Brides Are Turning To Second Hand And Vintage Wedding Dresses, And Here's How To Find The Dream Gown

·12-min read
Photo credit: Ashwell & Co, Brides Do Good
Photo credit: Ashwell & Co, Brides Do Good

Whether it's a book with curled pages and a previous owner's notes scribbled in its margins, or a car with 20,000 miles on the dial, most people wouldn't think twice about borrowing, renting, or buying pre-owned almost anything.

Often cheaper, always greener, and providing a little glimpse into history, we are more than accustomed to a rented holiday home, or hand-me-down ring, particularly in recent years when platforms like BorrowMyDoggy, Vestiaire and Airbnb have made it easier than ever to share.

But, opinion appears to be divided when it comes to second-hand wedding dresses. Our research shows that 48% of people would be open to wearing a pre-loved wedding dress, while 52% wouldn't (oh no, it's giving us Brexit flashbacks).

However, interest in opting for second-hand wedding dresses is increasing. Searches for wedding dresses are on the up on Vestiaire, a resale site specialising in pre-loved designer clothing and accessories, while fashion search platform Lyst has seen a marked increase in 'online searches for wedding dresses that include the words “vintage”, “second hand” or “pre-owned.”' Vinted also reported a 23% rise in second-hand wedding dress purchases since 2020.

So, for the 48% (and growing), here is a guide for where and how to rent or buy your second hand wedding dress (plus, how to get it altered), and for the 52%, let us try and sway you.

Why you should consider wearing a second-hand wedding dress

For the planet

Eco-friendly weddings, as predicted by Bernadette Chapman, founder of the UK Alliance of Wedding Planners (UKAWP), are one of the biggest wedding trends of the moment (and hopefully far into the future, too): 'Couples marrying now are very conscious of the damage we have done to the planet and they can actively ensure they are as environmentally friendly as they can be.'

And so it should be, seeing as the typical British nuptials create a whopping 18kg of single-use plastic waste, according to Sky Ocean Rescue's research, not to mention the food waste from catering (a reported 10% of wedding food ends up in the bin), the carbon footprint of guests' travel, and a wedding dress most likely never to be worn again.

Photo credit: Peter Cade - Getty Images
Photo credit: Peter Cade - Getty Images

While some wasteful elements are impossible to avoid (unless you want to un-invite those Australian cousins), giving a pre-owned dress another moment in the limelight is a great and green solution.

For your savings

Plus, there's the fiscal cost too. With the average British wedding costing a scary £17,300 - a number not to be sniffed at, particularly with the current cost of living crisis - your wallet may thank you for choosing a second hand dress.

Almost without fail, a pre-loved dress will set buyers back a lot less than a new counterpart: 'Prices are influenced of course by the designer and age of the gown, but are generally up to 70% off the original retail price, with prices ranging from £300 to £2,500, and designers including Pronovias, Elie Saab, Charlie Brear, Sassi Holford, Suzanne Neville and more,' Jen Palmer, Brides Do Good's Business and Commercial Director, told ELLE UK.

'Recently, we sold a gorgeous handmade Phillipa Lepley gown, which had an original price of £9,000, but sold by us for just over £2,000. The dress had never been worn and was flawless, but was in theory a ‘pre-loved’ dress.'

Vintage dresses (ones that are 20 or more years old) are also more often than not made with incredibly high quality material, and constructed to perfection, so much so that if they were made new today, they would set you back a whole lot more.

'The quality and the craftsmanship you find in vintage dresses (particularly pre-1960s) is extraordinary,' Ashwell & Co's owner Kate Ashwell told ELLE UK. '[For example], many of our dresses are made from British made lace that would cost thousands of pounds if made today. You get a lot of quality for your money when you choose vintage.'

For the story

There is also the individuality and emotional history that comes with second hand, pre-loved, and particularly vintage and antique wedding dresses.

Molly Whitehall, Director of WDW Entertainment, married in February 2020 in a breathtaking William Vintage silk gown from 1935, which she found after searching fruitlessly for her ideal gown in bridal shops.

