I Found The Gown

vows8.jpgSeveral years ago I was in New Jersey for the wedding of one of my dearest friends. The day before the wedding, a hurricane hit the Eastern corridor and so our 5-hour journey took us nearly 11 hours. When we finally reached our hotel, we found the largest bed I have ever seen and a welcome box from our wonderful hosts filled with personalized cookies. After hours in the car, it was such a relief to put on a dressing gown and relax.

While channel hoping, I landed on TLC and saw a wedding show was on. Usually I skip over Say Yes to the Dress but I noticed that this show had a different name—I  Found the Gown —and kept watching. Within minutes I was hooked. While Say Yes to the Dress featured expensive gowns in the gleaming decadence of Kleinfeld’s New York boutique, I Found the Gown took place at Vows salon in Massachusetts and showcased bargain designer wedding dresses. And so together with my then-boyfriend, I sat on the giant bed, eating cookies in the shape of New Jersey state, and watched episodes of I Found the Gown till I fell asleep.

Being, frankly, quite cheap by nature, I was overjoyed to consider the possibility of one day getting a bargain when purchasing a wedding dress. Not only did I witness the wedding of one of my favorite couples that weekend, but I knew where my first stop would be when I got engaged. And so, two years later when my then-boyfriend became my husband, it was time to call Vows. Vows1Reviews of the store described the experience at Vows as rushed and harried. However, as someone who previously sat on dirty floors at both Michaels and Target in order to reach bottom shelf bargains, this did not phase me—if anything it made the challenge all the more exciting. With my Mum in tow, we headed to Watertown ready to use elbows if necessary to get a dress. On arrival however, Vows could not have been more serene. We parked in the “engaged” parking spots and went into the store where our assistant met us.vows6While Vows is an authorized retailer for a handful of designers whose gowns can be custom ordered, the real attraction of the store is the sample sale designer gowns. As they are samples, there is often just one of each gown in the store and the inventory changes often. Each gown in stored in a clear garment bag and the shop is arranged by style–mermaids to the left, ball gowns to the right, etc. You are given time to peruse the floor and select the gowns you think you might like to try on. However, with all the dresses are stored in garment bags it can be hard to really tell what a dress is like. On two occasions dresses sprang out like jack-in-the-boxes when I unzipped the bag, revealing far more bling and poof than I was looking for.vows3Bit-by-bit we narrowed our options down, and I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to dress up and try different styles. There were only two other brides in the store, and we stayed much longer than the allotted one-hour appointment time. I imagine the weekend appointments are likely more crowded, but our Thursday morning appointment was bliss.  vows7I came to the store looking for a ball gown with short sleeves, so how I came to leave with a strapless trumpet style remains one of the great magical mysteries of the bridal salon. While looking for dresses, the ruching on a Romona Keveza gown had caught my eye, and so I added it to my sleeved selections. As I took it out of the bag the beautiful French silk tulle puffed out, and I felt a little rush of excitement. There was no bling just acres of delicate tulle and English net. When I put the dress on, I knew it was a contender. As I walked out into the viewing area and saw my Mum’s face I understood this was something special. With a veil on, I let out the audible gasp I had heard so many times on bridal shows. This was my gown.

vows5 copyAfter several moments parading up and down, taking photos and staring into the mirror, we had to decide what to do. With only one dress in the store, I did not want to let it go, yet I have never been one for quick decisions. We opted to put a deposit down to hold the gown for 5 days. During that time I went to another salon and tried on the sleeved ball gown I had originally been interested in, and by sending photos to my friends and family crowd sourced opinion on the gown. Romona got the most votes. Five days later, Vows kindly let me come in and try the gown with heels. It was still my gown.

