How To Wear a Vintage Wedding Dress

The first time Christian, my now-husband, walked through my front door I knew he was the one. It was May 2020. We apprehensively nodded toward each other before making ourselves comfortable six feet apart. I split a martini into two cups, stretching across my table to offer him his half. I considered myself a reformed romantic—pragmatic, measured, and above all, independent. There was nothing that I needed outside of my studio apartment wrapped in brick and dotted with plants in varying states of decay. I had my best friend, my family, my books, and my sweaters stuffed in the pantry. How, I wondered, would this person tucked into the chartreuse corner of my sofa change my life?

Our early dates were weekends out east and picnics in the park. I wore a silk slip dress to drink a Campari soda we split in a canteen bottle while walking through the empty streets of Brooklyn. We said “I love you,” in the rain on the beach, a month after meeting. Talking about the future, every sentence started with “we,” right from the start.

We discussed marriage like the weather. “Oh it’s warm today, and we should get married in the fall.” It felt like a given fact from our meeting early on. A natural planner, I amassed hoards of inspiration. Screenshots of rings. Folders full of runway gowns. Even an imaginary budget lives drafted somewhere on my computer. I was dead set on an Emilia Wickstead tea-length dress from a few years back. Finding a version in white in my size within a mile on eBay felt kismet. Those who can recall the blur of falling in love will recall that almost everything feels “kismet.” I messaged the seller and arranged a meet up.

“Absolutely not,” said my best friend on the phone. I leaned against a railing, overlooking the East River, killing time before an appointment. “You’re not engaged. So you’re not getting a wedding dress.” I stayed silent, nodding along. She was gentle. I was gutted. I canceled the pick-up and tried to think about anything else.

I vowed instead to pay attention to our relationship in real time instead of rushing into the land of foregone conclusions. There was our first road trip. Our first fight, quarantined in separate apartments. Our first trip back to Iowa. Telling his parents we were moving in. Watching our sisters unpack books in our new apartment. One of us taking a Zoom meeting in the bedroom, the other on a Zoom in the living room. Countless dinners and the cashmere sweater we passed back and forth between closets.

In the weeks before our engagement, waiting impatiently and looking to distract myself, I turned to my beloved vice—eBay. The search “vintage wedding dress” yielded results ranging from yellowed puff sleeves to Depression-era paper-thin cotton. Then there was my dress. Union-made, high-necked, packed up in the 1960s and forgotten about since. Available for $82, with free shipping. I pressed “Buy Now” without measuring its dimensions or calling a friend. I suppose, in a certain sense, I knew.

Wearing vintage down the aisle was a no-brainer. And at 6’2”, tailoring has always been inevitable. I have better luck with dated silhouettes and borrowing from menswear. And most of my everyday wardrobe, and the content of my newsletter, is second-hand pieces. Looking through old family photos at my in-laws’ house, I was struck by an image of Aunt Bess stepping outside the church on her own wedding day. It was the ’60s and she was wearing a short dress, carrying a petite bouquet, and beaming.

Once the dress arrived—too tight to zip up and short enough to demand a dramatic chop—I stuffed it under our bed where it stayed until we were engaged. When it was time to begin the arduous tailoring process, I emailed my dream partner, certain I wouldn’t get a response. A few hours later, Luis, manager of the Bode Tailor Shop, emailed me back. “We would love to help.”

The next week, I unfurled the pile of cream on the tailor’s counter from a paper bag. Luis reassured me that the shop would reconstruct the bodice to fit, lift the hemline, and modernize the neckline. Every fitting, the vision became clearer and my excitement became more palpable. I brought my sister, who snapped pictures while I slipped on the vintage Chanel slingbacks I scored on The RealReal. My best friend came, helpfully noting that I’d been wearing my veil, which came with the dress, upside down the whole time.

There was a glossy red Mark Cross box bag, a wedding shower gift from my friends and family, I carried over my shoulder. Oversized pearl earrings my mother-in-law wore for her own wedding were borrowed with care. Vintage baby blue ribbon wrapped around lilies I picked from the flower market that morning, with a baby picture of my father, whose absence I carried with me as I walked down the aisle.

“It’s so you,” was the first thing someone said to me as I walked up the steps of the church. Which, after a lifelong journey toward personal style, might be the greatest compliment of all.