There’s no getting away from it: as a brand-new dress you’ll wear just once, sustainability isn’t big in bridal fashion. What if you went vintage or worn-once instead?
There is nothing more thrilling than vintage shopping – at least not to me. I’m a fully fledged hunter. The thought of owning a piece of fashion history, such as an Yves Saint-Laurent pussy-bow blouse from the designer’s 1970s heyday (nabbed for £40, thank you very much) is so exciting, as is stumbling across a lesser-known label, or a one-off gem that fits like a glove.
I’m not saying this as some kind of wannabe eco-warrior; even if the clothing industry didn’t have massive problems with sustainability, I would still advocate buying second-hand.
What I’m so in love with is the idea that you’re adding to the story of a piece of clothing. Imagine where it’s come from, who’s owned it and where it’s been! And that whole concept is only heightened when we’re talking about a wedding dress.
The question is: could you forego something new for something old?
Would you wear pre-loved?
A word of warning: this isn’t going to be a quick and painless journey. Shopping for a gown is a challenge regardless of where and how you browse. But vintage bridal? You need to put in the work. You need to commit to the search.
“My advice is begin as soon as you know marriage is on the cards,” says Kirsty Sangster, who owns Glasgow boutique Rip It Up Vintage. “Personally, I’d always be on the look-out – you never know when or where you’ll find the perfect dress.”
If you feel out of your depth, a little research will help train your eye, as will knowing the right people to lean on. “It can be useful to have a think about which era, style, fabric and colour of dress you might like,” says Claire Paterson at Edinburgh’s Those Were the Days Vintage Bridal.
“But the main thing to understand is that a vintage gown is a product of its time: our dresses date from the Edwardian era right through to the 1990s, and they are often quite modest compared with more modern styles.
“Weddings in the past weren’t the big parties we know them to be today, and the dresses reflect that. Be open-minded. Remember, we’re experienced stylists and have an instinct for which styles will and won’t work for your body type.”
On the subject of shape, Kirsty urges you to get to know yours as best you can. “If you’re slender and straight up and down, you could pull off an elegant, original 1920s number,” she suggests. “If you’re curvy, the 1950s is a good call to achieve that nipped-in waist. Try 1960s pieces if you suit an empire line, while if you’re going bohemian, the 1970s is for you.”
Still can’t find anything that grabs you? “It’s always worth asking the shop owner if they have any gowns through the back,” Kirsty points out. “They’ll know their stock, and it will save time. For instance, in my store, I don’t keep my wedding dresses out on the shop floor – they’re too delicate and aren’t something that sells every day. Other shops might have one that’s just been donated and hasn’t made it out yet.”
Another crucial point is around the subject of sizing. Prepare to take a handful of options into the changing room, and don’t get hung up on what the label says. “I’d be looking for something two to three sizes larger than normal, depending on the era,” Kirsty notes. “Dresses were often handmade, so they can have funny proportions compared to their contemporary counterparts.”
Now you’re raring to go, what could be out there waiting for you? “We’ve been lucky enough over the past few years to have sold some very exclusive designer dresses from the 1960s and 1970s by Dior, Jean Varon and Ossie Clark – such items always get snapped up quickly by vintage-loving brides,” Claire tells us. “We’ve also got some rare 1980s jumpsuits, as well as fabulous 1960s mini-dresses, 1930s satin gowns and 1950s ballgowns.”
Rip It Up Vintage has its own fair share of classics: “I’ve got a beautiful 1920s slinky satin gown with a small train, long sleeves and unusual metallic embroidery on the waistband,” Kirsty highlights.
“The pieces from the 1920s and 1930s are some of my favourites.”
You’ve found your perfect vintage gown – what next?
So you’ve got it – the gown of the (bridal) gods. Well done, you. What next?
To get it fitting right, you’ll need an alterations guru – in particular, someone who knows how to handle delicate fabrics.
“Vintage dresses can be more fragile,” confirms Jackie Mitchell of Motherwell’s Thimbles Dressmakers. “
When these gowns were originally made, much of the work would’ve been done by hand rather than by sewing machine.
The fabric and beadwork have to be taken into consideration, as the detailing may need to be removed and sewn back on again.
“Duchess satin, taffeta and lace are great fabrics; tulle and silk not so much. Tulle can rip easily, while silk and water just do not go together. If a silk gown has any water marks on it, these will be extremely difficult to remove. Only trust an alterations specialist with a solid reputation, ideally one who has been recommended.”
Given the age of the gowns, and the slim chance they’ll need no tweaks whatsoever, the importance of this part of the process cannot be stressed enough. You’ll potentially have picked up something wonderful for a fraction of the price of a brand-new gown: honour it and invest in this stage with the remainder of your budget. It’ll be worth it.
“From the outset, be mindful of how expensive the alterations can be, because of the amount of hand-sewing and embroidery that’s involved,” says Nicola McCormick of Kilmarnock alteration experts Elizabeth Wallace.
“Vintage gowns entail more sewing and pressing. The taking-in is usually absolutely fine, but should the dress need let out, you might find the fabric has faded – this will be shown up by the darker, newly exposed seam. Typically, too, the shoulders or zips may need adjusting, as these can turn yellow with age.”
We wouldn’t normally suggest taking matters into your own hands (at least not where the gown is concerned), but if your inner seamstress is begging to have a shot, the owner of Pamela Fraser Designs in Angus would be willing to supervise.
“It would be possible to rework a vintage gown in my new series of sewing classes,” says Pamela. “The first step would be to chat about what you’d like to do with the dress and then we’d look at the silhouette. If you like it as it is, it would just be a case of altering it to fit, which could be done over three or four classes. You can also add design details to make it unique to you – fine chiffon sleeves, say, or a tulle overlay or a beaded waistband.
“If it’s only the fabric you like, it would be a case of stripping it back to its constituent parts, which could then be used to make a new dress. It might be tricky to match the colour, in which case you could use its lace and add another layer underneath.” The possibilities are limitless.
What do you do after the big day?
Once the dust (or the confetti) has settled on your big day, what should you do with your gown? The answer will get Mrs Hinch’s heart racing: clean it.
“Vintage gowns require extra attention in the aftercare, as the seams are more prone to splitting and the fabric can weaken over time,” Kirsty cautions. “I have heard of some dry-cleaners refusing to accept extremely delicate dresses. So have a plan of action before you trail your gown through a muddy field for photographs!”
We see you eyeing up that pack of baby wipes – don’t even think about it. “Never attempt to wash your dress at home, or use a domestic iron on it,” warns Claire. “Always take it to a professional dry-cleaning specialist – and be aware that even then there’ll be some risk to the garment.”
One advantage of entrusting Elizabeth Wallace to alter your gown is that the team there have quite the trump card up their sleeve. “Vintage gowns need to be cleaned by a specialist who has experience in working with these types of dresses,” Nicola explains.
“The cleaning is very different and tends to be more expensive, as the process is longer and more complicated. Thankfully, we have a sister business, the Dress Cleaning Company, which has refined a select number of methods that work flawlessly.”
Of course, you could do as Elsa does, and let it go: donate your gown back to your local charity or vintage shop for the next bride to dig up and cherish.
It’s the circle of life.