Sassi Holford’s 1989 ‘convertible’ wedding gown was the last word in bold style, winning a national award and helping set her label on course for the decades to come
Words: Libby Norman
Fashion of the 1980s doesn’t get a fair press and, when it comes to bridal, it is usually defined by one famous royal dress. Yet this was the decade that saw both extreme romanticism and radical reinvention – these were bold times.
Still a defining British wedding label today, Sassi Holford started out in the dawn of the decade in the West Country. Self taught, Sassi had what she describes as: “the audacity of youth”. After making a gown for a friend in need, she moved on to make several more and decided she loved it. Her business was newly minted around the time Charles and Diana got married in 1981.
“By the age of 21, Sassi Holford was stocked in London’s ‘big three’ for bridal”
Anyone who was there knows that wedding was a huge event, and with feverish anticipation about who would get the first royal copy out there. Sassi took on the challenge: “I sat up all night after the Royal Wedding and made a complete replica, right down to the 25-foot train. Then I got in my old car and drove it across Exmoor to Banbury’s department store in Barnstaple, where I persuaded them to put it in the front window”.
This singlehanded marketing coup garnered publicity, but replicas were not Sassi Holford’s speciality. She was developing an original look based around elegant lines with the finest fabrics. While full skirts and bows were hallmarks of the time and had to be in the mix, she also experimented with alternative takes, such as slinky evening-style gowns with jackets.
Three years in – so by the age of 21 – Sassi Holford’s gowns were stocked in London’s then ‘big three’ for bridal – Dickins & Jones, Liberty and Harrods. She says: “It does sound extraordinary now, but that’s what happened. Young people are resilient, resistant to knocks. If things didn’t go my way, I’d dust myself off and try again – and in the 1980s, young designers did have space to develop.” By 1987, Sassi had won the first of many awards; that defining first was for innovation.
Innovator though Sassi Holford certainly was, this 1989 gown was out there. The ruched and strapless bodice had a removable cummerbund belt featuring silk appliqué roses. A bolero jacket with leg-of-mutton sleeves topped off the gown.
The skirt was the masterstroke. Wide and full, it was actually a removable top layer with a form-fitting skirt beneath. Here was one of the first wedding gowns specifically designed for easy day-to-evening transformation.
“Here was one of the first gowns designed for day-to-evening transformation”
It was, says Sassi, a catchy idea and won a top award from Brides magazine. “It was not my most commercially successful design, but definitely a talking-point and attracted lots of publicity. Of course, weddings were different back then – parents were much more involved in decisions. This was a gown the bride might choose, but it was not going to be approved by her mother.”
Looking at it now, the gown is resolutely ‘80s, but also a trailblazer. Sassi says: “It’s completely of its era with that sexy and exaggerated shape, but the concept is ahead of the times. Now most brides want one amazing gown with the versatility to take them from ceremony to party. So the idea of the adaptable gown still informs how we design for brides today.”
About Sassi Holford
Sassi Holford has won multiple awards during her more than 35-year career – most recently Best British Bridal Designer at the 2016 Bridal Buyer Awards. Her Taunton boutique is also the company’s base, where every wedding gown is designed and handmade. The London flagship boutique moved to a new and larger Chelsea location last year at 82 Fulham Road, where contemporary collections for mothers of the bride and occasion goers have joined main collection and London exclusive wedding gowns. sassiholford.com