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Friday, August 20, 2010

#68: The Wear 'N Care of Your Mom's Wedding Dress

When Brave Bride reader Jen read my submissions post she found the list of wedding-related topics that I'd love to pick someone's brain about. The topic on my list that Jen graciously and kick-assingly (yes, I just turned "kick ass" into an adverb) offered to write about is the option of wearing your mother's wedding dress. Because for some women, wedding dresses are about tradition, connection, history, and love that lasts generations, NOT just about fashion trends or looking damn fine. And because Jen totally rocks, she also shares a few practical tips for women who are going this route. Take it away, Jen...
I didn’t find my dress in a shop, or even online searching for vintage dresses. My dress is a 1976 Alfred Angelo, found in the back of our attic in a yellowing box that was falling apart. I am wearing my mother's dress.

                              Jen's mom in her wedding dress. Amazing, no?

My mother never planned on me wearing her dress, she never had it cleaned or preserved. She assumed we would go looking, and I would find a dress that made my heart sing, just like she did.  What dress it was - hers, new, old - didn’t matter to her.  At 18, I came across the dress in the attic, and fell in love with it for the same reasons my mother did. When I found her dress, it still had a mustard stain on it from her own wedding, and it was unevenly discolored with age, but it also had an ethereal, fairy-like quality that just called to me. I had always envisioned myself having this "fantasy forest" look at my wedding, as if I was Titania, Queen of the Fairies, and had just wandered out of the woods. This dress fits my vision perfectly. I loved that it was different from everything that’s available now; for some reason current dresses don’t make my heart sing like this dress did.  The question now was, after 30-plus years, could it be cleaned?

We thought about dry cleaners, but figured most of them wouldn't be able to figure out how to even out the discoloration. We knew it would never be white again, but hoped it would at least become a uniform ivory.  We also checked online to see if we could find tips, but while we found information about cleaning dresses, nothing talked about how to deal with uneven discoloration. Then my mom had a brilliant idea – talk to our local historical society. They have a costume and textile department, and we figured they probably dealt with this issue all the time. So I contacted them, and they were able to refer me to a former employee who dealt with fabric.  Sue was amazing -- she felt confident she could remove the yellow evenly, and believed the alterations for size could also be accomplished.  She took the dress for two months to do repeated soaking and rinsings.  

At this point, we figured we better have a Plan B, just in case the cleaning process didn't work. We started dress shopping, partly to see what backups were available, and partly because my mom wanted me to be sure I had a dress I really loved.  I did find the 'Ophelia' by Mon Cheri, but I knew in my heart that it wasn’t really 100% what I wanted. If Sue couldn’t clean my dress, I would get 'Ophelia', but I prayed and hoped that she could work magic because I wanted my mom’s dress. Luckily Sue came through; the dress looks beautiful and evenly colored, all for $75.  And, she said the alterations should be easy. Honestly, it does not look like a new dress, it is a bit darker than ivory, so this would not be an option for someone who wanted their dress to look pristine.  I like that look, though, it shows the history and the love in the dress; because, while I do love the dress just for itself, I also love the dress because it was my mother's. Having people be able to see that history is meaningful to me.

                           Jen in her mom's dress. Look- even the cat approves!

My experience contrasts with my cousin's, who is also wearing her mother's dress.  My cousin spent months trying and failing to find a dress that matched her vision.  While she wanted one of the modern styles, she couldn't quite find what she was looking for in a price range she could afford.  So they pulled out her mother's dress and took another look at it.  It had been more carefully stored, and was in very good shape.  They found a seamstress who was able to completely redesign her mother's 1980 dress.  Originally there was a high neck and long sleeves, now there is a sweetheart neck and lace cap sleeves. My mother, who knew it was her sister's dress, didn't recognize it at all --  it looks modern, pristine, and completely new.

Both of us, for different reasons, chose to wear our mothers’ gowns and are happy with our decisions, although we arrived at that place for two different reasons, from two different directions. Maybe you happen to love the style, age, or story that comes with wearing a family or historical dress; or maybe you want to repurpose an existing dress to save money. Just have an idea of what you’re getting into - if it's a family dress, make sure the family is okay with you changing the dress if you're planning to, and give yourself alternatives in case a dress can’t be cleaned or altered.  Be aware that it will probably not be 100% perfect, and be honest about whether or not that will be okay with you.

Will either of us save our dresses to possibly pass on to our own daughters? Knowing us, they will be saved for memories, but at least personally I don’t care. I want my daughter to fall in love with whatever kind of dress makes her heart sing, and that might not be the style of my dress. I am also unsure if the dress can hold up to another round of cleaning and alterations, since I know I probably won’t take care of it any better than my mother did.  It will be around, though, in a box in the attic, for her to find one day, and maybe she'll fall in love.


  1. You look gorgeous in the dress. I am glad that you were able to make your mother's dress work for you. To me there is something special in wearing your mother's dress but also agree with your advice on making sure you have a backup.

  2. Such a lovely dress - looks totally out of the '70s but that's half the charm!

    My own mother has a lovely wedding dress that I am not wearing. The neckline is great - it's a kind of scoop, but narrow around the neck, wider at the bust (like a cone or trumpet shape, but rounded). Fitted bodice. Long, draped skirt.

    The only problem with it is the sleeves. As a sleeveless dress it is gorgeous, but it's got these '70s chiffon poof sleeves (not bell sleeves, not fairy sleeves, but poof sleeves) with CUFFS and WIDE RUFFLE SHOULDERS and the sleeves in the dress above are gorgeous. The cuffed poof sleeves are not.

    It was clear from the beginning that I wouldn't wear it - I don't want a white dress at all (mine is red), and my mom was about 2 sizes smaller than me when she got married, plus she's about six inches shorter than I am. The size thing could have been dealt with - the height thing would have been hard to fix. Two inches - fine. Six?! No skirt can withstand that height difference.

    When she said "maybe your sister will wear it, if she wants a traditional wedding dress" (sis is more mom's height and build) I said "it'd be lovely, if the sleeves were taken off".

    Oops. "Nobody is taking the sleeves off my wedding dress! The sleeves stay!"

    OK mom. I'm not sure if my sis will ever want to wear it if she has to keep the sleeves though. :)

  3. @ Jenna- Yup, vintage charm is one thing. Cuffs and wide ruffle shoulders are another. ;)

    I was watching "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" (barf if you must, but I'm an all around sucker for reality tv). The mom had a dress very similar to Jen's that she had saved for her daughter to wear one day. When her daughter's wedding day came, the dress was revealed and the daughter laughed hysterically at it, causing the mom to break down in tears. Just goes to show how attached we are to our dresses. Red, short, slinky, cuffed/ wide ruffled shoulders or whatever - they carry a piece of our heart and history. It's quite a beautiful thing, in my opinion. :)

  4. When Brave Bride reader Jen read my submissions post she found the list of wedding-related topics that I'd love to pick someone' modest bridesmaid dresses


Babbling about weddings is so much more fun when people babble back. :)

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