This summer I had the privilege of working on a vintage wedding gown. This wouldn’t be unusual if you knew I'd spent 9 of my 12 years in the clothing industry making and designing wedding gowns in the late ’80’s and ’90’s in Canada and the Lower 48. If you knew I’d constructed everything from family-gathering-at-the-farm shifts to custom froth for penthouse-bound adult film stars (okay, only one adult film star, but it was kind of a big deal in 2000). It wouldn't be unusual if you knew I’d once wrangled jealous bridesmaids, estranged mothers, best friends who felt left out, grandmothers arriving from the Old Country demanding silk gowns be remade “more white” a week before the wedding, crying brides who would be divorced in 4-6 months and my own insecurities as a 20-something with a whole lot of something to prove.
It wouldn’t be unusual, my taking on this project, except that 17 years ago I said I’d never work on a wedding gown again.
There are many reasons why a bride chooses a certain dress. Some of it is based on myth, or emotion, or the search for perfection. If she has the stamina, she will travel from city to city “looking for THE dress.” She will question herself. She will ask for advice. She will count her pennies, she will break the bank. She will present a designer with a black and white magazine photograph of a bride wearing floppy rubber boots, bareback on a horse, gown wadded up in one hand and field flowers in the other and say, “I want this dress.” Not because of the way it looks (who can figure that out?), but because of the mood. Because she wants to feel a certain way.
Often, the challenge isn't how well you fit a dress to a body, it's how well you fit the mind.
Robin, the bride, was referred by a friend in a I-think-you’re-maybe-the-only-one-who-can-take-this-on kind of way. The bride’s mother wore the dress in the ’80’s, but someone had worn it before. There is mystery around the provenance — maybe it came from an antique store, maybe from an aunt — but the bride’s mother isn’t here to tell the full story, which is why Robin wanted to wear the dress, the closest she could be to her mother on the day she married her partner, Jess.
The sheer cotton batiste and eyelet lace dress had been home made, perhaps in rural Indiana, with stitches so small I couldn’t get the tip of my seam ripper beneath, with areas so fragile they blew apart in my hands. I saw the dress in February, before it was sent away for cleaning and restoration* — it was yellowed, stained and had been suspended on a wire hanger for decades, partially covered in plastic.
I worked with the dress after it returned to Alaska from a cleaner in California. According to the bride, the professionals began with dry cleaning, then a wet cleaning process with Orvus paste, then a gentle bleach soak over several days, checking at critical points to ensure the fibers weren’t stretching or tearing. The transformation was stunning, but it took time.
My part of the project required properly fitting the dress, textile stabilization and updated finishing. Gathers at the waist became pleats. Metal hooks and eyes at the center back became hand made loops and silk covered buttons. I replaced the skirt lining. I repaired areas of stretched or ripped lace by hand. I trimmed away excess. I steamed, I pressed, and thought about the woman who first made this dress, the women who had worn it since, the woman who would wear it again. Connected, I became another link in a line of of makers and women crossing thresholds.
And this is the difference between working on wedding gowns in your 20’s as a seamstress/sewer/pattern maker/shopgirl/designer/assistant/or whatever else I was referred to, and working on a wedding gown as a mid-40’s artist and mother. My energy and intent had nothing to do with proving myself, and everything to do with respect, curiosity and creating the most supportive, most nurturing experience I could for another woman — for 2 women, actually — during a life moment when the experience should be beautiful and easy for a couple, but often feels overwhelming.
It’s also the difference between choosing to work with a vintage gown or making all new. Old cloth holds stories, secrets. It’s always my preference.
During the process, I was able to share discoveries about Robin’s mother -- she had a 24-inch waist when she got married, and had likely been losing weight since the seams at the hip had been taken in 3 times…the final time by hand, maybe stitched at the last minute, maybe the morning of the wedding. These are small things, small curiosities. But I wanted Robin to know that part of the story.
The rest of the dance belongs to her and Jess.
If you are interested in having a vintage wedding gown cleaned and/or restored, here are some resources:
National Gown — www.nationalgown.com
American Institute for Conservation -- www.conservation-us.org
See pdf: "Guide to Caring for Your Treasures"
List of Conservators (this list was originally provided by the Anchorage Museum, although they don't endorse anyone in particular. Refer to the above website to find a conservator near you):
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.