Selecting and Restoring a Vintage Bridal Gown
They say that everything old is new again, and this is certainly true when it comes to wedding gowns. Every year, designers borrow inspiration from the styles of bygone eras to create their new bridal gown collections. For many brides, though, it is even better to go directly to the original source: an authentic vintage bridal gown. Wearing an antique wedding dress allows a bride to have a unique look on her wedding day, one that she is not going to see on half of the other brides in town that year. Vintage gowns can also be ideal for a "green wedding", as they fit in perfectly with the "reduce, reuse, recycle" concept. It takes special knowledge and care to select a vintage bridal gown; this is everything that you need to know about the fashions from each time period, how to find and select an antique gown, and how to restore a vintage wedding dress so that it looks as beautiful on your wedding day as it did the first time it was worn.
Wearing a vintage bridal gown requires a certain creativity and flexibility. The chances are that the first time you see an antique wedding dress, it may have some damage or a feature that does not appeal to you, such as long sleeves. Many vintage gowns are also too small to fit the frame of a modern athletic woman, as our mothers and grandmothers tended to be shorter and slighter than we are today. None of this means, however, that a vintage gown worn by your mother cannot be made to work for you; it simply means that one needs to find a seamstress who specializes in vintage restoration, and to be open to the possibilities inherent within a particular gown. Remember that wearing an antique dress is not the same as wearing a costume; it is perfectly fine to make some changes that will update the gown to make it suitable for a contemporary bride, while still retaining its original charm.
The most obvious place to start your search for the perfect vintage wedding gown is in your family's attics. Many brides will find that their mothers or grandmothers have lovely wedding dresses packed away, just awaiting the next bride. Wearing a family gown is a wonderful tradition that will add meaning to your wedding. Just be certain that the original bride is amenable to having the gown altered to suit your figure and your taste.
A Long Train Provides Extra Material
Sizing Matters A Lot
If you are not lucky enough to have a gorgeous antique wedding gown in your family, you can still find some lovely antique dresses in shops and online. The best way to find a vintage gown that is in good condition is to seek out a bridal shop that carries antique pieces which have already been restored. That way, you will be able to see the gown in its peak condition, and you will not have to wonder, "will that stain come out? or "can that tear be repaired?" as you would if purchasing an unrestored wedding gown "as is" from a vintage store or online. If you do decide to buy a gown that has not yet been cleaned and repaired, especially online, be very careful about sizing; go by the measurements, not the number in the tag, as sizing has changed considerably over the years.
Other things to look for in a vintage gown, whether it is a family dress or one that you intend to purchase, include the type and condition of the main fabric, the embellishments, and the length of the train. A very long train can be a huge bonus, because if the gown is too small, fabric can be stolen from the length of the train to cut new side or back panels for the bodice in the original fabric (you would never be able to match a new piece of material to a vintage gown).
Rayon And Satin Gowns More Durable
Certain fabrics tend to hold up better than others over time. The heavy rayon satins that were so prevalent in wedding gowns during the 1930s and 1940s are not only beautiful, but exceptionally durable, and they tend to restore very well. On the other hand, the fine chiffon that was popular during the 1920s often disintegrates over time, making these gowns very hard to come by in wearable condition. Generally, the best vintage wedding gowns are from the 1960s or earlier. Anything much more recent does not really qualify as an antique, and furthermore, the quality of many of the wedding gowns declined dramatically during the 1970s, which makes them poor candidates for restoring. One red flag is bead or lace trim that is glued on, rather than stitched on (which unfortunately became a common practice during the '70s); those gowns can be impossible to change as the trim cannot be moved without leaving a sticky residue.
1927 Wedding Photo
Roaring 20s And Flapper Dresses
Each era had a very distinctive flavor for bridal gowns, which mirrored the popular fashions of the day. Generally, you will not find an original wedding dress in usable condition that predates the 1920s, so that is where we will begin. The Roaring 20s are one of the most beloved eras for vintage. The drop waist flapper dresses were such a symbol of the freewheeling liberated spirit of the Jazz Age that they hold immense appeal for women today. The typical 1920s bride wore a loose fitting dress with a dropped waist and a skirt that came to about mid-calf length, or perhaps even a little shorter. The dresses were generally made from fragile fabrics, such as chiffon, embroidered English net, or fine voiles, which is why so few of them survive today. If you are lucky enough to locate an original 1920s wedding gown that is strong enough to be worn, be sure that it fits you as is, because these dresses are usually impossible to let out.
With the shorter dresses, 1920s brides usually had very prominent accessories. The most stylish shoes of the day were mid heeled Mary Janes. One beautiful effect that was quite common was to wear a very long veil over a tea length dress. The veil, generally attached to a little cap, was often yards longer than the dress itself, which made for some wonderfully dramatic photographs. Also popular were bouquets featuring "love knots" – long ribbon streamers with tiny flowers tied to the ends. The custom was for the bride to carry a tiny pair of decorative scissors to cut off the knots after the marriage ceremony and give them to her bridesmaids. This type of bouquet can be seen in many old photographs from the 1920s, and would be a lovely detail to include in your wedding when wearing a vintage gown from that time period.
