII. When he proposed to Simpson, already divorced once and in the process of being divorced a second time, it caused a constitutional crisis that prompted him to abdicate the throne. They were married in a small ceremony in France, and Simpson opted for a relatively modest look.

Edward VIII, former King of England, now Duke of Windsor, and his bride, Bessie Wallis Warfield Simpson are seen following the civil and religious ceremonies at the Chateau de Cande, near Tours, France, June 3, 1937. (AP Photo/BIPPA)
Wallis Simpson at their wedding in 1937.
Image: AP Photo/BIPPA

Queen Elizabeth II, 1947

Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth II, wore a gown with a 15-foot train made of transparent ivory silk. It was edged with satin flowers and encrusted with pearls and crystals.

Britain's Princess Elizabeth and her husband the Duke of Edinburgh are seen leaving Westminster Abbey, London, on Nov. 20, 1947, following their wedding service. (AP Photo)
Princess Elizabeth and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, after their wedding in 1947.
Image: AP Photo
Seen from above are the Royal newly-weds, British Princess Elizabeth and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten (Duke of Edinburgh) as they leave Westminster Abbey, London, November 20, 1947. After their marriage, shows the bridal train. The 15-foot long bridal train is of transparent ivory silk, attached to the shoulders and edged with graduated satin flowers, finally forming a deep border encrusted with pearls and crystals. (AP Photo)
Newly-weds Princess Elizabeth and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, the Duke of Edinburgh.
Image: AP Photo

Princess Margaret, 1960

The first televised British royal wedding took place between Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones. More than 20 million viewers watched, seeing the princess’s bright white silk organza gown. Its designer, Norman Hartnell, deliberately kept the embellishments to a minimum.

Great Britain Princess Margaret with Anthony Armstrong Jones at Buckingham Palace after their wedding in Westminster Abbey on May 6, 1960. (AP Photo)
Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong-Jones on their wedding day in 1960.
Image: AP Photo
Anthony Armstrong-Jones holds the hand of his bride, Princess Margaret of Britain May 6, 1960 as they leave London's Westminster Abbey after theIr wedding. (AP Photo)
The bride and groom as they leave Westminster Abbey.
Image: AP Photo

Princess Diana, 1981

Some dresses distinctly reflect their fashion era. The one Lady Diana Spencer wore to marry Prince Charles was a paragon of 1980s style.

Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer are shown on their wedding day at St. Paul's Cathedral in London on July 29, 1981. (AP Photo)
Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer during their wedding ceremony at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Image: AP Photo
Britain's Prince Charles kisses his bride, the former Diana Spencer, on the balcony of Buckingham Palace in London, after their wedding on July 29, 1981. (AP Photo)
The bride and groom kiss.
Image: AP Photo

Princess Kate, 2011

The wedding of Kate Middleton to Prince William was a huge event, and the Alexander McQueen dress she wore lived up to the occasion. The New York Times has called it “the wedding dress of the decade.” We’ll see if it retains the title, or at least has some company, once Meghan Markle’s dress is revealed.

Maid of Honour, Pippa Middleton (L) holds the wedding dress of her sister Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, after her she married Britain's Prince William at Westminster Abbey, in central London April 29, 2011. Prince William married his fiancee, Kate Middleton, in Westminster Abbey on Friday. (ROYAL WEDDING/SERVICE) RREUTERS/Kirsty Wigglesworth/Pool (BRITAIN - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT SOCIETY ROYALS) - LR2E74T172DAA
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, marries Prince William in 2011.
Image: Reuters/Kirsty Wigglesworth
Exhibition curator, Caroline de Guitaut, adjusts the wedding dress of Britain's Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, at Buckingham Palace in London July 20, 2011. Buckingham Palace expects record crowds this summer as up to 650,000 people are set to file into Queen Elizabeth's London residence and past the dress worn by Kate Middleton at her royal wedding to Prince William. The ivory and white garment, designed by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen, won over the fashion press and public when Middleton, now the Duchess of Cambridge and a future queen, walked up the aisle of Westminster Abbey in April. Picture taken July 20, 2011. REUTERS/Lewis Whyld/Pool (BRITAIN - Tags: ROYALS TRAVEL SOCIETY ENTERTAINMENT) - GM1E77M067A01
Kate Middleton’s Alexander McQueen gown holds the floor at an exhibition.
Image: Reuters/Lewis Whyld