Advice for Making a Vintage Wedding Dress: It's All in the Details

Posted by on Jan 06, 2018

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“A woman’s wedding dress is the one piece of clothing that she will probably have the most emotional attachment to,” explains Claire Reed, co-author of the new book “Making Vintage Wedding Dresses.” Her co-author Ciara Phipps grew up the daughter of dressmaker and remembers how every step of a bridal garment’s production, from the initial fitting to any alterations made for the reception, are woven into the emotions of the event. “The dressmaker becomes a confidante, counselor and dream-maker all rolled into one,” adds Reed, a Reed, a former professional seamstress, “and you feel an enormous sense of responsibility and care to make the bride feel happy and confident in what you are creating for her.” 

See an excerpt from the book: Caring for and Storing a Wedding Dress

Phipps and Reed are the curator of social history and conservator, respectively, at UK’s Southend Museum Service, and both have access to a wealth of well-preserved antique clothes. To research the book’s instructions, they were able to measure the seams and cuts as well as study the ornamentation of numerous iconic gowns. 

Given the authors’ studious background, “Making Vintage Wedding Dresses” is more than just a collection of patterns for dresses made between the 1920s and 1960s, the book also describes the social and historical context for these garments that captured cultural aspirations of their time. It’s an impressive resource for anyone who wants to sew a vintage wedding or learn about how their design has changed with every generation.  

We asked Phipps and Reed how their personal and professional experiences helped influence their views of wedding dresses and why they are often the most important piece of clothing for the wearer. 

What working as a seamstress and growing up as the daughter of a dressmaker teach you about the emotional importance as well as the crafting of wedding dresses? 

Ciara Phipps: My experience of the process, from the first meeting my mother would have with the client to the final photography on the wedding day, demonstrated that the stages of a bridal garments creation were just as embedded with emotion and excitement as the final garment. From the first meeting, the clients would be nervous about what the process would entail, while also being very emotional about the importance of this garment for them, and the importance of it being right. 

Claire Reed: Just as no person is the same, no dress is ever the same and the beauty of a bride either making her own dress — as I did for my own wedding — or employing a dressmaker, is that she will have the ability to create her dream dress whilst adding the personal touches; be it a particular type of button, or a piece of vintage lace, that will make the dress truly unique to her.  

What advice would you give someone who is interested in sewing a vintage-style wedding dress but is afraid it will be too complicated?

Claire: First, I would say “Don’t be afraid.” A beginner will know their limits and so it is best to stick to simple styling without the more complicated elements such as fancy collars, complicated sleeves or vastly layered skirts. I would always advise to research the style of dress you are looking to wear and make sure that it is a style that suits and essentially that you will feel comfortable wearing all day. It’s a good idea, once you have chosen a pattern, to practice by making a cotton toile "mock-up" of the more complicated elements of your chosen dress, for example the bodice and sleeves, as these will need to fit well. 

Take your time and really study the pattern and any instructions on making up before attempting to cut or sew the fabric as this time spent in preparation at the beginning, will be worth it in avoiding costly mistakes later. If there is a friend or family member that is a more competent seamstress, ask them to help. This could be a lovely project for a mother and daughter, siblings or friends and will create lasting bonds and memories. 

Many of the dresses in the book are technically less than perfect, but their perfection lies in the fact that they were individually crafted and unique to the brides that wore them. Make sure that you enjoy making your dress, choosing the fabric and adding the decorative elements that will make it truly your own.

1960s vintage style wedding dress
The book features iconic wedding dresses from the 1920’s to the ‘60s. Do you think the style of these dresses reflects notable things about the culture and fashion of each decade? 

Ciara: In the 1920’s, the dresses were looser and freer then they had ever been before, and the wedding dresses we include express exactly that. The flowing flapper dress with its dropped waist, and the pleated dress with beaded waistband, illustrate a Jazz age preoccupation with decorative embellishment, and the opportunity for women to redefine their figures and their sense of independence. 

In the 1930’s, this era saw a move towards the sleek, figure hugging simplicity of column bias cut gowns that relied on fabric to tell the story. The gowns’ soft and silky fabrics highlight the move towards figure accentuating floor length dresses, designed to highlight the natural curves of a woman, with minimal decoration. 

In the ‘40s, the wedding dresses were reminiscent of the shape of the previous decade given the need to reply on hand me downs and second-hand garments. However, the shoulders became more structured, adding a more overtly architectural feel to the garments. The utility gown we included is very simple in its appearance, relying on small and elegant features to express a sense of understated wartime glamour. The 

1950s era was associated with nipped-in waists, corseted hourglass figures, and for more daring women, ballerina-length cocktail dresses. The ballerina length pink dress we have displays this cocktail style length, and the structured nipped in waist. The full-length ball gown dress utilizes the hourglass shape and balances the skirt length with elegant long sleeves, another common feature of wedding wear in this decade. 

The ‘60s saw a move towards thick and lustrous fabrics given the explosion of synthetic fibers just prior. The column dress with an elaborately long lace train and long sleeves, demonstrates this use of different fabrics, and the simplicity of the shift shape that was popular. The thick and heavy fabric of one of the 60s gowns included in the book, along with the high neckline, demonstrates a move toward more conservative traditional wedding gowns, reminiscent of the respectful clothing choices Jackie Kennedy opted for.

How did you create the patterns without damaging the original dresses?

Claire: I spent a lot of time simply studying the dresses and taking in every element of how they were constructed, from the general shaping, to the secondary details of pleating, darts and tucks and then the finer finishing details, such as closures and decoration. Once I was satisfied that I really understood the garment, the next process was to take copious amounts of measurements. You can never have too many measurements and these were written on plain paper against a basic sketch, annotated with any noteworthy details and information on construction before the pattern was scaled down onto graph paper. 

The more complicated elements, such as the pleated sleeve on the 1930’s pleated front dress or the bodice of the 1940’s knot fronted dress, required a little more intervention and I would lay a soft, silk fabric over the garment and take a direct pattern that way. I couldn’t pin directly into the dress and so would have to take a lot of care in folding, pleating and pinning the silk fabric as best I could, then use a pencil to mark seam lines onto the silk. This direct pattern would then be double-checked using measurements. I suppose you could say that it was a combination of knowledge and experience, with painstaking measuring and a permissible hint of artistic license.

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