'I tried on dresses I liked in bridal shops but none that I loved. I started to become surprised by the cost and aware of the sustainability factor, but ultimately my decision was based on it being the perfect dress for me.' Whitehall told ELLE UK.

'Luckily for me, my perfect dress was in [William Vintage's] brochure: as soon as I saw the picture I just knew. I arranged to go and try it on with my mum a few days later. As soon as I put it on I just knew, and finally felt so happy to have had that moment that everyone talks about. It fitted perfectly and I just loved it.

'I’m aware that mine is a real vintage love story, and it’s not always that easy and sometimes some more hunting is required, but it really is worth it,' she concluded.

Now, Whitehall is considering the journey of her magical dress after her, and contemplating renting or selling it on, so its story continues: 'I feel strongly that it needs to continue its life as a wedding dress.'

The sentimental pleasure of seeing a dress reborn in this way is only heightened when it belongs to a family member, something that is made possible by tailors such as Nanna Sandom of Splendid Stitches, who specialises in altering vintage and heirloom dresses.

'Being let into these families and trusted with a wedding dress which may now be worn by a third generation is a huge privilege and a responsibility I do not take lightly,' she says.

'It is a fine balance being respectful to the history of the dress yet making it something which reflects the bride-to-be and her tastes and preferences. More than once I have found myself becoming very close with both mother and bride-to-be during the fittings... and there are frequently tears of joy at the final fitting when all comes together.'

'This is probably my favourite part of my job – playing a discreet, but crucial role in the narrative of a wedding and following through the history of the female bloodline – as a feminist this means a lot to me.'

Whether it's the planet, savings account, or sentimentality that does it for you, second hand, pre-loved, and vintage wedding dresses are a fantastic option.

However, there are actual and perceived challenges when it comes to second, pre-loved, or vintage dresses, with first being: 'where to find them?'. Let us help you out...

Photo credit: Brides Do Good
Photo credit: Brides Do Good

How to buy or rent a second hand, pre-loved, or vintage wedding dress

Much like buying brand new bridalwear, a pre-loved item can be found through scouring the internet for a bargain, finding an artisanal piece, or opting for the luxe bridal experience.

Only you - looking at your own budget, being realistic with your expectations, and honest about your taste - will know which of the below is the right option for you.

Buy second hand wedding dresses online

At online marketplaces like eBay and Vestiaire, you have the opportunity to get the greatest steal and see the largest selection. Case in point: eBay UK currently hosts a colossal 11,000+ pre-loved wedding dresses. Some even sell for as little as £36, while we've also spotted a few coveted Vera Wang pre-loved wedding dresses selling for a much-reduced price of around £650.

But as all that choice can feel overwhelming, we asked Head of Preloved at eBay, Emma Grant, to give us her top tips for wedding dress sleuthing:

  1. Commit some time: You’ll need to have a good scroll before that one-of-a-kind gown catches your eye.

  2. Be specific with your search terms: Naming brands or eras that are associated with the style you’re looking to emulate will help you narrow down the search to the most relevant items.

  3. Be flexible with sizes: The fits and cuts of vintage and pre-owned wedding dresses can differ hugely from what we’re used to seeing on the high street or in boutiques, so don’t expect your usual size to fit you perfectly. Additionally, as its pre-loved, it might have also been altered to fit the previous owner, so always get in touch with the seller to check the specific measurements and compare them to measurements of your own body, using a measuring tape.

  4. The tailor is your friend: Shortening hem lines and streamlining waistlines are all possible, meaning you can achieve the perfect fit and modernise your vintage gown if you want. Most brides need to have their wedding dress altered upon purchase anyway, so don’t be daunted by the idea of having to get it altered to fit you.

  5. Consider its condition: While a few buttons or sequins missing shouldn’t put you off investing in a great quality, pre-owned wedding dress, more significant signs of wear and tear and damage require further thought. Don’t risk your money on items that are fraying, holed and stained – as chances are, trying to repair a gown and colour match will be trickier to get away with. And, if the dress hasn’t been professionally cleaned by the seller, consider getting this done yourself.

