Brit, a sustainable-minded person and regular vintage shopper, brought me not one, but three vintage dresses from which to create her custom wedding gown. They are pictured below from left to right:
1) Her grandmother's wedding dress (circa 1950s) - a beautifully constructed satin, lace, and tulle dress, which her grandmother recalls in retrospect as being very out of character in terms of her style!
2) A vintage (circa 1940s) lace dress discovered at Brimfield, the amazing antique fair Brit has been frequenting with her family since she was young.
3) Her mother's wedding dress (circa 1990) - a very Stevie Nicks-esque satin and lace creation replete with winged sleeves and flowing skirt.
My biggest challenge in combining these dresses was integrating them into a cohesive look that maintained a high level of taste and sophistication, instead of reading as a hodgepodge. Here is the lovely bride in the final dress, which we both ended up being thrilled with. I describe the process from A-to-Z below.
Before cutting or altering vintage fabric or garments, I always like to properly clean them and test for shrinkage. Since the 1940s dress was made of cotton we were concerned it might become too snug if washed, so I first tested a piece from the collar that we had removed, and thankfully the size stayed the same. In addition to testing for shrinkage, I also wanted to assess colour, both through washing and a restoration soak. The gentle soak cleaned off decades of dingy-ness, revealing a soft, warm hue. The restoration soak indicated a brighter, cooler shade of pink. In placing the pieces over the ivory satin, we both preferred the warmness and contrast of the lace after only a gentle soak (middle swatch below).
So the whole dress got a dip!
We knew we would be using the 1940s dress as the overlay, but knew that we wanted to change the neckline and sleeves. The original had a high front neckline with a peter pan collar, a keyhole-opening in the back, and these bizarrely-shaped sleeves with extra fullness under the arm. Brit's mom had the brilliant idea when they were shopping at Brimfield that Brit try on the dress backwards, for a more sexy and contemporary neckline. So we opened up the keyhole for a deep v-neckline in the front, removed the collar, and added a closure at the back. We decided to get rid of the sleeves, creating a fitted dropped armhole, and shaped the bodice to fit Brit.
The next piece to be tackled was Brit's mom's wedding gown. While we found the beaded bodice to be absolutely fantastic, we agreed that the style aesthetic was just not right for Brit's dress. However, the slip was going to work fantastically under the pink lace, so I sent it off to the drycleaners before dismantling.
The slip has a fairly closed back and high armholes, and of course had been made to fit Brit's mom. To better match the lines of the pink lace overlay, I dropped the armholes and created a low v in the back. I also altered the slip by both letting out and taking in the seams at the right spots. Since Brit's mom is shorter than her, we needed to created longer straps for the slip to sit in the right place on Brit.
The slip's hemline was curved up in the front, which we decided to drop level with the floor. In order to do so, I needed to remove the entire lace skirt and train, and create a filler pattern piece to fill in the gap. That meant either sourcing a matching satin, or in our case, being able to use fabric from another dress in our arsenal! Brit's grandmother's dress, untouched as of yet, fortuitously had a satin underlayer in the very same shade of ivory as Brit's mother's dress!
Then came the difficult task of figuring out how to bridge the gap between the 1940s pink lace dress and the 1990 ivory lace dress (both laces being quite different in pattern, colour, and fabrication!) We really wanted to try to use Brit's grandmother's dress, but had to make sure to do so without making the gown look too busy or mismatched. The dress needed a middle tier to balance the lengths of the other two skirts. We decided to try to use the lace to add to our theme (this was yet one more lace variation, but we felt it could work). I suggested dyeing the lace a taupe colour and backing it with the same shade so the colour palette would flow smoothly top to bottom from pink to taupe to ivory. So I set about taking the dress apart and separating out the different fabrics.
Inside the gown were the original labels indicating that the garment had been manufactured in the USA by women of the Ladies Garment Workers' Union, as well as drycleaning instructions referencing the Zurcion Method. A bit of research reveals that Zurcion was later charged by the FTC for providing these misleading care labels to bridal manufacturers. It turns out that not only was Zurcion not the only method for properly cleaning a wedding dress, but simply a trademark - not even a patented drycleaning process!
Ironically, Brit's grandmother's dress had never been cleaned, and had been "stored" in a ball in a garbage bag in the attic. To put it bluntly, it was filthy. The hemline was black (from walking in the mud perhaps?), the satin was spotted black (possibly with mildew?) and the lace and tulle were a dirty grey. I cut off the hem and sent the satin to the drycleaners, to see if they could remove the spots.
The lace not only needed to be washed, but restored back to its original colour, which was a bright ivory. Then after multiple dyeing experiments, I found just the right concentration of black tea to achieve the taupe we were looking for to connect the ivory and pinks of the gown. Phases of lace below:
Here is the full gown in its restoration soak:
A Hitchcock moment while capturing the soak:
And the tea dye:
Here are the fruits of my labor - the lace in its beautiful tea-dyed shade, backed with a perfectly matching taupe silk satin I had in my stock of fabrics:
Here is the transformation of the lace from Brit's grandmother's wedding dress into the middle tier of Brit's gown.
We felt that a train worked well on the dress, especially with the different tiers, but also wanted to make sure we could bustle all those layers up and out of the way for the reception. First I had to bustle all the underlayers of lace, satin, and lining, and then the top layer of lace.
Here is Brit getting ready before the wedding with the help of her mom.
Here is Brit with mother and grandmother, carrying on the spirit of both of their weddings through her own dress!
A final touch on the dress was an ivory satin ribbon sash at the waist.
Here is Brit with her hubby at their wedding, which took place at Elm Court Estate, the Vanderbilt's country home built in the late 19th century in Lennox, Massachusetts. (Brit had kept the dress details and colour a secret from her fiance, so what luck that he chose pink as his accent!)