How to snag amazing vintage bridesmaid dresses

September 19 | Guest post by knitswift
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Photo by First Comes Love Photography

I outfitted my three bridesmaids in vintage dresses. My motivation was twofold: I love vintage styling, and I try to live by a reduce-reuse-recycle ethos. I loved how it all worked out. If you are thinking of going with vintage dresses, or are in the throes of things already, here are some tips for you:

1. Have a heart-to-head with yourself. Dealing with vintage dresses is not for everyone. You have to have a flexible vision for your bridal party's look. You cannot be obsessed with matchy-matchy. You have to invest time in shopping, mending, and alterations.

2. Sizing can be a bust. Vintage dresses tend to be small. I'm not sure if girls back in the day tended to be more petite, but they did wear corsets. It can be difficult to find a vintage dress in a modern-day size 8, and plus-sized women can find it almost impossible. So, be realistic — if you are outfitting a couple girls who wear size 2, no problem. If you expect to outfit five girls who all wear size 16 and up, think again. Also, be creative — take a tiny, long dress and make it into a bigger, shorter dress. Add a gusset.

When unable to have your bridesmaid try on her dress ahead of time, double check measurements. And remember, if a person's waist measures 28", a dress that has a 28" waist will be uncomfortably snug. There needs to be an inch leeway, a little less than that if the fabric is stretchy.

3. Shop early, often, and everywhere. Get your bridesmaids' measurements upfront, and carry them and a measuring tape everywhere you go. Look online — eBay and Etsy, of course, and many online retailers have curated vintage collections — but don't ignore vintage and second-hand stores in your area. Be systematic. Find out when local stores get new items, and go that day. Check online retailers daily for new listings.

I searched every night for "orange dress" in the Vintage > Clothing > Women category on Etsy, and similarly on eBay, until I found dresses for all my girls. In the end, I bought one dress from eBay, one from Etsy, and one from Posh Girl Vintage.

4. Don't ruminate for too long. If you find a dress that will work, buy it promptly. When dealing with vintage dresses, once it's gone, it's gone.

5. Anticipate the need for mending and alterations. Expect that mending and alterations will take 2-3 times as long as you first suspect, and get started on these without delay. Vintage fabrics can be delicate, and that can make the process more challenging and time-consuming. Figure out who should be responsible — you, a friend, family member, or a hired seamstress — and get them involved promptly.

One of my dresses required no alterations. A lacy number required minor alterations — my bridesmaid added pleated detailing to the straps, and added a bustle for when she changed from her heels into her flats — but no serious repairs. My mom spent two whole days mending holes in the lace and seam splits. The third dress I bought very large, and my mom spent another two days on it resizing the bodice and shortening the dress.

6. Have fun, and let your imagination run wild. I think that limiting yourself to vintage finds actually spawns creativity.

  1. Plus size vintage is so hard to find mostly because the dresses that have survived through the years have most often been altered to fit many people, and it's so much easier to make stuff smaller. Also, most women wore waist-reducing undergarments, so the waist on a dress will often seem disproportionately small. If you're curvy aand you can find vintage stuff in your size, it will often fit better than modern stuff because back then they understood that women have, y'know, boobs.
    /pedant

    Gail Carriger had a post on finding retro plus size this summer: http://retrorack.blogspot.com/2011/07/plus-size-vintage.html

    3 agree
  2. Right now is the ultimate time of year to thrift for vintage gowns. Hit the halloween costume sections in your area, it's amazing what turns up. I found the lace for my wedding dress off a vintage gown about a week ago.

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  3. while it doesnt apply to the reuse reduce bit, being flexible could also mean buying a vintage reproduction dress for a plus size bridesmaid. I recently wore a reproduction for a friends wedding cause my bust can be a bit problematic and we just werent finding anything. It was great that this option was out there so that she didnt have to scrap her whole vision because of one large bust size.

    3 agree
  4. "Why are vintage dresses always so small?"
    This is an oddly easy one, and I learned it a long time ago because of hats: If you aer looking for a vintage hat, particularly something like a top hat or a bowler in a larger size, you will struggle, and pay top dollar. Small top hats can be bought for a song, BECAUSE: The smaller sizes of ANYTHING last longer because: 1. The pieces that survive were the "floor model." Mannequins/busts/heads tend to be on the smaller side, and so the floor model wouldn;t get bought or damaged as readily. This is particularly true of hats.
    2. The smaller the size, the shorter/less the wear. only x% of adults are ever a size two, and of those people, a large percent will not maintain that size for a long period. (The same goes for any specific number, but as a general rule, numbers go up, not down)
    3. "skinny jeans" Someone who has gotten larger than the size they were may still keep and protect a special piece of clothing in the hopes that it will fit again, meaning that, again, smaller sizes will be maintained better than larger ones which get a lot of wear.

    4 agree
    • That's really interesting, kayfay, I hadn't thought of it that way. I assumed we were just bigger now because of better/more nutrition as children. (After all, people who were getting married in the 50s and 60s were on rationing when they were children!)

      So, yeah, I just always assumed we were taller, fatter and had bigger feet on average than someone of 50 years ago. Does anyone have any statistics on this?

      1 agrees
      • A study came out not too long ago that did actually say that the "increased waist sizes" of women that had been cited for years was flawed because of the centuries of body modification (corsets, etc.).

        So, while "in general," height/weight have increased due to increased nutrition (and now higher rates of obesity), when it comes to "waist vs. hip" ratio in women, the "disproportion" isn't accurate!

        1 agrees
    • This makes SO MUCH SENSE!

      My best friend wears a very small size and we both shop at thrift stores. Although I've also found brand new or close to brand new pieces before in my size, they're the exception rather than the rule. The amount of barely worn merchandise she finds in her size is pretty unreal.

      Even though I know this about contemporary clothing, I never thought about applying it to vintage. Brilliant!

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  5. One thing I love about vintage is that lots of clothes were designed with alterations in mind-with generous seam allowances, etc. Even if a dress isn't a perfect fit, it might have potential! I wrote up a post myself on the subject of what can/can't be worked with when thrift-store hunting–check it out if you're interested:
    http://www.bluecollarbride.com/how-to-spot-vintage-gold/

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  6. I agree vintage clothing is different in sizing and style than today guidelines. I often shop in second hand stores or thrift stores for vintage dresses because the fabrics tends to be in better shape for reuse or wearing. I am a plus size myself and I only found one vintage country style wedding dress that I have always wanted but never could find it before I got married 4 years ago that actually fits me now ( I lost 40 pounds ). I plan on wearing it for our 5th wedding anniversary renewal or second wedding since our first "wedding" had so many things went wrong. So give second hand shops a chance and see if you can find something you want and probably will be able to alter it to fit your style and needs.

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