How to Shop for — and Find — Your Dream Vintage Wedding Dress

Essential pro-tips from the experts, from searching online to finding the right tailor.
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Oh, to be Mandy Moore in this moment. Milo Ventimiglia and Moore in "This Is Us," with costume design by Hala Bahment. Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Oh, to be Mandy Moore in this moment. Milo Ventimiglia and Moore in "This Is Us," with costume design by Hala Bahment. Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Maybe you have a Roaring Twenties, F. Scott Fitzgerald-inspired theme in mind for your big day. Or you want a dress that reminds you of your super-chic grandmother's (or great-grandmother's). Or you're just really obsessed with Mandy Moore's Boho '70s gown from Jack and Rebecca's City Hall ceremony flashback in "This Is Us" (and want to marry Milo Ventimiglia). In short, you're considering going vintage for your wedding dress.

But shopping vintage for such an emotional, life-changing event can be a tricky (and risky) endeavor — especially if you're looking online. (See: Episode four of Netflix's "Girlboss" when a sweaty Britt Robertson, as a fictionalized Sofia Amoruso, runs over the Golden Gate Bridge to deliver a freshly cleaned vintage gown to a dissatisfied customer on her wedding day.) 

So, we jumped on the phone with three experts, all of whom are very knowledgable on the subject, to glean their crucial pro-tips: Lily Kaizer, owner of Hollywood-based Happy Isles, a luxury vintage wedding dress boutique specializing in dresses from the '50s through '90s; Cameron Silver, fashion director of QVC's H by Halston and founder of the legendary — and Bravo-immortalized — Los Angeles-based vintage emporium Decades; and bridal stylist (and former Carolina Herrera Bridal Director) Maradee Wahl. Here's their advice.

A Mandy Moore-esque '70s dress from Happy Isles. Photo: Emily Knecht

A Mandy Moore-esque '70s dress from Happy Isles. Photo: Emily Knecht

Wait, why is vintage suddenly so popular for wedding dresses?

First off, buying a gently-worn — just once, no less — dress is a sustainable practice. But, of course, the appeal of vintage can also be a bit more self-focused, especially in the age of Instagram. Kaizer points to her sartorially savvy (and discerning) clientele who wouldn't want to risk a "who wore it better" comparison on their cleverly hashtagged nuptials. "You see all these great weddings all the time on social media, so it becomes harder and harder for people to find something that's really unique," she says. So vintage ensures that your Instagram-ed wedding dress will be one-of-a-kind.

Vintage looks have also become popular as the second dress for the reception or the rehearsal dinner. "Maybe you wear that stoic princess dress for the ceremony, but for the party, you wear something fun, like a '70s charmeuse Halston bias cut halter," says Silver.

How do I start researching?

"I'll be perfectly honest," says Silver. "[A vintage wedding dress is] my least favorite garment to sell to a bride because it's such an emotional, over-analyzed purchase." His strict rule of thumb for all his bridal clients: "Look at everything modern first. Go to Monique. Go to Vera. Go everywhere. Come to me last when you have a point of reference." If you find "the one" at a vintage store and then mull your options for the typical two to four months, it's extremely unlikely that it'll still be available when you're finally ready to pull the trigger.

Make full use of your research tools without leaving home, too. Wahl suggests initially visiting sites like Etsy, Millcrest Vintage, Preowned Wedding Dresses, Still White and Tradesy first. (We suggest First Dibs for the high-end designer comparison points, too.) "Once you have an idea of the era you like and the potential cost, shop locally to try your favorite vintage shapes to make sure the look suits your personal style and your figure," she says.

An Oscar De La Renta gown from Decades. Photo: Courtesy

An Oscar De La Renta gown from Decades. Photo: Courtesy

How can I ensure the quality and condition of the dress?

When sourcing pieces for her store, Kaizer always determines and evaluates the material of the dress. "I usually look for fine silks and laces — high-quality materials — not a lot of polyester," she says. "Basically, polyester differentiates whether vintage goes into cheap costume-y versus luxury, timeless, heirloom." Try your best to meticulously analyze, touch and try on the dress in person — especially to see how it drapes on and fits to your body.

But what if I'm buying online?

