#47 Something Old: The Vintage Wedding Dress

2020 has really breathed life into the trend of non-traditional, micro-weddings (see also: elopement, Zoom wedding). Though getting married in the middle of a pandemic comes with a severe set of (government mandated) limitations, it’s also an opportunity to eschew fussy conventions that come with exorbitant price tags. Without hundreds of people to entertain and please comes the freedom of doing it however you want (on a beach at sunrise, in your living room with the cats), wearing whatever you want – whether it’s a dramatic custom jumpsuit or a simple yellow sundress from your closet. To pull off such an event, like my husband and I did recently, required creativity, improvisation, and a focus on what’s most important. Sure, our guest list was down to six and we had to change our Airbnb venue from a beautiful lakeside cottage to a modest house with a small backyard, but we were ready to celebrate our love for each other with some champagne and signatures. And we were going to look good doing it.

My wedding dress was an unexpected and borderline miraculous find. It wasn’t exactly what I had in mind initially, but looking back, there’s no dress that could have suited me better. When I first got engaged in the fall of 2018, I didn’t really have a specific vision in mind of what I wanted to look like on my wedding day. I think the notion of women growing up dreaming about their wedding (and the commercialization of weddings in general) is more of a western concept and not very typical in the culture I grew up in. So when everyone asked me what I was going to wear, I honestly hadn’t thought much about it.

I had some ideas of the types of gowns I liked – I was always obsessed with Keira Knightley’s iconic green dress in Atonement. That initial inspiration, plus a few evenings of web browsing, led me to a more definitive set of criteria: I wanted a dress that was bias-cut, a straight silhouette without too much embellishment, and featured a flattering open back. Of course, budget was a big consideration; I was bookmarking potential dresses in the $200 – $800 range, most of them not specifically wedding dresses. It didn’t have to be white, although I did prefer light, neutral colours. I was also leaning towards something classic, but not too bridal-looking, like this.

Ivory Gown

Purchased from: Mamalovesyou Vintage, 2019

Cost: $250 + $300 in alterations

Material: silk

Wears counted: 1

The story of buying of my wedding dress is very anti-climactic. Basically, I bought it on a whim one day, after a work meeting. It was the middle of winter and I was walking toward the streetcar stop when I decided to take a peek in one of my favourite vintage stores. I immediately went to the section of older vintage gowns, 1920’s, 30’s, 40’s, and found some amazing dresses I felt like trying on. I can’t remember if I was thinking about the wedding or if it was more for fun, but the moment I put on this ivory pleated dress, I fell in love. It fit me like a glove.

There were a few things I wasn’t sure about at first: for one thing, it was more girly and princess-y than what I would typically go for, and I’d pictured a smooth, satiny fabric, rather than pleated silk crepe. Still, something about it felt right. There was an instant attraction and my gut instinct told me this was it. Even though we had no wedding plans, yet, and I was by myself (antithesis to the Say Yes to the Dress shopping experience), I was compelled to get it, and so I did. 

Reviving the Dress

As a lover of recycling old things, finding a secondhand wedding dress was kind of a dream, but not something I thought was practical. I knew this dress needed a lot of work, even though it was well-preserved for its age. It was teeming with imperfections: spots of yellowing, little holes and snags, loose stitches around the bodice, and the straps were falling apart. The dress hung in my closet for nearly a year before we “finalized” our July 2020 wedding plans and I went about finding a tailor. I did some research on local places and the general process of restoring vintage wedding dresses. I quickly learned that this was going to be costly and I felt reluctant to spend more on the alterations than the dress itself. During that time, I was very tempted to sell it and a buy one of the back-up options I’d saved on my computer. It wouldn’t be as unique or high quality, but at least it would be moth-hole-fee. 

But since I already had the dress, I thought I might as well do an initial consultation. I finally made an appointment at a well-reviewed bridal tailor in the city and brought a friend along for support. When I first walked into the workroom, with its large windows and racks of gorgeous silks, delicate lace, and embellished tulle, it was walking into an adult-sized playhouse. I immediately liked the woman who ran the atelier, a stylish young Armenian woman who wore sneakers and dungarees.

