Modest Brides: Vintage Dresses

Women were more modest a few decades (and centuries) ago. Well, not always – the flappers of the twenties with short skirts and bobbed hair; the late Victorian lowcut dress, the Empire style we know from Jane Austen’s day – there have been different standards in different eras. Christian women of the most devout ideals, though, have always been expected to follow rules of modesty even when the rules of fashion were open to interpretation. My grandmothers wore skirts below the knee in the twenties and never bobbed their hair; my Victorian ancestresses, as far as I can tell, wore dresses buttoned up to the neck, covered with aprons. Before that, not many of them spoke English (or wrote anything down) so my guess is that they wore the modest chemise, bodice, full skirt and apron of their native Celtic lands. We were not fashionable people!

Modest brides look to the past for inspiration in a time of immodesty. Even the low-bosomed dresses of the fin de siecle and the Empire days can be modified to cover above the collarbone. Skirts were generally full, with lots of underpinnings and layers to keep fabric from clinging.

Gramma’s gown might be what a modest bride is looking to wear, but even fabric that is only fifty years old can be distressed, rotted, or otherwise unwearable. I learned a lot about textiles and old dresses when I was a museum curator. How fabric is stored makes a big difference in how long it lasts. Ideally, fabrics are stored flat, without creases, in a cool and dry environment. Sun, heat, metal hangers, cedar chests and mold can do as much damage as moths and small children playing dress-up. The other disappointment for a bride hoping to wear an heirloom dress might be how small that vintage dress is. Some mid-twentieth century gowns may be in a size 12 or larger, but before that, it was a rare bride who was over five feet tall and weighed more than a hundred pounds. Some wedding dresses made before the American Civil War will fit ten year old girls now.

Old gowns are hard to let out. The stitching line may be weak, the fabric starting to tear along the stress points. Matching fabric may be impossible, especially with gowns made before the nineteen-sixties. Losing fifteen pounds to get into a small dress might seem feasible, but shrinking three inches in height is not. Bones at shoulders, hips and rib don’t get any smaller.

So that’s the first thing to consider when buying a vintage gown – will it fit without alterations? The second thing to consider is whether the dress is or can be made wearable, with any missing pieces such as fasteners replaced. Missing lace can be replaced – often it got re-used. Hooks and eyes and buttons can be found to match. Swaths cut out of the skirt would be nigh imposible to replace. Third, can a distressed fabric be reinforced? This is what museums sometimes do with display pieces – matching backing fabric is let into shoulders or waists to hold the old stitches together. This can be done even with pieces to be worn.

But a dress that is too small is just that – light cottons, linens and wool will stretch to some extent, but heavy fabrics such as damask and brocade simply do not give at all. Brides in past eras would compress bosom and waist to ridiculous measurements, which is unhealthy and so foreign to modern women that the idea of a tight-laced corset (i.e. Scarlett O’Hara) sounds like torture. It is.

There are some wonderful vintage vendors on line. Even if a bride doesn’t expect to buy a vintage dress, they are worth looking at for ideas. These are my favourites:

Antique Dress ( has dresses of all eras for sale from mid-US$400 on up! They have an excellent photo gallery if a bride is looking for inspiration.

Bobby Dene’s Vintage Clothes has a good selection of wedding dresses,w ith nice photos and descriptions, and prices from US$300 up. (

My favourite is probably Vintage Textile, a museum curator’s dream. ( They must haunt the auction houses! There are many Victorian and Edwardian style dresses, in collector’s quality. Their gallery does not list size, so the buyer needs to check the individual listings. These are on the high end and meant for collections, although many are described as wearable. Vintage Textile has great accessories and caps, mantles and shawls to make a modern dress more modest and certainly very special. Maybe a bride would rather put her money into an exquisite Kashmir shawl rather than a one-time only fancy white dress. There was one white Edwardian dress that I would gladly have worn if the occasion arose! And the shawls – well, Queen Victoria might have chosen one for a cool evening at Balmoral. They carry a few lace pieces and wedding veils that coudl be adapted to modern dress. Prices are moderate to high, since these are museum quality garments and textiles.

These are my caveats about buying a vintage dress or other textiles: Ask if you can put down a deposit and return the dres if it is not satisfactory, which may mean paying for it, and having the right to return it minus shipping costs within a certain time.

Ask how the piece was measured, especially if it is a dress or fitted garment. Was it measured flat, across the front or back, and the measurement doubled (that is, let’s say, 16″ from seam to seam across the bust, then doubled to  32″.) Or was it measured on a mannequin or model, who filled out the shaped bodice to give a measurement of 32″? Cut and darts can make a difference in how the bust or waist measurement is taken.

If a garment is sized, ask if that is the labelled size in the garment or if it is the equivalent modern size. Sizing varied wildly over the decades; what is a size 12 in one era is a size 8 in another.

Don’t buy shoes or accessories until you have the dress, in order to match the colour more accurately. White doesn’t stay white over the years, and beige can range from yellow to pink. I would try to order the dress to arrive at least one month before the wedding, in case alterations or repairs need to be done, and to find accessories.

Bridesmaids’ dresses should match in style with the brides’ dress, which can be a big consideration if the bride must have that special vintage dress. If the bride is wearing a cream Victorian dress with big picture hat and cathedral train, it looks a bit as if the bridesmaids came to the wrong party if they are in short hot pink jersey.

A vintage dress can be perfect in an older church setting. It can be economical and modest. It will honour the women who went before us to the altar and said, “I will.”


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