Yes, You Can Wear Vintage to Your Wedding

Here’s how to find the perfect vintage wedding dress.

By: Emily Ramshaw
Photography: Emily Knecht

Here we were, thinking the only options when it came to finding a wedding dress were a dearly expensive designer gown from a fancy salon, or a somewhat less expensive dress from a contemporary label, when we were alerted to the opening of Happy Isles, a Los Angeles shop that specializes in—wait for it—vintage bridal. Suddenly we had images of Grace Kelly in High Society and/or To Catch a Thief flashing through our heads. As though finding that perfect wedding dress isn’t already hard enough, however, the idea of tackling a vintage store, and wading through all the very bad that will inevitably come before any good, is a bit too intimidating for us to handle. Happy Isles is, of course, the furthest thing from your typical chock-full vintage store and is about the most pleasant, glamorous shopping experience imaginable. “I developed the concept for Happy Isles knowing that there really isn’t that highly-curated vintage bridal destination,” says owner Lily Kaizer. “My goal is to relieve all the vintage-loving ladies of the stress of the hunt, which turns exhausting when you also have a wedding to plan.”

Should you not be able to make it to L.A. as part of your hunt for the perfect wedding look, we asked Kaizer how to suss out the best vintage bridal options, from the labels to look for to how to avoid looking like you’re about to make a cameo in a period costume drama.

 

What to check for when looking at a vintage dress:

 

“I look for two things. First, I get an immediate sense of the fabric and determine if it’s a natural fiber. If it is, then I take a look at the interior construction. A dress can have the perfect silhouette, but if the fabric is a funky blend, it’s not going to lay right on your body. And heavy synthetic material brings a vintage piece into costume territory. With vintage, you can get lucky with immaculate construction at a reasonable price. Before fast fashion, much more attention was paid to the interior of a garment. In a quality vintage piece, there might be some element of corsetry, or even a simple yet efficient waist belt. If attention is paid on the inside, it’s sure to show on the outside. There are so many directions you can go with vintage bridal. I think brides should be on the lookout not so much for ‘old wedding dresses,’ but for great vintage pieces of quality, that happen to be in a shade of white.”

 

The vintage designer labels you should be looking for:

 

“There are too many to name! On the higher end I love YSL, Ossie Clark, Alaïa, Halston, Bill Blass, Valentino, Oscar de la Renta, Karl Lagerfeld, Ungaro... Lesser known, but equally important vintage designers to collect include Pauline Trigère, Malcolm Starr, Ceil Chapman, Alfred Bosand and Estevez. And on the lower end, I love a good Victor Costa, who did some great silhouettes in the 70s, 80s and 90s.”

 

Why you should go for vintage over a brand-new dress:

 

“Buying vintage for your wedding has tons of advantages. Not only are you guaranteed a quality garment that actually holds its value, but you can be certain you’re the only bride out there wearing the dress you chose. Bridal is so complicated. Even the most unique dress is still being worn by other brides. Your wedding is the day to fully express yourself, particularly stylewise. Wearing vintage assures that your look really is your own.”

 

How to ensure your vintage dress doesn’t look dated:

 

“I always try to buy with an eye towards ‘wow’ pieces that have an underlying quality of subtlety. The trick in buying vintage that doesn’t look period is finding that balance between clean silhouette, quality fabric, and well-placed pizazz. I find that the 50s are a bit touch-and-go in that respect. The pizazz is always on, but often bodices can feel clunky—they were wearing very different bras back then. The fit of the 80s will actually serve you better if you love that 50s big skirt flair. A safe bet is sticking to the 60s-’90s. You’ll find pieces with clean lines and silhouettes that are copied time and again in the contemporary landscape. Dresses from the 30s-40s can also serve you well, though it’s difficult to come across pieces in excellent condition unless you are willing to hunt. And a good tailor is always your friend. Always.”

 

If you’re looking for *this* style dress, vintage is your best bet:

 

“You won’t find a great column gown in bridal salons these days. The market is flooded with great slip dresses à la Carolyn Bessette, but a more substantial column gown is harder to find. Good shift dresses are also hard to come by, long and short, and brocade is almost impossible to find in a contemporary setting.”

 

You can find great bridal accessories if you go vintage:

 

“Brides seem to be gravitating towards crowns and earrings right now. Your wedding is the time to really make a statement, so I think women who don’t normally accessorize have the confidence to really go for it. Because it’s easy to mistake ‘timeless’ with trendy regarding contemporary bridal accessories, going vintage means that you can guarantee that your choice will be a classic one.”

 

Where to look for vintage bridal (besides Happy Isles, of course):

 

“Shopping for vintage bridal is tricky. You could spend days, weeks, months sifting through Etsy or 1stdibs, but buying online is hard because as a rule of thumb, vintage comes hand-in-hand with a strong ‘no returns’ policy. My suggestion: contact vendors from Etsy or 1stdibs directly, and make an appointment to see their collection in person or visit their showroom. It’s best to find a spot that offers a nice assortment of options where you can try several things on before making your choice. Shopping vintage fairs is also a great way to see what’s out there and offers the opportunity to connect in person with vendors who might have more stock not displayed. A Current Affair is maybe the most popular right now, and it really does attract the nation’s best sellers.”

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