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Six Tips for Buying a Vintage Wedding Dress

Lucille Ball in "The Long, Long Trailer," 1953
Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Image

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One way to check off the "something old" box when planning a wedding day outfit? Wearing a vintage wedding dress for your trip down the aisle. But picking out a period piece is a bit more complicated than the already nerve-wracking process of buying and fitting a new dress from a traditional bridal salon, so we asked three experts to give us pointers on how to buy and care for vintage wedding dresses.

Skin Is (Not) In

On a "shedding for the wedding" mission and looking to show off your hard work on your big day? In that case, vintage might not be right for you. "The reality is that vintage is conservative," said Shareen Mitchell, whose eponymous vintage shop is known for its selection of bridal gowns. "Until the 90s [styles], it is just too formal and too covered up for the majority of brides" today.

Depending on the style, you could alter a dress to tone down the modesty. " Those with high necks and long sleeves can easily be scaled back and made a bit more modern," Mitchell added. Ask a store associate if she has alteration recommendations to help realize your vision (and see more on alterations below).

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Do Your Homework (on Social Media)

Just like when you're going for a haircut, coming to a store with an idea of the dress style(s) you're looking for in the first place is helpful. "Pinterest and Instagram are great resources for inspiration," said Sarah Aaronson of Resurrection Vintage. "Pull photos of gowns or ideas that you love. You can always send us at Resurrection photos of what you're looking for and we can help you with your hunt."

Know Your Wedding Dress Fashion History

The overall trends of a specific era spilled over into the bridal realm as well. Below, Mitchell breaks down what you can expect to see by decade:

1950s: "The dresses of the 50s had these amazing full, tulle, lace, silk,or satin skirts. The amount of fabric employed and the quality of that fabric is rarely seen anymore...If you are getting married in a courthouse or any other venue that lends itself to tea-length, look at 50s prom dresses in ivory."

1960s: "The 60s will give you simple, elegant, classic sheath dresses. They will be tailored, perhaps pleated, or simple columns."

1970s: "If you are getting married in a very casual way, the 70s will offer you a host of easy, flowy, cotton-y, hippy wedding dresses that will have skirts that are slim on the hip with fullness at the hem, and many will have bodices that are open."

1980s: "80s wedding dresses [are] completely over the top. Of course, if you are a very theatrical bride...go for it. There are amazing 80s wedding dresses that are Gaga-worthy."

1990s: "The 90s gave us the slip dress and the trumpet. Totally opposing styles, but both body conscious. There are probably many of these in today's thrift stores."

Keep an Open Mind

You can go vintage for the big day without even wearing a wedding dress. "If I'm thrifting or even on holiday shopping at vintage stores, I always look through the special occasion section because you never know what you will find," said Lexi Oliveri of Antoinette, who's planning to wear vintage when she gets married. Expanding your horizons might help you avoid the overly-modest situation that Mitchell described above.

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Consider the Condition

All three of our experts stressed that the hardest part about vintage wedding dress shopping getting a proper fit — alterations aren't always an option. "It's highly unlikely you will come across the perfect condition, and more importantly. your exact size measurements," Oliveri said. And "always ask if a piece has been previously altered to make sure the size on the label actually corresponds to the fit," added Aaronson.

You can also see for yourself: "Check the internal seams," said Mitchell. " If a dress has been taken in, it can be taken out as long as the seams have not been clipped. If the dress has no seam allowance and it is too small for you, it will not be able to be made larger."

But before you even flip the gown to check, scan the exterior. "Look for stains, tears, [and] weaknesses in the fabric," said Mitchell. "Before you purchase, consider if the dress has already been dry cleaned or not. If it has been and there is still a stain on it, it will likely not come out. If the stain is on tulle or on net, I would bet that a bit of soap and water will remove the stain — but on lace, or satin, it is a different story."

If It's Love at First Sight, Trust Your Gut

"When it comes to vintage purchases be sure not to hesitate too long before purchasing," advised Aaronson. "Vintage can come and go fairly quickly, as most pieces are one of a kind." Just like your big day.