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Shopping for your wedding gown can be tricky enough, but what about if you've decided to go vintage for the occasion? For advice, we spoke with Shareen Mitchell, the designer, owner, and all around resident expert at Shareen's Vintage in Chelsea. In addition to learning where most vintage gowns come from, Shareen filled us in on how to go about picking one, what important things to consider when it comes to alterations and reworkings, and how to keep your own wedding gown in pristine condition—in case you one day decide to part with it, too.
For starters, let's look at why you might choose to buy a vintage gown in the first place. In comparison to a traditional bridal gown, a vintage dress could easily save you hundreds of dollars—if not thousands. Shareen explains, "These are hard times on a lot of people, and they don't have $20,000 or $18,000 or even $5,000 for a new dress. They want to spend a few hundred, or maybe at most $800 or something. It's the alternative for that girl who's on a budget."
But that doesn't mean brides-to-be have to sacrifice quality to save money. If you were one of the zillions of people who admired Kate Middleton's wedding gown, consider a vintage 1950s dress instead of, you know, something new from McQueen. "I could show you some vintage bridal that would rival some of the best gowns out there." She adds, "Kate Middleton's dress: That's a classic '50s bridal dress. I have dresses that look like that, and I sell them for around $200 to $398. And you know what that dress would cost, right?"
A Shareen Again reworked vintage bridal gown with leather straps
As it turns out, those very dresses are the most coveted among vintage buyers. Gowns from the '30s, if they've made it this long, are usually a little too damaged to rework, and 1940s dresses often "look a little bit costumey. They're really for a bride who might want an extreme or a very dramatic look." Dresses from the 1960s were mostly slim shifts, with unidentifiable waists. Though Shareen says those dresses don't have a lot of movement or drama, she often reworks them into mini dresses for brides to wear at the rehearsal dinner or to a brunch.
And then there were the 1970s. "They have Renaissance elements, they're very ethereal, and they have a maiden-like quality to them. They also often have that high-neck, like Victorian [styles]. These very flowy and very romantic dresses, but a lot of brides today will not go that way. It's just too much." And since vintage has to be twenty years old to be considered vintage, that leaves the 80s as the last possible decade, though Shareen says she never bothers to buy them. "They're so over embellished, and they're so over-the-top that the rework on them is ridiculous."
Another important element to consider when choosing a vintage dress is whether it actually fits you. Shareen's strategy for making a vintage gown perfect for each client is to rework it to fit their taste. But it has to fit in the first place. She says, "All the reworking in the world is not going to change the waist size unless you really spend a lot of money. You can't make something too small, bigger."
A long sleeve vintage wedding gown (left) and Kate Middleton's McQueen gown (right, via Getty)
As far as the options for reworking goes, the world is your oyster. Shareen explains that most common request she gets for gown alterations is to remove the sleeves, open up the neckline, make it strapless, and in some cases, turn the whole thing into a halter. "There's a trend in weddings right now toward the farm house, the beach wedding, the country wedding, or the backyard wedding, so [brides] don't need the covered-up dress that a church or a more formal event would require."
Something else you should always consider is the condition of the fabric, and whether or not those questionable, 40-year-old stains will come out or not. "There are certain silks that get dry over time and if you start to cut them up the garment falls apart. But if it's in a strong satin or it's in lace, usually it can be restored or it'll hold up for a rework or alteration." If you're thinking of saving your own dress, the best way to preserve it is to wrap it in a clean, white cotton sheet. Non-acid paper also works, but never, ever put it in plastic, and keep it out of the light.
A vintage bridal gown
So now you've got an arsenal of information on how to choose your own dress, but what if you want your bridesmaids outfitted in something vintage, too? Shareen says that vintage bridesmaids gowns are often easy on the bridal party because 1.) they're cheaper and 2.) brides often allow their maids to pick their own dress, so long as it stays in a color scheme. "Certain modern younger brides are like, 'Gosh, I don't want to make all my bridesmaids have to buy the same dress.' So, I let them each choose something that they like, and I'll make it work by choosing a color palette that they kind of have to stay within."
And lastly, how might you rid yourself of the feeling that this has been worn before? Shareen says, "I don't know how New Age-y anybody might be with the idea of, 'Oh what did that person go through?,' but I think that, as much as you could have a negative feeling about it you could also have a positive feeling about it." She adds, "Let's just say [the dress] had a really positive history. Great, you get to take that forward. But let's say it had a negative history. You get to give that dress a positive future."
The New York location of Shareen's Vintage is located at 13 West 17th Street; she also has a store in Los Angeles. For hours, see the website.
· Shraeen's Vintage [Official Site]
· All Weddings Week 2012 Posts [Racked NY]