Sheer as mist and soft as a kiss, tulle has long been part of a bride's ensemble. But veils and petticoats are just the beginning. Today's bride can float down the aisle on a cloud or glide by sheathed in just a whisper.
Little girls' dreams are spun from tulle. Think of Cinderella off to the ball in misty layers of net skirts, a sugar-plum fairy with her twirling tutu, or a bride in a veil that shades her face and breaks over her shoulders like foam. It has never been easier to make those romantic visions a reality, for tulle in its different forms is an important part of current fashion, which prizes anything sheer and light.
Tulle is a fine, small-meshed net that was born as a version of early machine-made bobbin lace. Most people think of tulle as a white, openwork fabric with the texture of whipped egg whites, meaning that it holds a shape yet is still soft. Tulle comes in silk and cotton, and as nylon net. Its texture -- stiff and scrunchy or soft and fluid -- depends primarily on how the fabric was treated or finished. Different effects can further change tulle's appearance. For example, Swiss-dot tulle has clusters of embroidery woven into it that make it less see-through, and elaborate beading creates a "floating" embellishment.
Bridal tulle starts with the veil, historically used to shield a woman's face from the male gaze. Although concealment is unlikely to be the aim of a modern woman on her way to the altar, many couples still favor the symbolic gesture of drawing back the veil like a curtain after the vows have been taken. Yet a modern veil is often designed to be nearly transparent -- a straight fall of tulle that gives a touch of romance to a simple dress, much as a wedding photographer might put a soft filter on a bridal portrait. For that look, the stiffer the tulle, the airier the effect. The same applies to a train that is meant to float from the shoulders like gauzy butterfly wings, rather than run in a soft stream down the aisle.
What about petticoats? Tulle came into its own in Victorian times when it helped to balloon up skirts. Then came the grand era of romantic ballets; at the turn of the century, Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova danced "Les Sylphides," set in a leafy glade, in the layered mid-calf skirt we still refer to as ballet length. "Swan Lake," first performed in Moscow in 1877, imprinted the idea of the chorus of graceful birds in their fluffy tutu feathers.
Puffball underskirts can still look magical -- as long as they capture a balletic lightness. That can be achieved by gathering up a heavier silk or satin overskirt into festoons to reveal the tulle underneath or by hemming net skirts with satin to create an outline. Today, young bridesmaids look especially cute in full net skirts that make them look like part of the corps de ballet, but that bunchy look has become less appealing to the gym-honed modern bride. For a bride who wants the traditional meringue nest of skirts, the answer is a corset bodice that sculpts the gown before it breaks into a voluminous shape.
Tulle as an overlay is also pretty. For example, a slender bias-cut silk or satin gown can be topped with an elongated slip of a dress in tulle, the well-defined silhouette softened by the veiling. Tulle's ability to both conceal and reveal makes for some pretty plays on sheer for the upper half of a wedding dress as well. That might mean a classic strapless top with a fill-in of mesh from neck to wrists. Embellishments of embroidered arabesques or beaded flowers look like jewelry against the skin. The invention of stretch has added more choices, offering fabrics that are almost as sheer as nylon hose. Stretch tulle can create a "body" that slips under the gown, or it can be made into brief boleros or cardigans.
Because tulle is featherweight and easy to work with, it can also be used to create do-it-yourself decorations. Gatherings of tulle may be added to gloves, or made into detachable sleeves or frills used at skirt hems. It can even parcel bouquets like clouds of tissue paper. Since tulle comes in sugared-almond shades as well as in its familiar pristine white, it offers the opportunity to introduce color to a bridal outfit in a subtle way. Underskirts in pale pink beneath white give a roseate glow, and ivory mesh laid on a bodice can warm glacial white silk.
What explains tulle's staying power? The yellowing remnants of vintage veils prove that the fabric is fragile -- which is part of its charm. Marion Kite, a senior conservationist for textiles at London's Victoria & Albert Museum, says that silk tulle is especially vulnerable to age and daylight. "Ultimately it will deteriorate because it is very fine, and susceptible to light and poor handling," she says. "You should keep it in the dark in a stable environment." Even wrapped in acid-free tissue paper, a tulle dress (particularly if it has been stiffened or treated with chemical products) is inclined to turn from white to ivory and may eventually disintegrate.
But that doesn't mean you should despair of handing a tulle gown on to the next generation -- or of wearing the tulle veil beneath which your mother and father exchanged their first married kiss. One currently fashionable effect includes trim of shredded tulle, which gives a feathery effect that can be whimsical rather than witchy. Illusory as it appears, even vintage tulle can have a long life in the history of family weddings.