1930s Wedding Gowns
The 1930s Were Dramatically Different
Gowns from the 1930s are dramatically different than those of the Roaring 20s. Right around 1930, ladies' hemlines headed back down to the floor. In the wedding pictures from the 30s, you will see that the gowns either hit just above the ankle or came to the floor. There was also a major shift in fabrics and cuts. Hollywood glamor was the style of the day, and brides echoed the elegance of their favorite movie stars with dresses created from shimmering satin. Rayon (originally known as "artificial silk") became very popular for bridal gowns in this era. The heavy lustrous fabric draped beautifully, was easy to work with and care for, and was also more affordable than silk, which would have been important during the Depression. Many of these gowns have survived the passage of time in good condition, and will restore very well in the right hands. The trick is to have them handwashed (by an expert, not at home!), and steamed while still damp to get the wrinkles out of the fabric. The great thing about rayon, which is made from wood pulp, is that it was not prone to the dry rot that can affect older silk garments.
The styles of the 1930s were usually relatively unadorned. The typical 1930s bridal gown would have long sleeves, a jewel neckline, a fitted bodice, and a natural waistline. Skirts were gathered at the waistline (which was often trimmed with piping made from a self fabric), but were not poufy or worn with crinolines. The skirts hung softly from the waist of the gown, and then flowed out into very long plain trains. The predominant sleeve cut of the era was fuller at the top, and more tapered by the wrist, otherwise known as a "leg o' mutton" sleeve.
Brides of the 1930s were glamorous, but also modest for a church wedding, thus the long sleeves and the conservative neckline. Modern brides will likely want to remove the leg o' mutton sleeves from a 1930s vintage gown, and possibly have the neckline recut a bit lower to open it up. On the other hand, for brides who are having religious ceremonies in certain religious traditions, the conservative cut of a vintage gown may be exactly what they need (which can be extremely hard to find in modern wedding dresses). Just be sure to speak to your officiant before buying your gown; most vintage gowns will have turned ivory over time, and in some cases, a special dispensation is required to wear a gown that is not pure white.
1940s wedding Gown
1940s The War Kept Rayon In Fashion
1940s wedding gowns have much in common with the styles of the 1930s. With silk being a valuable war resource, rayon bridal gowns remained in style. Towards the end of the 1940s, resourceful brides began using disused silk parachutes to create beautiful unique wedding gowns (the fabric was white or ivory, so it was ideal for a bridal gown). Satin, taffeta, and the occasional floral jacquard were the most popular fabrics for wedding dresses. The necklines from this era tend to be a bit more open than those of the 1930s. Sweetheart and scalloped necklines started to come into style. A frequent variation on this was the illusion neckline, which had a satin bodice with a sweetheart shape and a sheer fine mesh that covered the open area and ended in a jewel neckline. Sometimes the illusion had a beaded design around the edge as an accent.
The wartime fashions featured strong shoulders, and this was true of the wedding gowns from the 1940s. Shoulder pads were common, as were sleeves with a slight gather at the top. The puff on the top of the sleeves was less pronounced than the 1930s leg o'mutton style, however. The sleeve then tapered down to be slender at the wrist, and frequently ended in a point that came down onto the hand. A modern bride wishing to update a bridal gown from this era might consider either having the sleeves re-hemmed to be straight across or removing the sleeves altogether. One of the biggest motivations for taking the fitted sleeves off a vintage wedding dress during the alterations is to increase your mobility. Brides in previous generations had no expectations of being able to dance the night away like today's brides do; the long fitted sleeves that they wore hampered the range of motion of their arms, which was fine for the type of weddings that they had back then.
Jaqueline Bovier On Her Wedding Day
The 1950s - Glamor is in
The 1950s took bridal fashions in a totally different direction. Glamor and femininity were the style of the day, and ladylike gowns with big bouffant skirts and yards of lace were all the rage. The streamlined silhouettes of the Depression and war years vanished. One of the most famous brides of the 1950s was the charming Miss Jacqueline Bouvier when she wed Senator John F. Kennedy in 1953. Her gown was fairly typical of the era (though not at all representative of her own personal aesthetics): a portrait neckline with cap sleeves, a very fitted bodice, and a full petticoated skirt. The portrait neckline is almost like an off-the-shoulder silhouette, but the shoulders remain covered in the interest of modesty (there was a time when a lady would not enter a house of worship with a bare head, let alone bare shoulders). The fullness of Miss Bouvier's gown was created by a box pleated skirt, which was a very popular way to drape the skirt on a bridal gown of that era.