And so I found a gown that was $400 under my budget and $3000 less than it originally retailed for. It was the first step in my wedding bargain hunting, and I cannot think of a better gown or place for me. The staff at Vows were incredibly helpful, and I went on to order my bridesmaids dresses with them too. There is a further discount if you order both wedding dress and bridesmaids gown at the store.VowsCome January when it was time to begin dress alterations, I finally collected my gown and went to see Anahit, the seamstress Vows recommended. The world of the seamstress is a timeless, female-dominated empire. In an age of mechanization, it is one of the few arenas in which handcraft remains king. It is a world I would have been entirely unaware if if not for the wedding dress. I felt privileged to have entered it, if only for a few brief hours.

Like the business it houses, the unassuming storefront seems to belie age. Faux ferns adorn the entranceway, and aging plastic wedding bouquets with faded glittered petals sit in delicate gold vases on the store counter. There is no website or email, no credit cards are accepted, and all bills are calculated by hand on carbon paper. The rows of thank you cards showing pictures of smiling brides are the only nod to the contemporary world outside.vows4For my first fitting, my husband helped to carry the garment bag into the store and was almost instantly sent away. An assistant whisked the dress out of my hands, and directed me to remove my shoes and stand on the towel in front of me. Walking along a carpet of white towels, I moved to the seating area and watched as Anahit pinned and repositioned the lace applique onto another bride’s intricate gown. Like many Vows customers, the bride had purchased a dress, which was too big for her. Anahit had altered it to her size and now begun the painstaking work of reapplying lace details along the seams. As the seamstress worked her magic, kneeling on the floor with a mouth full of pins, the bride offered frequent suggestions as to other alterations she felt could be done to the back of the gown. With my limited knowledge of sewing, I could see that her suggestions were impossible. The seamstress’ task, I suspect, is not always an easy one.

When it came time for my fitting, Anahit welcomed me with enthusiastic greetings and congratulations in her lilting Eastern European prose. She ohhed and ahhed as I took my dress out of the bag, and knew it was a Romona Keveza straight away. “Honey,” she said as I put on my gown, “you have the butt my previous bride wishes she had.” And instantly I loved her.

During our next three fittings Anahit continued to call me Honey. Despite the thousands of dresses she has altered she still delighted in beautiful gowns and exquisite fabrics. She seemed genuinely excited to be working on my gown and confided that she was glad to work with tulle as the royal wedding created a surge in lace. Together we designed a removable shawl to add to the top of the dress. As she put it, “we will add Oscar De La Renta to this Romona Keveza.” When it came time to cut the dress she said a wedding blessing as her scissors snipped away at the tulle. On more than one occasion she grabbed my phone and took pictures of my dress, with instructions that I must send the photos to my mother. At the final appointment, Anahit made the previous bride wait to see me in my finished gown. She was, quite simply, a supremely talented, reassuring eccentric.Tessa and Aaron's wedding at St Nicholas; Church, Pyrford and Ham Polo ClubOn the day of my wedding I accessorized my Romona Keveza dress with the tiara my Mum wore when she married my father, as well as pearls given to me by my Mum and aunt. I wanted a ball gown for a classic look, but I found it in a strapless trumpet gown of English net and French tulle. My husband cried as I walked down the aisle, and when we got outside he said the dress was Jackie Kennedy and Grace Kelly all in one, making my every dress dream come true.

In a blush pink gown, that bride from New Jersey three years ago now looked exquisite as one of my bridesmaids, unaware of what an important role her personalized wedding cookies played in my dress selection. Because of her, I found the gown.vows2

The Dress

phdpfwedding4Last month I thought I might drown in tulle. Having got engaged the month before, we were now preparing for our civil ceremony in Boston. I had a very clear idea of what I wanted my dress to be like, and as my vision was unavailable in stores I took it upon myself to make my wedding dress. For the duration of late June our apartment looked somewhat akin to Miss Havisham’s dining room, but instead spider webs, blush tulle draped every surface. Crossing the floor became a dangerous assault course of pin-dodging, and I even pulled tulle remnants out of the bathroom drain.

The project took 3 seasons of Madmen to complete. Whole days were lost to hemming and the high temperatures outside meant that I kept the curtains closed to try and keep the apartment cool. And there, alone in the darkened room, I sewed and cut, and pinned and unpicked, and wondered if I was in fact in danger of becoming Miss Havisham.

