Whether you've always dreamed of wearing your grandmother's wedding dress or only recently stumbled across a beautiful antique gown at your favorite vintage shop, making sure an old dress looks like a modern masterpiece on your big day requires a creative design eye, plenty of research, and—most importantly—a tailor you trust. "The great thing about finding a tailor you feel comfortable with is that person being able to expand on what's possible," says Sara Rothan, a former Carolina Herrera alterations manager who specializes in bridal alterations and redesigns. "If you don't know about construction or redesign, then you don't know what's possible, and I honestly think if more people knew the breadth of possibilities in using an heirloom dress, more people would do it."
Step One: Clean and Check
Since many vintage wedding dresses weren't preserved properly—Rothan has had brides come to her with gowns that had been stored in garbage bags in the attic—it's important to start with a thorough check of the fabric. "The first thing you want to look for is discoloration and stains," says Rothan. "Is the color what you want it to be, or can you get it looking a little fresher? People don't want to walk down the aisle looking like the dress has aged as much as it sometimes has." If you do find discoloration, letting the dress soak in cold water and Woolite, and laying it flat to dry can help brighten it up; however, Rothan cautions, since you're supposed to remove anything metal that could rust during soaking—including zippers—taking the dress to an expert wedding dress cleaner is often an easier option. "If you're not completely comfortable, there's no need to do it yourself," she says. "Gambling with an heirloom is a little bit scary!"
Step Two: Have a Vision
If you're thinking about redesigning your vintage wedding dress, Rothan recommends preparing for design meetings by bringing photos of modern pieces you love. It's also a good idea to schedule appointments at bridal salons to try on different silhouettes before you commit to a design. "I encourage all my brides to try on dresses, even if you're 100 percent sure you're going to do a redesign on an heirloom piece," she says. "I've had so many brides say, 'I never thought I would wear this, but the salesperson made me try it on and now it's my everything.' There's real value in that." Even if you do still decide to go the heirloom route, bringing photos of wedding dresses you love to a design meeting lets you take your favorite parts of each—a neckline, a sleeve, embroidery, a skirt—and combine them into a gown that suits you perfectly. "Have a vision for what you feel comfortable in and what looks good on you, and have photos, so when you meet with someone they'll be able to tell you immediately what's possible."
Step Three: Be Flexible
Most vintage gowns can be altered in a variety of ways—especially if budget isn't an issue—though some styles require more transformation than others. "If the dress is a '70s slip, long and flowing, and you want to turn it into a strapless dress, then you need a whole foundation, a whole corset built," says Rothan. Adding length can also present a challenge, as can replacing appliqué or working with a gown that has no embellishments—"The cleaner the dress is, the more perfect it has to be," says Rothan—but that doesn't mean it's impossible. Still, if you can't make your dream dress from a sentimental gown, you can often incorporate parts of it into your wedding-day look: Rothan has one bride who plans to wear just the skirt of her grandmother's gown, and others who create lace jackets or veils from passed-down pieces.
Step Four: Choose the Right Tailor
Finding the perfect tailor to alter your wedding dress is the most important part of the process, according to Rothan. "If I gave the same dress to five different tailors to redesign, you'd come out with five different dresses," she says, which means it's essential to choose someone who appreciates your vision, is willing to take the time and care required for heirloom gown redesigns, and won't brush off your concerns. "I can't emphasize enough finding somebody who is really hearing you," says Rothan. Whether it's a gaping bust, a zipper that won't lay flat, or a corset that's too tight, your tailor should willingly tweak your wedding dress until all your worries are calmed. "The response should always be, 'Yes, that's being addressed, you'll see a difference in the next fitting,'" says Rothan. Ask to see photos of finished work and speak to other brides who've had their gowns altered by the tailors you interview—and then follow your heart. "The best advice I have," says Rothan, "is to rely on the connection that you feel you have with the person when you're talking with them."