Six months before my wedding day, pawing through racks and racks of white dresses, one thing became perfectly clear: I would never find anything to match my mother's 1956 silk wedding dress.
Its simple lines and understated detailing were nowhere to be found in the 1990s. Instead, there were beads, sequins and enough tulle to tie up an altar-full of brides. Maybe a 20-year-old bride liked this look, but not this 30-year-old.
I have loved my mother's dress since I was a little girl. With its snug bodice and ball gown-styled skirt, it was immortalized in a black-and-white picture of my just-wed parents coming down the aisle.
I had always planned to wear the dress. But it wasn't cleaned after the wedding and had been hanging in a damp Chicago basement for more than three decades. Besides the musty smell and stains, there was one other slight problem: the form-fitting 1950s bodice was way too snug for my 1990s frame. Spread your thumb and index finger as far apart as they will go and you'll get a rough idea of how close I came to fastening the buttons on the back of the dress.
In short, it was a mess and didn't fit. Despite those obvious roadblocks, I decided to take my chances restoring the dress.
Restoring an old dress may seem like more trouble than it's worth. After all, finding a good restorer can be difficult, and restoring a dress can be risky and expensive. But if you love a particular gown, whether it's from last season's sample sale or from the 19th century, be assured that it is possible to bring it back to life--with the help of the right restorer.
In my case, the first few restorers I took the dress to told me it was in such bad repair that it would never hold up to a cleaning. I was just about resigned to wearing a dress with beads and bows when my mother recalled reading about Schwartzhoff Cleaners Inc., a restorer in Evanston, Ill., which had some sort of cleaning process that removed stains and brought old dresses back to their original color. I was skeptical.
From its anonymous brick facade, Schwartzhoff Cleaners looked like any other dry cleaner. In fact, the only hint of anything wedding-related was a stack of outdated bridal magazines on a table by the door.
When my mother and I laid the musty dress on the counter, the manager immediately determined that some of the stains on the dress were from sugar. What other restorers had described as fatal flaws turned out to be typical of the kinds of problems that end up with Schwartzhoff, where the gowns are renewed with a chemical-dipping process called Web-Re-Stor.
The manager told us that sugar stains tend to eat away at fabric if they are not cleaned quickly. As a result, he said, the cleaning process used can tear the material.
Schwartzhoff's is one of more than 100 licensees of the Web-Re-Stor process around the world. A 40-year-old gown like my mother's was nothing new to these folks, some of whom have restored gowns dating back to the 1800s. (For the number of the Web-Re-Stor member near you, call (800) 950-6482.)
For $350, my dress was repeatedly dipped in a secret mix of chemicals and water. The entire process takes several weeks.
While the dress soaked, I spent hours pirouetting on bridal platforms at different salons as clerks critiqued various dresses on me. Not surprisingly, they insisted that several dresses were perfect. I held out hope that the chemical bath would bring my mother's dress back to life.
The day the dress was finished, it was presented to me with all the grandeur of a starched shirt. Plopped on the counter, it looked soft white, the color my mother remembered. But there were problems. The once-tight pleats on the short sleeves were not pinpoint, and the lining had not retained its stiffness. The stains were gone, but some of the fabric had not held up well, including in the two noticeable spots on the front. I still liked the lines of the dress better than anything I had seen, but I was disappointed with the overall look of the dress.
Besides those problems, the dress remained several sizes too snug. But then my wedding angel appeared in the form of seamstress Pearl Wood, who told me that the flaws, including the fit, were not a big deal. With a few minor changes, she said, the dress would be a glamorous ball gown again.
She suggested sewing lace on the hem and body of the skirt. Doing so would not only hide the torn fabric, she said, but also lend an air of distinction to the dress, making it mine and not only my mother's.
Wood measured how much material she would need to take from the skirt to let out the bodice. She then planned to add the lace appliques to cover the torn material in the skirt, bodice and at the hem.
My mother hunted down a hoop to make the skirt as voluminous as possible and finally found one that rivaled Little Bo Peep's. The gown's former glory was beginning to emerge.
At the next fitting, the bodice had been "released" to fit my big-boned frame. The lace appliques were also pinned in place. I felt more like a bridal goddess in the small Schwartzhoff office than I had in any of the bridal salons around town.
When my mother and I finally picked up the dress the week before the wedding, both of us were amazed. The material was soft but ironed to look crisp, and the lace was breathtaking.
The restoration hadn't been cheap. The silk dress my mother had paid $135 for in 1956 was restored in 1995 for more than $1,200. There was a charge for every fitting. Each bit of lace added to the bill. But for me, it was worth it.
On my wedding day, the dress moved the way I always imagined it had on my mother. And as my parents walked me down the aisle, my mother was as proud and as moved by this tribute to her taste as I was. It was a one-of-a-kind dress that I hope someday will be worn again.