Friday, January 23, 2015

Why I went the vintage route for my wedding dress

         I love the hunt, the search for something I didn’t know was right until I saw it. It’s why I rarely shop online. How can I enter a search term for something I haven’t seen yet?

That’s how I felt when I began looking for a wedding dress.

I knew that there were hundreds of styles that I could be happy with. The idea of finding the one dress that is supposed to mean something, the one you’re allowed (expected?) to spend a bit more on, was overwhelming.

I knew I had a budget, but the thought of actually spending it made me feel nauseous. I visited a bridal boutique and drooled over beautiful dresses, but I couldn’t fathom the $4,000 price tags. And while the industrial clamps they used did successfully secure the sample size-10 dress onto my size-0 frame, it didn’t feel – or look – particularly glamorous.

So I decided to shop for my wedding dress the same way I shop for clothes. And it turns out vintage stores were where I could shop like a normal person. The dresses had been worn before, so the salespeople usually didn’t mind when I browsed through them as they would with new dresses in their protective bags. Limited sizes meant it fit or I moved on. And the smaller sizes of dresses from earlier decades meant that I could try on dresses and actually see what they would look like. There were also no shopping appointments so I could walk by a window and decide, “I think I’ll try on a wedding dress today.” Which is what I did one evening the November before my wedding.

I passed a storefront on Toronto’s Queen Street West with a vintage white dress in the window and went inside to see if they had others. There were two that fit my criteria of “sort of white” and “it might fit.” The first was forgettable, but the second was ivory-coloured silk brocade with hand-painted flowers of yellow, green and rose. I’d wanted a dress with some intricate detailing, which I thought would be in the form of lace or beading, but the brocade and colour created a beautiful texture on an otherwise simple dress. The cut was solidly 1950s with a full A-line skirt, high boat neck and low V in the back. It would need a bit of tailoring in the bodice, but the potential was there. It was $349, as is, with a very small stain on the back and an old zipper.

I thought about it for a day, then returned to the store. The saleswoman wrapped the dress in tissue paper and put it in a shopping bag. I met my fiancé for pho with my future wedding dress tucked under the table. It felt spontaneous and grown-up and I worried if my dress would smell of broth in the morning.

The process of tailoring was a bit messier. I brought it to my mother in Massachusetts and she discovered that the skirt was lined with a stiff paper called pellon. We called my grandmother, who explained that it was a common way to create volume for the full skirts of the 1950s. We decided to lower the neckline a bit, drop the hem if possible and snug up the torso. We brought the dress to a tailor in my hometown and I wouldn’t see it again until just before the wedding.

In the meantime, my mother found a length of sparkly whatnot and sewed it to a piece of blush-coloured satin to create a belt. She washed and ironed my great-grandmother’s ivory veil from 1924. I found a pair of off-white and gold heels. My grandmother decided that if I was going to wear a veil from the 1920s, I should secure it with flowers, as her mother did. She bought some fabric roses in the colours of the dress and attached them to a hair comb with some thin wire.

When my family arrived in Toronto two days before the wedding, I tried the dress on. The bodice fit, but the dress was too short. It barely covered my feet, let alone high heels. I was angry with the tailor and annoyed with those trying to tell me it wasn’t so short when, obviously, it was, couldn’t they see that? But this quickly passed, because what could we do about it anyway? My sister and cousin ran to the Eaton Centre the day before the wedding dresses online and texted photos of options for gold flats.

Somehow it all came together. The dress, the belt, the veil and comb. My grandmother brought me a string of pearls with a side clasp made of blue opal. My husband wore a navy blue tuxedo with black shawl lapels. The $40 flats were comfortable on the hot August day. I broke out the heels later for dancing because, why not?

I don’t know what I’ll do with the dress. I think about shortening it to a tea length (but for what occasion?). But as much as I want to keep it as a beautiful thing to own, I think it might be best to gently place it back into the vintage-wedding-dress market. Hide it in a consignment store until another petite appreciator of 1950s silhouettes, and the convenience of buying her wedding dress off the rack, comes along and makes it her own.

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