After putting the dress on and seeing it again in the large mirror, with better lighting, I saw the potential it had and I felt more motivated to give this dress the makeover it deserved. The good thing was it didn’t need fit alterations, but to refresh the old garment, made with nearly century-old fabric, would be challenging. At this first appointment, we discussed a few different ideas and creative directions, like adding more fabric to the bottom, to give it a more modern, couture look. As much as I was interested in her artistic ideas, deep down I felt like I wanted to preserve the character and simplicity of the dress, making as little change as possible.

Then COVID-19 hit. The wedding was cancelled and I mostly forgot about the dress until I got an email about a follow-up appointment. After three months of pandemic shutdown, I was a little nervous about going in, partly because, you know, infectious disease, and also that I would no longer fit into the dress due to all the bread making. Our wedding plans were also non-existent and while I appreciated the tailor’s eagerness to get the project done, I had no idea if we were going to postpone this indefinitely or do it in the park on a random weekend. I decided to go forward with the work, but with a scaled back vision – keeping the changes minimal and only where necessary, which was what I wanted all along.

Reducing the amount of work didn’t mean scrapping creativity, however. The main challenge was changing the ruched straps, which continued along the bodice of the dress, curving into a U-shape in the front. We played with different materials and thought of different techniques that could mimic this curved effect. The following appointment involved many swatches of ribbons and fabric to find one that might work; there was so much pinning and re-pinning around my body. For the straps, we had first considered having the ribbons tie into bows on the shoulders, but in front of the mirror, I gravitated towards the clean look of simple, straight straps.

For the ribbon, we found a semi-sheer one with iridescent edges that seemed to match the colour of the dress, while adding a bit of shine and subtle contrast. The tailor used a press to create a crinkled texture along the ribbon and layered a small mesh tube under the sections in the bodice to recreate the curved, 3-dimensional effect. Finally, we decided to leave the ribbons in the back hanging loose, allowing them to disappear into the pleats of the skirt, and added an additional section of ribbon across the small of the back. All of the work was painstakingly hand-sewn. Matching the original work was technically challenging, but I had a lot of trust in my tailor. The end result was better than I could have asked for and the process of working on the dress really inspired me to get more into sewing.

To finish the dress, we lightly pressed the bottom of the skirt . I was advised to not get it cleaned due to the fragility of the fabric. And although there were some spots of yellowing and small holes in the skirt, none of those minute flaws were really noticeable. I took the dress home about three weeks before we held the wedding. My fiancée picked up his suit with two days to go. 

The Final Look

To complete the ensemble, I found these silver strappy sandals at the mall, with a very good discount. I thought the heels would pair nicely with the dress, echoing its pleated lines and the shine in the ribbon, while modernizing the outfit. On the day, my amazing and talented friend did my hair and makeup. It was a very relaxed, normal-seeming day up until we separately went to get dressed. We had spent the morning setting up the backyard for the wedding, arranging flowers, and nibbling on smoked salmon appetizers. While getting ready, I was calm, but slightly nervous to show the dress to my parents, who hadn’t seen it before, and of course, my husband (though he pretty much likes everything I wear).

The photographer suggested we do a “first look” before the ceremony: a moment in a nice spot where we simultaneously turn around and see each other, dressed up, for the first time. It seemed a little cheesy to me at first, but it turned out to be one of the most special and powerful moments I’ve ever felt. It was emotional, seeing each other in a foreign, but familiar way. I had goosebumps. (Partially because the September air was chilly)

The dress was a success. I felt comfortable, beautiful, and just like myself. As we talked down the street, snapping photos, I loved the movement of the asymmetrical skirt and the ribbons trailing in the wind. It was the perfect thing for our intimate, but casual celebration, and looked great with my husband’s navy suit. As a pragmatic woman, the evening felt more like a fairy tale than I imagined it would be. The dress definitely lent to the romantic atmosphere. I kind of loved it, though.

The dress is now back in my closet, after that whirlwind day. It sits in a dust bag, with a little more tearing at the seams than before. I hope to wear it again for a bigger celebration with the rest of our friends and family, whenever that may be. I can also see myself pulling this out for a non-wedding-related event in the future, maybe to an opera or some other occasion that requires a fancy full-length gown. I briefly thought about shortening it or dying it a different colour, but I think I’d rather preserve it as is. It’s so delicate that there’s no way it can be a regularly worn piece, no matter how I transform it. It was a privilege to get married in such a special, unique dress, with so much history behind it. I wonder about the person(s) who wore it before me, and who might wear it after me, when I decide to pass it on someday.

Wedding pictures by: @sarahbostudio

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