Tips for Wearing a Vintage Wedding Gown

When it comes to the wedding gown, sometimes tradition trumps topical.

Peter Tonguette
Morgan Taylor surprised everyone by changing into her mother’s vintage wedding gown for her wedding ceremony with Seth Miller.

Nanette Taylor couldn’t believe her eyes. 

Standing before her was her daughter, Morgan Taylor, on her wedding day, wearing Nanette’s own wedding gown that was purchased at some point during, well, the Reagan administration. 

For her own wedding last July to Seth Miller, Morgan chose to wear (and ever-so-slightly alter) the gown worn by Nanette for her 1986 wedding to Morgan’s father, William Taylor—and not tell anyone about it. 

Before the big reveal, Nanette was chatting with Morgan’s bridesmaids about her wedding way back when. 

Nannette Taylor reacts to seeing her daughter in her own vintage wedding gown.

“She was just telling really fun stories about her hair and all of that,” remembers Morgan. “I walked in, and she screamed, and then she immediately started crying. It’s so, so, so sweet.” 

Nanette asked her daughter whether she really wanted to wear this hand-me-down gown. That one was easy to answer: “I was like, ‘Yes, of course,’” Morgan says. 

She is among numerous Central Ohio brides who have chosen to make fresh use of gowns that have been passed down through the generations.  

Morgan Taylor, in her reception gown, with husband Seth Miller.

In the case of the Taylor family’s gown, Morgan had already purchased a new dress from La Jeune Mariee when her mother suggested she cut a piece from her own immaculately preserved gown or otherwise modify it for a reception or other event. When Morgan tried it on, though, she knew she had to wear it for the wedding itself. 

“It’s off-the-shoulder, totally ruffle-y—it’s totally ’80s,” Morgan says. “I tried on the dress, and I loved it as is. … I was like, ‘I really don’t want to touch it.’ But I kind of let her believe that, ‘Oh yeah, I think I’ll make a top and maybe a pants out of it, wear it for the rehearsal dinner or something.’” 

Instead, Morgan had her mom’s dress taken in slightly—“I’m 5’7”, and she’s 5’10,” and we were the same size,” Morgan says—and wore it at the wedding; she saved her new dress, sleeker and simpler than her mom’s, for the reception. 

“I loved the idea of being able to wear something really clean for photos and my reception, but then something really over-the-top, really fun, for our ceremony,” Morgan says. 

Mary Wright in her family’s heirloom wedding gown, with her mother.

The history of the gown worn by Mary (Miehls) Wright is even lengthier. 

Mary—who has been legally married to her husband, William Wright, for six years but only found time to have a ceremony and reception last September—grew up with an awareness of the gown worn by her mother, Wendy (Semans) Miehls, for her wedding in 1983, and her maternal grandmother, Mary Jane (Quayle) Semans, for her wedding in 1950. Its lineage may go back even further. 

“We’re not sure if my great-grandmother would have worn it,” Mary says. “But we’re thinking, at the very least, that she would have purchased it for my grandmother.” 

Whenever Mary contemplated her own long-deferred wedding, she knew she wanted to wear the gown but didn’t think it was a realistic possibility.  

“Honestly, I would have always considered it,” Mary says. “But I was never as thin as my mom. My mom and my grandmother were very, very tiny and petite. I didn’t even think that it would fit me at all.” 

Then came a time of challenge that turned out to have a silver lining. 

“When my third daughter was born, I literally lost so much weight because I was very, very sick with the pregnancy,” Mary says. “I was able to fit into the dress [after], and it was like such a dream come true.” 

The dress has a long train, as well as a bodice made of Chantilly lace and silk. 

“It reminds me a lot of the royal wedding gowns,” she says. 

Because the gown was well-preserved, just a bit of work was needed to make it wearable again. 

“We had it altered a little bit to reinforce some of the sides and the sleeves, because the sleeves were the most thin and delicate,” says Mary. She adds that testing on the gown by a preservationist at Dublin Cleaners revealed that the gown was old enough to have been worn prior to her grandmother. 

Mary Wright in her reception gown, with husband William Wright.

Although there was some aging evident in portions of the fabric, the dress itself was already a creamy ivory color. 

“It looked just like the [vintage] photos,” Mary says. 

In part to preserve the gown, Mary wore a new dress, purchased from La Jeune Mariee, for the reception.  

Her eldest daughter, who is 13, was able to fully appreciate her parents’ wedding—and has some ideas about what she might wear one day. 

“My eldest is like, ‘I want to wear that, too,’” Mary says. “So I’m hoping that she’ll be able to wear it.”  

Get the Look  

Let’s say you already have a vintage or heirloom wedding gown. What next? 

If a gown shows signs of yellowing, it’s imperative to restore the garment before making alterations, says Margaret Butler, co-owner of and wedding preservation specialist at Dublin Cleaners.  

After the gown has been restored to its former luster, alterations can take place.  

Preserved or restored gowns from the 1940s through ’60s can be safely worn down the aisle, but may not hold up over a night of activity. “[They’re] not a good choice when everybody is hugging you and you’re dancing,” says Butler, who suggests buying a new gown for receptions and similar events, like showers and rehearsal dinners. “The lace on some of those really older gowns is very, very fragile.”  

Even if your gown is new, be sure to have it professionally cleaned after the wedding to remove visible dirt as well as invisible culprits, such as perspiration and any remnants of perfume or Champagne. “When it goes into a preservation chest, it’s nicely folded and displayed,” Butler says. “What preserves it is [the fact that] it’s in an archival-quality, museum-quality material.” Gowns should never be stored in an attic, crawl space or basement, she adds. 

That way, even a new gown can turn into an heirloom in the years to come. 

“It’s a suggestion for future brides,” Butler says. 

A version of this story first appeared in the spring/summer 2023 issue of Columbus Weddings, published in January 2023.