Thankfully, these fears were unwarranted: opening the curtains and vacuuming quickly removed all traces of the Dickensian spinster, and instead a happy bride with a fabulously fifties-inspired outfit emerged from the piles of tulle, thread, and pattern paper.

For the skirt I used Simplicity 1427 View C. I have never made a skirt before and this one was an ambitious start as it calls for nearly 14 yards of gathered tulle. The reviews I read online were not generally very complimentary about the pattern design and instructions, and it is certainly a complicated and time-consuming procedure. I actually think the design is rather clever as the skirt waistband is constructed of two separate yolk pieces each with approximately 7 yards of gathered tulle to ensure that there is not too much bulk around the waistline.phdpfwedding6

The tulle is sewn onto a circular underskirt requiring nearly 5 yards of fabric. The woman at the fabric store balked when I told her it was all for a skirt, and I should have responded to her hesitancy. After sewing 5 yards of rolled hem, (a process that took nearly 4 episodes of Madmen) I constructed the skirt and tried it on. You could easily have fitted 3 of me in the skirt. Foolishly I persevered, telling myself that once the elastic was added this three-person skirt would shrink to my size. However, elastic does not have magical powers. I tried on the skirt complete with the first seven yards of tulle and was horrified. There was extra fabric everywhere and it was clear that that my hips did not need another 7 yards of padding, as they already had quite enough.

After a rather tense day of wondering how I would ever get this skirt to work, I realized deconstruction was the key. I carefully unpicked all the tulle from the skirt so that I could attack the underskirt with scissors. I removed about 2 yards of the underskirt and felt a stab of pain as I cut apart my carefully rolled hem. I also abandoned the duel-yoke construction and opted instead for a mere 7 yards of tulle on my skirt. To those of you brave enough to tackle this skirt yourself, I would suggest ignoring the underskirt pattern and instead constructing a circular skirt based on your actual waist measurements- no one needs 5 yards of fabric on an underskirt.

With nearly half the underskirt removed, I once again sewed the tulle to the skirt and added the elastic to the waistband. With bated breath I looked in the mirror and felt much relief to see that I no longer looked liked the Michelin Man, and instead had achieved the Fifties silhouette I was seeking.

For the top I chose to make the bodice of one of my favorite dresses to make, the Emery Dress by Christine Haynes. As I have made this dress several times I knew it would fit, however, I had to add a couple of inches to the bodice so that I could tuck into the skirt. I also chose to shorten the sleeves by several inches to make cap sleeves. For the top I used Michael Miller’s Confetti Border in Confection, which is from the Glitz collection. Michael Miller is a dream to sew with, and every time I use his fabric I swear I will never sew with cheap cotton again. To accommodate the print, I had to cut on the cross grain even though the Emery pattern is supposed to be on the grain. It did not seem to effect the fit too much, it was just a smidgen tighter than if cut on the grain.

The Emery dress has an invisible zipper and I included this in my bodice. As invisible zippers are joined together at the bottom this did mean that the top had to go on over my head. I plan to add a skirt to this Emery bodice after the wedding so that I can continue to wear it.

phdpfwedding5For the dress sash, I went to M&J Trimmings in NYC. The store is a mecca of ribbon with floor to ceiling ribbon displays in every color and texture imaginable. I could happily have stayed there for hours. Exercising some restraint, I purchased three yards of blush and gold ribbon. I wore the gold during the day and the blush sash when we went for dinner the night of our wedding.

phdpfwedding1Unlike the hapless Miss Havisham, I was not left alone on my wedding day. Instead my groom cried when he first saw me in my dress. My sister sent me a beautiful gold and blush tote bag from England, and my husband bought me a blush Kate Spade handbag as a wedding gift, so I was well accessorized. The dress was a big undertaking, but when a little girl in our hotel ran towards her Mum and told her she had seen a princess, every pinprick was worth it. For one day, I was Jackie O, and Belle, and every cover girl of Life magazine rolled into one, and I absolutely loved it.phdpfwedding3