Hand-Me-Down Wedding Dresses: Tips & Tricks to Make the Dress Work for You

Published by Claire Gould on

A guest article by our friends at Truly Experiences. Header image from our archives by Jo Bradbury Photography

Wearing a dress for your wedding that has been in your family for generations can be a great experience. Donning the dress worn by your mother or grandmother can make your big day extra meaningful and bring you closer to your roots.

Sometimes brides wear hand-me-down dresses for other reasons, such as sustainability or a tight budget, and in these situations the following tips and tricks are just as useful. Preparing for a wedding is a huge undertaking for the bride and groom and choosing your dress is often one of the most important aspects.

Some brides aren’t keen to use a hand-me-down dress, but for those open to the idea, there are many ways of making it your own without destroying the existing style.

Big Wedding Dress Decisions

Before making any final decisions about your dress, it’s important to do some soul-searching and weigh up pros and cons.
Wearing an heirloom dress can make the day more meaningful, but that doesn’t mean you’re obliged to accept something you find unattractive. There is no point in going ahead with a hand-me-down dress if you simply do not like it.

1. Be Realistic – Do You Really Like It?

A dress that’s been passed down through a family comes with a lot of expectations. A mother who has dreamt of their daughter walking down the aisle in her old gown might not even realise the pressure the bride feels to live up to that hope.

Weddings are already fraught with stress, so it’s important to decide within yourself whether wearing a hand-me-down dress is truly what you want. If you’re doing it for someone else you’ll have to accept the fact that you may not feel totally happy with your outfit.

Photographer credit: Jo Bradbury Photography

2. Heirloom Dresses

Some hand-me-down dresses are more meaningful than others, in the sense that they have been passed down through multiple generations rather than belonging only to the mother of the bride. These are usually known as heirloom dresses (as opposed to hand-me-downs) and can be extremely old.
Styles can range from ornately decorated gowns in a range of colours, to dresses with sweetheart necklines or scoop necks.

3. Necessary Alterations

It’s highly likely that any hand-me-down dress will need a few alterations in terms of size and shape. It’s important that the original owner of the dress is open to such adjustments. If they aren’t, wearing the dress could easily become a major stressor rather than a meaningful action.

Hand-me-down Dress Basics: Tips And Tricks

1. Where To Start?

Hand-me-down and heirloom dresses by their very nature are old-fashioned. However, some characteristics of vintage wedding gowns are luckily timeless.

If there are elements of your hand-me-down dress that are decidedly not for you, getting some advice from a dressmaker is a good first step before throwing out the idea entirely. This of course also depends on the expectations of the dress’s original owner. If the assumption is that you’ll pass it on to your own daughter, making drastic alterations to the style might be frowned upon.

2. Size, Shape And Fit

You’d be incredibly lucky to land a hand-me-down dress that fits you perfectly. When it comes to the size of a dress, a professional dressmaker will be more than capable of adjusting seams and darts to make it the right fit for your body. Making a dress larger is more complicated than shrinking it, but is still achievable.

Some style elements of older dresses are making a comeback. From the flowing styles of the early 1900s to Princess Diana’s elaborate taffeta and lace gown, it is obvious even to the untrained eye that fashions have undergone a drastic alteration.

Fashion styles change constantly and a dress from 1961 could be entirely different to one made in 1968 or ’69. With the evolution of wedding dresses, the ideal fit has also changed, along with standard sizing categories.

The shape of a dress is just as important as its size. Although some vintage styles have made a comeback, the way they accentuate different parts of the body still feels out of date. The trend of mini dresses in the 1960s seems to be becoming popular once again, but many 2021 brides prefer more modern styles and shapes.

These days, backless gowns, off-the-shoulder sleeves and “maximalist” details are all the rage. Taking a look at styles through the years, it’s clear that many older dresses could easily be altered to reflect current trends – while retaining their vintage feel.

3. General Condition

If a hand-me-down dress has been well-preserved with the intention of being worn again, there should be no issues with the quality and condition of the material and needlework. Sometimes, however, a vintage or heirloom dress will not have been stored correctly.

Fortunately, cleaning a dress isn’t a complicated affair. Vintage gowns can become discoloured easily, but soaking the dress in cold or lukewarm water with detergent can help to restore its brightness.

4. Making the Dress Your Own

Getting married is a big thing, and finding the perfect dress for the occasion is very important for the vast majority of brides. What a “perfect” dress is depends entirely on individual taste. Some brides have a clear idea of the gown they’re looking for while others arrive at their final choice through a process of trial and error.

If you already know what you want, then work with someone like a dressmaker or seamstress to see how a hand-me-down dress can be altered to fit your preferences. Bodices can be tightened or loosened and sleeves can be adjusted to be either longer or shorter. Bouncing ideas off someone you consider stylish can help if you are less certain about your desired ensemble.

Something Old, Something New…

While mum’s wedding dress is a very special gift for any woman, your wedding will also be one of the most memorable events in your life, so don’t settle for a style that you don’t truly like.

Fortunately, it is always possible to adapt even the most old-fashioned gown to reflect your taste – tap into your inner dressmaker and enjoy the process.

Claire Gould

Claire spends her days writing - either in beautiful calligraphy or online. She lives on the edge of the English Lake District only minutes away from the beach, where she loves to escape and unwind. Claire's calligraphy can be found at www.byMoonandTide.com. Claire launched the English Wedding Blog in November 2009 - it's been a top 10 UK wedding blog ever since, with a regional focus we hope you LOVE.


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