How to Wear an Heirloom Wedding Dress

A bride wearing an heirloom wedding dress with long sleeves.

Every bride needs four things when she walks down the aisle: something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue. For many, their dress (and shoes and jewelry) qualify as “something new,” but for some brides, their wedding gown is actually an “oldie but a goodie.”

Whether you’re sticking to a family tradition and wearing your mother’s or grandmother’s dress or you fell in love with a piece you found in a vintage store, wearing an antique or vintage wedding dress is a great way to add some old-school charm to your special day. However, getting an heirloom “wedding day ready” is no easy task! If you’ve fallen in love with a vintage wedding gown, you’ll have to make sure that wearing it down the aisle is worth all the hard work. Here are a few questions you should ask yourself before saying “yes” to an heirloom dress.

Is the Wedding Dress in Good Condition?

A lace heirloom wedding dress hanging against a wood closet.

Your mother’s wedding gown might still take your breath away in the wedding album, but you might want to take a critical eye to the dress before you try it on. Unfortunately, many wedding gowns are not properly preserved before they’re stored, which means mom’s dress has been subject to the elements for decades.

Look over the dress for obvious issues; stains, tears, or snags are usually quite visible with the naked eye. Then, take a good look at the dress’s color. If the dress was stored in an acid-free space (like a preservation box), the color should be awfully close to the original look. If it wasn’t, however, that gorgeous white gown has probably yellowed over the years.

Finally, get your hands on the dress and really feel its condition. If the dress is especially old (from the 1920s, for example), the fabric is very likely to be fragile. Wearing a dress like this may require extra reinforcement at the lining.

What Will Restoration Cost?

Once you determine which elements of your dress could use some TLC, it’s time to find out how much that care is going to cost. It’s usually best to take your gown to a professional who specializes in wedding dress restoration. They will be able to assess the gown and give you a realistic estimate of what needs to be done, how much it will cost, and the look of the final product.

That last estimate—the finished look of the dress—might end up being critical information for a bride. While I’d like to say that a little washing and some careful sewing can have your gown looking good as new, the reality is that sometimes a dress can only be “restored” so much. Tightly-woven fabrics like silk satin can be very difficult to press, which means your dress may have wrinkles that simply won’t come out.

Similarly, some gowns won’t take well to color restoration; certain fabrics retain their yellow tone even after restoration, and dresses with lots of beading may find that the pearls and beads have lost their luster in the process. Obviously, the sentimental value might lead you to overlook these “imperfections” (or love them even more), but it’s important to know what you’re getting into before you swipe your credit card.

Restoration costs vary depending on how much work is required, but the average range is between $300 and $800. While that may seem like a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of a wedding budget, it is important to keep this cost in mind if you want to wear an heirloom dress. Make sure you factor this price into the budget, just like you would the price for a new gown.

Does the Wedding Dress Need Alterations?

A seamstress sewing alterations on a lace heirloom wedding dress.

Your wedding gown should fit perfectly, like it was made just for you. But if you’re wearing a gown that was literally made for someone else, that can be a real challenge! In fact, even if you are the same dress size as your mother or grandmother, their dress still may not fit due to differences in your body type. Thankfully, there are many seamstresses and tailors out there who offer wedding dress alterations. Take your dress to a few of these folks and see if they can help you alter the dress for your body. Just make sure that whoever you work with is careful with the fabric (ideally someone who has worked with vintage gowns before).

Depending on the fabric of your dress, alterations may require a little ingenuity. It can be difficult to find modern fabrics to match heirloom dresses, so you may need to cannibalize portions of your gown to get that perfect fit. If you do have to make major changes to your dress, make sure everyone—you, your tailor, and whoever’s dress it was (if they’re in your family)—is on the same page before you cut anything!

The alterations period is also a great time to decide if you want to personalize your dress in any way. Do you want to remove the sleeves to create a strapless look? Do you want to add a belt or other details? If you feel like your look needs something more (and again, everyone is on the same page), now’s the time to go for it! You can even make an original piece out of any leftover fabric; for example, leftover lace from discarded sleeves can make a cute clutch or coin purse!

With a little creativity and some very careful handling, you can transform an heirloom wedding dress into something beautiful, meaningful, and uniquely you.

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