In our digital reality, wedding dress shopping online is also an option, but remember "Girlboss": Definitely read through all the dress details and descriptions available. High-end sites like Decades and First Dibs list crucial info — including material, era, exact measurements and condition — and display the piece on a dress form. (Love the essay-length descriptions from some sellers on the latter, too.)

"But everybody has a different idea of what 'excellent condition' means," says Kaizer, who sometimes does source online. She always contacts the vendor or individual seller directly to ask for additional close-up photos and specific material info. Also, if the dress is photographed flat, she suggests asking for photos of the dress on a person to determine the fit. "I always go through two or three email exchanges with a seller just to get a better sense of all those things," she adds. Be forewarned: Vintage wedding gown are usually final sale.

A vintage Malcolm Starr dress from Happy Isles. Photo: Emily Knecht

A vintage Malcolm Starr dress from Happy Isles. Photo: Emily Knecht

What elements can be altered — and, more importantly, what can't?

As with shopping for any type of clothing, avoid buying a dress that's too small. Letting a vintage dress out — or adding in paneling — is especially precarious because the material is more fragile and may have changed color over time.

But if there's room and material to work with — if it's too long or roomy at the waist — go for it. The only exception is a heavily beaded gown because nips and tucks require extensive re-beading work, which can ring up to the price of the actual dress. "If a bride comes in and loves a beaded piece, but it needs some alterations, I normally tend to sway her towards another one," says Kaizer.

There's also the option to re-design your dress. "Simple things can refresh a garment," says Silver. "Say you fall in love with a '40s dress with demure neckline — that's something you can drop to give the dress a little more life." He does warn that, for example, shortening a maxi-gown with posh designer "provenance" into a mini might diminish the resale value (provided you want to part with it later). "But you're the owner, you can determine the design integrity or bastardization," he adds.

Also, make sure you bring a clean dress in for alterations. "The best scenario is to start with a gown that has already been cleaned by the store or the seller," says Wahl. "So you don't get a disappointing and very expensive surprise."

How do I find the right tailor?

"I've often said, 'a tailor is much more important to you than a shrink or a potential marriage counselor,' because the tailor will really make it fit for you," says Silver. Do not bring your vintage wedding dress to your usual dry cleaner or suit-maker. Find a tailor who specializes in eveningwear, which isn't always an easy task. (Wahl even suggests searching for a tailor knowledgable and experienced in vintage since materials and sewing techniques can vary by era.)

Once you find your potential tailor, vet them with Kaizer's smart and super easy trick: Bring in a test piece that you're not all that invested in first. Once the guinea pig dress comes back, "turn garment inside out," she says. "If everything looks straight, if all the frayed edges of the fabric are tucked under and then hemmed, then you know you have somebody good." If you find any "unfinished" details on the inside-out piece, you probably want to move onto your next option.

Silver also suggests asking the tailor to alter a gown so it's flattering for both sitting and standing, since you'll be doing both for photos that last a lifetime — and will definitely be blasted out on Instagram with your wedding portmanteau hashtag.

A vintage Pauline Trigère "something blue" wedding dress at Happy Isles. Photo: Ally Thornton

A vintage Pauline Trigère "something blue" wedding dress at Happy Isles. Photo: Ally Thornton

What stains can be removed (and can't)?

If it's dirt, it most likely can be dry-cleaned out. Silver also points out that small blemishes at the hem of a dress can also by hidden by taking up the hemline. But brown, rusty stains most likely last forever. Again, it's best to see the dress in person or, if you're shopping online, ask the seller for specific details and close-up photos.

Should I splurge on a designer dress?

It's up to you. Silver does point out that a Chanel haute couture dress would run a hefty $300,000 these days, so if you do come across one from the early '80s (and it fits you and budget permitting) pounce on it. "That's really good return on investment," he says. "Not necessarily for the original owner, but for the new owner." He does note an interest in Dior, Chanel, Givenchy and "goddess dresses" by Madame Grès for vintage wedding options at Decades these days.

"Of course, don't get caught up in a great designer label," he says, advocating for dresses by lesser-known names or even "anonymous or custom dressmakers" from the '50s and '60s. "Maybe it doesn't have the same design provenance — that snob factor — but it has the vintage factor which is very, very validating."

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