Chantilly Lace Gowns
One of the best known fabrics of the 1950s would have to be Chantilly
lace. So ubiquitous was the floral patterned bobbin lace that it even
became the subject of a 1958 hit song by the Big Bopper. Lace had
become completely unavailable during World War II, and when the lace
factories of Europe reopened, brides went for lace with a vengeance.
The lace was often used as a whole piece of cloth, covering a satin or
taffeta lining on the bodice of gowns. The top of the bodice and the
sleeves could omit the lining to allow for a lace illusion neckline.
Chantilly lace was also popular for the skirts of the wedding gowns; it
was often used to create ruffled tiers on a full skirt. As an added
accent, sequins and seed pearls were used on the gowns.
The 1956 wedding of Grace Kelly to Prince Ranier of Monaco had an enormous influence on bridal fashion. The later part of the 1950s saw the rise in popularity of gowns that had stiff, rather than flouncy, full skirts. They were typically lined with a special heavy paper. An easy way to update a 1950s vintage gown is to remove the paper lining (which will not restore well, anyway) to allow the skirt to drape more naturally. Alencon lace was often used to create lovely appliqued details on bodices and skirts made of satin, taffeta, or organza. An illusion neckline over a strapless sweetheart shaped bodice was very chic in the late 1950s, as was a removable bolero jacket over a strapless gown. If you choose one of the wonderful bridal gowns from the 1950s, expect to have the waist let out and the bust taken in, unless you happen to have a corset and a bullet bra in your lingerie drawer!
Tricia Nixon Wedding
1960s Wedding Gowns
Wedding gowns shifted course once again in the 1960s, the last era that is truly considered to be vintage at this point. Skirts slimmed down and tight girdles were discarded. The nipped in waist that was the gold standard of 1950s fashion was replaced by empire waisted gowns, with skirts that fell from a seam under the bust. A more exaggerated version of this was the baby doll style, which fell full from above the bust, completely eliminating the womanly figure underneath it. This was a result of both the youth culture of the 60s and the rebellion against the strict fashions of the 1950s. By the end of the decade, some brides were even wearing mod minidresses, although it was a bit too edgy for middle America.
1960s wedding gowns tend to favor fabrics without a sheen. Taffeta and even a linen-like blend were popular. The most used lace was a heavy Venise lace, which was frequently appliqued onto a cotton English net. The embellished net was draped over a slim lining and would float softly away from the body in an Empire style. The epitome of 1960s bridal elegance was the wedding of President Nixon's daughter Tricia. Although her wedding actually occurred in 1971, the custom Priscilla of Boston gown was pure late '60s high style. (It is common to see carryover from the previous decade's fashion in transition years of bridal gowns.) The cotton net and Venise lace tended to be much more durable than the finer Chantilly lace commonly used in the 1950s (which is prone to dry rot), and so it is possible to find this style of gown in very nice condition.
Something else that really epitomizes 1960s bridal fashion is a detachable or Watteau train. The Watteau train was a narrow train that flowed from the shoulders of a bridal gown. The other favored train style was attached at the Empire waistline of a slender wedding dress. Both were made to be removed after the ceremony, rather than bustled. It made perfect sense, given that the slender columns popular in the 1960s would not have lent themselves to flowing into a long train. When restoring a wedding gown from this era, the detachable train can be a great resource for extra fabric to resize the dress, as well as for spare lace to replace any damaged areas on the body of the gown.
The final consideration when wearing a vintage wedding gown is your accessories. They should complement the style of the gown and what was in fashion at the time it was made, yet they need not be exact reproductions. It is fine to wear a modernized version of the original, as long as it captures the spirit of the time period. For example, if you were wearing a 1950s vintage gown, a little shortie veil would be darling, but you could wear it on a simple pearl comb, rather than the embellished skull caps that were used to hold veils at the time. Finish off your look with simple pearl bridal jewelry and a stylish pair of pumps.
Swarovski Crystal Drop Earrings
Get The Right Accessories For The Era
A long veil with an embroidered edge is ideal with a 1940s gown, and T-strap shoes would be fantastic. The glamor that was so iconic of the 1930s can be captured through a dramatic pair of Swarovski crystal earrings. The wax orange blossoms that were popular for brides from the Victorian era through the 1950s can be scavenged from vintage bridal headpieces and used to create more simple and modern combs to adorn the bride's hair. This is a perfect example of how to take the essence of vintage bridal style and update it to make it wearable today. The opportunity to honor the best of the past in a fresh and modern way is one of the most wonderful aspects of choosing to restore and wear a vintage bridal gown.
Debra on February 20, 2011:
Please edit spelling. B-o-U-vi-e-r
Beverly on May 21, 2010:
Interesting read! Love to find out facts and better still, is to see photos of past eras fashions! So thanks for the history lesson and great pics!