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Something Old

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  Every bride dreams of looking radiant in a wedding gown that captures the aesthetic and ethos of her special day. For some, that means wearing a gown from an earlier era. Whether an heirloom with historic and sentimental significance or a fashionable foray into the look of times gone by, antique and vintage gowns allow brides to express their individuality and leave a lasting impression.

  "Girls want a statement dress that reflects their personality and the type of wedding they're projecting," says designer Yvonne LaFleur (8131 Hampson St., 866-9666; www.yvonnelafleur.com), whose eponymous store sells vintage-style bridal gowns of her own design. "Antique dresses never go out of style. They're period pieces."

  Good quality vintage dresses often feature details and materials, such as handmade cotton or silk lace, that can be hard to find at affordable prices today. Brides who haven't inherited a wedding dress can shop a variety of resources including Internet retailers, vintage clothing stores, consignment shops, estate sales and thrift stores. Local dealers, conservators and collectors offer the following advice for finding a dress special enough to make the grade.

Style

The style and silhouette of a 1920s dress will differ dramatically from a 1940s dress. Having an idea of the shape that flatters your body type can help determine which decade might be a good match. The inventory on websites like TheFrock.com, which carries dresses from renowned 20th century designers like Christian Dior and Balenciaga, provides a window into the history of design and can help you develop a clearer picture of the look you want.

  Once you have an idea, search for dresses from those decades or ask a local dealer to keep an eye out for you. "The right vintage gown can be difficult to find," says Laura Hourguettes, owner of Lili Vintage Boutique (3329 Magazine St., 931-6848; www.lilivintage.com). "So you should give yourself some time." A vintage gown is one of a kind, so when you find one you love, you should seriously consider making the purchase, Hourguettes says. Once it's gone, there won't be another. She also suggests dresses that weren't specifically tailored for weddings. "I've had customers who've used vintage nightgowns and cocktail dresses," she says. "And for a barefoot beach wedding, chiffon is an easy look."

Age & Condition

The oldest dresses are fragile because of their age, but they also tend to be the most well made. "The quality of lace really determines the integrity of the gown," says Lafleur, who notes that older European laces are better quality than American laces.

  Dresses made before the advent of synthetic fabrics in the 1940s also are easier to clean. "Technically, it's easier to restore some of the older gowns than some of the vintage gowns," says Leigh Reveley of Gentle Arts (1833 Jena St., 895-5628; www.gentleartsnola.com), a second-generation textile conservator. "The older gowns are all natural fibers, and it's much easier to get stains out of natural fibers." Some older synthetic gowns go through what Reveley calls "reverse foxing," a process of developing brown spots and losing sheen. Acid from tissue paper, boxes and wooden chests gradually erodes the fabric's integrity, so carefully inspect a gown, try it on and move in it. Movement will give you an idea of how the seams are holding up and the dress's overall condition.

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  Vintage dress collector Crickett Lapeyre frequently searches for batiste or French hand-sewn gowns on eBay and has purchased many for less than $100. "You're taking a risk that it's so old it's rotten," says Lapeyre, who was inspired by her great-grandmother's collection of early 20th century white lawn dresses. Lapeyre was able to professionally restore the one gown she received in poor condition. Still, exercise caution when ordering online via sites like eBay, because gowns may not be returnable.

  It's easier to assess a gown's condition when shopping in person. "Make sure the dress is sturdy," Hourguettes says. "Seams can be fixed, but once the fabric dry rots, it's pretty much gone."

Fit

Know your measurements when shopping online. The older the dress, the smaller it will be. "Figure types have changed so much," Lafleur says. "The waistlines [of the older gowns] were all smaller."

  If you fall in love with a dress that has a 20-inch waist and your waist is 28 inches, it's likely to be a deal breaker unless you can take fabric from another part of the gown. The bias cut, slipper satin dresses of the 1940s offer more latitude. Among the easiest to remake, they satisfy the desire for a look that's both vintage and contemporary. "From a historic standpoint, if it belonged to someone with historic significance, [remaking] shouldn't be done," Reveley says. "But from a sentimental standpoint, there's no better reason to take something old and fashion it into something new and useful on one of the most important days of your life."

Cleaning and Repairs

Lafleur recommends using a bar of old-fashioned white Ivory soap to remove yellow spots and stains, including nail polish and crayon. Apply a paste of soap and a water to the spot, then put the garment in the sun for a little while (or keep it inside if you prefer). Finally, rinse the dress with hot water. "You shouldn't use chlorine-based (cleaners) on anything lace, old or fragile, and also not on silk," she says. Gentle Arts cleans heirloom wedding dresses using one of two techniques: wet cleaning (the garment sits atop a water table in a surfactant) and hand dry cleaning (a mild solution of mineral spirits and surfactant is applied with cotton swabs). "Most of the effect of cleaning is going to be to remove dust, dirt and acid," says Reveley, who warns that antique and vintage gowns should never be washed. Professional cleaning by a conservator costs around $300, while restoration usually costs $1,000 and up (still less than the cost of most new gowns).

Storage

To preserve wedding gowns, Reveley advises removing them from plastic bags and cardboard forms that are not acid free and storing them in an acid-free box that allows air to circulate, like those on Gaylord.com. Use acid-free tissue to wrap the dress and pad it where there are creases. Store it in a climate-controlled environment. Veils can be stored in pillowcases.

Consider A New Dress Designed to Look Vintage

Sewing a dress from a vintage pattern, like those pictured here, is an accessible way to achieve and authentic period look. - PICTURES COURTESY SO VINTAGE PATTERNS
An alternative to a vintage gown is a reproduction gown made to look old or a gown with vintage elements. "A lot of girls want a fresh, contemporary dress with a vintage component," Lafleur says. Brooches, sashes, shrugs, cummerbunds, gloves, bouquets, veils and how a dress is bustled are all ways to introduce a touch of the old. Lafleur also directs brides toward ready-to-wear gowns inspired by another period. "It depends on what their look is," she says. "Whether they have an old-fashioned Grace Kelly look or sexy 1940s, I try to show them that feeling." For sewing patterns, www.sovintagepatterns.com offers an extensive bridal collection.

  Whatever the period of the dress, wearing an ancestor's gown or referencing the look of another time can bridge the history that shapes a bride and the person she is today. "It's a way of honoring your past and your present," Reveley says.

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