Generation game: would you wear your mum’s old wedding dress?

Words by Sarah Gillespie

I was never the little girl who longed to wear her mother’s wedding dress. Starring in my own junior episode of Fashion Police, I was content to make fun of the puffy sleeves and announce that they’d run out of material for the skirt (‘tea-length’ at that age meant how long I spent eating dinner). Many brides feel like this, fearing a painfully awkward exchange if their mum kindly offers them her dress.

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Dragonfly Dress Design has collections of original vintage and vintage-inspired dresses that span the most fashionable decades

On the other hand, what if you do want to wear your mum’s dress but size, style or condition is preventing you? Scotland is bursting with talented dress designers and alterations companies who can work practical miracles with gowns that most of us would describe as unsalvageable, meaning your mum’s (or another heirloom) dress could be completely reworked to modern shapes and fit.

Did your mum dye her gown green and put it in your dressing-up box (as a recent bride told us), putting it beyond salvage? Or are your proportions so fundamentally different that you won’t be able to wear her dress? If so, you could consider vintage gowns (and their modern-day tributes) in the quest for your dream blast-from-the-past dress.

Shape shifters

The main reason most of us struggle to fit into genuine vintage gowns is the evolution of the female form. Since the 1950s, we have become taller, broader, bustier – even our feet are bigger. Unlike the housewives of days gone by – when a lack of labour-saving devices meant housework burnt more calories than Body Combat – we strive ahead with our careers, have little time to exercise and grab fast food on the go. The rise of the contraceptive pill is one reason why the average bra size has blossomed to 36D. The average woman is two inches taller and seven inches bigger round the waist than she was 60 years ago. Around 45% of us are size 16 or above, while the majority of pre-1980 wedding dresses are size 10-12.

“A lot of vintage dresses are very small-made and short,” admits bridal designer Catriona Garforth (bycatriona.com). “Body shapes have changed a lot over the years, and if you aren’t lucky enough to fit into your mum’s size 6 dress, the dress may need quite a bit of work to get it right for you.”

Andrina Greig, manager at Fabricated Bridal Alterations (fabricatedalterations.com), agrees: “Most vintage dresses that come to us are both too short and too small. Dresses can be let out, but alterations generally involve stylistic changes and a fair bit of thinking outside the box.”

Louise loved her mum’s Annie Rose dress, bought in a bridal shop in Hamilton in the 1970s, but knew it would need some work before she could wear it on her own big day. The team at Fabricated Bridal Alterations advised removing the high frilly neckline and puffy lace sleeves. They completely transformed the bodice, taking it apart and adding a boned corset with a sweetheart neckline to give the dress structure and a more modern fit. The finishing touches were her mum’s veil and a bespoke hairpiece which used some of her gran’s pearls.

Louise loved her mum’s Annie Rose dress, bought in a bridal shop in Hamilton in the 1970s, but knew it would need some work before she could wear it on her own big day. The team at Fabricated Bridal Alterations advised removing the high frilly neckline and puffy lace sleeves. They completely transformed the bodice, taking it apart and adding a boned corset with a sweetheart neckline to give the dress structure and a more modern fit. The finishing touches were her mum’s veil and a bespoke hairpiece which used some of her gran’s pearls.

Nip and tuck

As well as our bodies changing, the construction of wedding dresses has also moved with the times. “Wedding dresses today are generally made up of lots of layers,” Andrina tells us. “Older dresses tend not to have the same boning or structure, so you’ll notice it feels different when it’s on, meaning you might want to have it deconstructed and then restructured.”

A dress designer or seamstress will advise you whether it is better to have the dress altered or completely reworked. Alterations include things like taking the bust in or raising shoulders and hems, while a rework generally involves taking the dress apart to add structure, modernise the cut or use the materials for a new gown.

Rescue mission

A thorough examination of your heirloom dress should bring up any issues early on. Age spots, rust and dust marks can be gently washed or dry-cleaned (get professional advice before chucking it in a 40˚ fast wash, though). Your dressmaker will give you a realistic evaluation of how much of a damaged dress is usable.

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Above: Maia [right] gown and Limited-Edition Number 3 [left], both By Catriona

“Reworking a gown should really be thought of as a new dressmaking project,” asserts Andrina. “If a dress needs to be made bigger and there’s not enough spare material in the seams, it could be a case of reworking the bodice, adding panels or a lace-up back, or
creating a lace trim or deep waistband.”

Comeback kid

If you or your dressmaker feel that extensive reworking of your mum’s dress still isn’t going to succeed, you could consider using the dress as inspiration for a new gown – one made with modern techniques and materials but retaining the shape of the original. “A beautiful bespoke dress could be made that reflects the one your mum wore,” suggests Catriona. “Weddings are about family and unity, after all, so bringing a style worn by a family member back to life is a wonderful way to personalise your day.”

Extra time

What if your mother’s dress really is past its best? Well, it might have reached the end of its life as a gown, but there are endless possibilities for reincarnation. Christening dresses were one traditional new lease of life, but Catriona recommends making a bridal jacket or trimming a veil with the vintage material.

Catriona’s mum had her wedding dress made into a christening gown after she got married. When Catriona was approaching her own big day, she loved the unusual scalloped lace so much that she trusted the team at Dragonfly Dress Design to rework the gown (along with the leftovers from the original dress) into a pretty ’50s-style gown. She picked a base dress from Dragonfly’s own collection and then the lace was used as the top layer. It’s an exciting new chapter for this adaptable gown – we wonder where it’ll end up next!

Catriona’s mum had her wedding dress made into a christening gown after she got married. When Catriona was approaching her own big day, she loved the unusual scalloped lace so much that she trusted the team at Dragonfly Dress Design to rework the gown (along with the leftovers from the original dress) into a pretty ’50s-style gown. She picked a base dress from Dragonfly’s own collection and then the lace was used as the top layer. It’s an exciting new chapter for this adaptable gown – we wonder where it’ll end up next!

Andrina too suggests using elements of the dress such as trims, tulle or beading to make a headpiece, belt or corsage: “It’s lovely for a bride to have a piece of family history with her going down the aisle.”

Second-hand rose

Scotland has a handful of boutiques where you can pick up an original vintage dress, and you might be able to unearth a hidden gem at a vintage fair, but we’d suggest steering clear of buying online since you can’t try the dress on first. Lisa Cochrane is the owner of Dragonfly Dress Design, which carries around 100 antique and retro dresses among its selection of vintage-inspired gowns made in-house. “When vintage dresses are purchased they are then altered to fit, or with the help of our designers they can be customised to create your desired look,” she says. Boutiques like Dragonfly are the best place to buy vintage, as you can see what the fit is like before you hand over your cash, and also chat to designers who will let you know what will be possible when it comes to alternations. You don’t want to buy something and take it to a dressmaker only to be told it’s not possible to make the changes you require.

Copy cat

If you can’t wear your mum’s dress, don’t fancy a pre-owned gown and can’t afford to have something bespoke made, but you still want a vintage dress, all is not lost. There are lots of collections and labels that cite the past as inspiration. Decide which elements of your mum’s dress that you love – is it the cut, the embellishments, the fabric? Use that as a starting point as you search the current collections. Take a picture of your mum in her finery along to boutique appointments – the team will have a great eye for seeking out similar styles.

Just bear in mind that when you are on your quest, you will reach a crossroads – on the one hand looking to the past and classic styles, and on the other trying to predict future trends and being very fashion-forward. Decide which matters more to you. There is a reason why vintage styles are still current, while there’s no guarantee that what is the height of fashion now will stand the test of time and won’t look ridiculous in years to come. Just ask Celine Dion.