  6. Don’t be afraid to ask questions - Not sure how a particular dress will look on you? No need to panic. The beauty of shopping through a platform means you have a direct line to the seller where you can ask all the question under the sun – from an item's ‘real’ sizing to the best description of its colour, condition and material feel.

  7. If you like it, buy it: Vintage and pre-loved fashion can often be one-of-a-kind pieces. Don’t let it be the one that got away that keeps you up at night.

Similarly, you can rent former brides' dresses on peer-to-peer rental platforms like By Rotation, HURR and My Wardrobe HQ, where you can make the ultimate eco statement and penny-pinching move by not buying your dress at all, and simply borrowing it for the day.

Photo credit: Retold Brides
Photo credit: Retold Brides

Buy second hand wedding dresses in-store

For some, the bridal boutique experience is a crucial part of 'big day' planning, and something that no cut-price dress can make up for missing out on.

Thankfully, for those people, there are curated boutiques out there, giving you the opportunity to try on and show off your potential dress.

'When considering a pre-loved wedding dress, remember that the term doesn’t necessarily mean you will be sacrificing on style or quality. There are lots of boutiques like Brides do Good that specialise in pre-loved gowns, and with staff who will handpick only the best pieces to offer,' Palmer told ELLE UK.

'By visiting a boutique like ours, you can have the same bridal experience that you would have elsewhere, with all the bubbles to enjoy and designer brands to pick from.'

Photo credit: Ashwell & Co
Photo credit: Ashwell & Co

Though, simply because you are buying in-store, doesn't mean you should blindly purchase, no questions asked: 'Regardless of where you buy from, make sure you ask where the dress has come from – reputable boutiques will be able to tell you the provenance of the gown – and check it over carefully for any imperfections before you purchase.'

'Samples and pre-loved dresses may have some wear and tear, and it’s important you’re completely happy with your choice as most boutiques do not accept refunds,' Palmer sagely warned.

Below, we have created a select list of some of the best places to start looking for your second hand wedding dress (or outfit), whether you want bubbles and try-ons with your friends and family, or fancy bargain hunting for your hidden treasure.

Wedding dress alterations

Whether purchasing new or not, getting your wedding outfit altered to fit your taste and figure flawlessly is a must. A perfectly-tailored item of clothing will not only make it look more expensive, but you'll be more comfortable in it, though you should be wary of who you let tinker with your gown.

Tailors working in-house with your pre-loved bridal boutique is a rare, but useful option.

The previously mentioned Ashwell & Co in Bristol gladly offers this service: 'Alterations are my favourite part of the process,' owner Ashwell told ELLE UK.

'First of all, it's a collaborative endeavour and it's great to see a bride's vision come to life. Secondly, it's the part of the process that takes the dress from being "something old" to being "something new".'

'Aside from re-sizing the dresses, we can also make other adaptations and alterations too. For example backless gowns have been popular in contemporary wedding dress design recently... We can also open out necklines, change sleeves, shorten dresses and so on.'

If, however, your boutique doesn't offer this, you're buying from an online marketplace, or you're hoping a family heirloom can be rejuvenated, then a speciality tailor such as Sandom from Splendid Stitches is undoubtedly your best course of action.

Sandom takes brides through a three or four fittings journey, that will see not only their dress transform, but in Sandom's eyes, the bride too: 'The biggest transformation is a well-fitted and comfortable wedding dress and what that does for a bride’s posture and confidence; a well-fitted dress makes you stand taller, accentuates your good bits and tones down anything you may be less happy about.

'I am all about body confidence and seeing the woman in the dress rather than having the dress wear the woman, and during the fitting process it is my job to get the dress to show the woman the best it can.'

And that's what finding a wedding dress is truly about: finding an outfit to enhance and reflect the person wearing it, no matter if it's fresh-from-the-rail new, or something with a little more of a story.

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