Something old, something new. Wedding gowns can be lovelier the second time around
Groton, Conn. — ONE-HUNDRED-YEAR-OLD stains and ravaged laces don't scare Evelyn Siefert Kennedy. She's seen much worse. Like the 40-year-old ivory-satin wedding gown that had been cut up to make toy-soldier clothing. It was stained with rust, grease, mud, and mildew. ``The dress was actually in pieces,'' Mrs. Kennedy says. But, she adds, ``we knew we could salvage it.'' And it was well worth it to its owner. The gown is entirely handmade, and its ivory satin has a beautiful antique luster. With its elaborate hand beading, a Peter Pan collar, fitted bodice, dropped waistline, and cathedral train, the gown today would cost more than $1,000. The bride paid about $600 for the restoration - just to have it ready for when she gets married someday.
At any time, there are about four dozen antique gowns in various stages of repair at Sewtique, Kennedy's little shop in Groton, Conn. And some have stories to tell.
Kennedy picks up a silk gown that has darkened to an incandescent taupe and caresses its ruffled sleeves and rows of minuscule, hand-turned pleating. Originally worn with a hoop, the gown dates to 1867 and was worn by the bride of a Union Army Civil War chaplain. The dress was worn again by the chaplain's grandniece for her World War II marriage. Because it was badly stained, this gown posed a real restoration problem; yet Kennedy brought it back to sufficient health for use by yet another descendant, Joan Farrell Fuge of Rocky Hill, Conn., who was married last year.
Ms. Fuge was thrilled to be able to wear the gown at her wedding.
``It just made it so much more special,'' she says. ``Our family is very history-oriented and very family-oriented, and I enjoyed carrying on a tradition of my mother and my previous ancestors.''
BESIDES their sentimental value, the gowns of 30-plus years ago have handwork and natural fabrics that are virtually unknown today. Many modern wedding gowns have glued-on appliqu'es and pearls, and are made of synthetics. ``They literally are glued together,'' Kennedy says. ``And seams are never finished today, either. We take [modern] dresses to be cleaned, and they literally fall apart. They just disintegrate.''
As a professional restorer of heritage gowns, Kennedy is one of only a handful of experts in the country. While many seamstresses will alter a gown, the specialized knowledge that goes into a complete restoration such as Kennedy offers is quite rare.
``Services like that are available, but they're really scarce,'' says Kaethe Kliot, owner of a lacemaking company in Berkeley, Calif., called Lacis, which supplies antique laces to restorers of vintage garments. Ms. Kliot herself has restored vintage wedding gowns for the last eight years. Eloise Ramsden, who works out of her home in Marietta, Ga., restoring antique wedding gowns, says she has problems getting help. ``There just aren't that many people who know laces and who know how to do it.'' Though she has never advertised, Ms. Ramsden says she's always solidly booked.
THERE are other experts of a more conservationist bent who restore antique gowns - museums and universities, for example. But conservationists are adamantly opposed to the kind of restoration Kennedy and the others practice, saying it destroys the historic authenticity of the gown.
Kennedy admits this is true; but, she says, ``there's another school of thought that says, `Why stick them in a box where no one can enjoy them?'''
``The purpose of a museum is authenticity. We don't care about that,'' Mr. Webster says. ``We want to satisfy young brides who want to get down the aisle in their mother's or grandmother's wedding gown.''
Restoring antique wedding gowns is actually but a small part of Kennedy's business in textile preservations. She also handles vintage men's wedding clothes, linens and quilts, and other antique clothing.
Kennedy learned to sew at her mother's knee and has worked with vintage clothing since 1976. She also holds a master's degree in textiles, and has studied the history of costume.
But even with those credentials, she has had to do some experimenting to solve some of the unique problems of restoring antique gowns.
Like antique furniture, old satin, silk, and lace acquire a patina over time, dimming to soft hues of candlelight, coffee, gold, or pale yellow. Any new fabric that's added must be made to match these lovely and unique colors, so Kennedy concocted a ``dying'' process that blends up to five herbal teas. Only herbal teas offer such a variety of subtle colors, Kennedy explains.
Rose-hip tea, for example, can suffuse a white gown with a pinkish tone of the perfect subtlety. Pearls, sequins, and appliqu'es also change in color, and are difficult to match. In the past, many beads were made of glass and metal, and they may tarnish or discolor the fabric.
Stains in old, delicate fabrics must be very carefully removed so as not to damage the fabric. Kennedy hand-launders a gown by sections in cold water, soaking each section three times for half an hour at a time. She has a ``chemical basket'' of more than a dozen stain removers, including oxalic acid, sodium perborate, rust removers, and mildew removers. ``Mildew drives me crazy,'' Kennedy says.
Wrinkles also pose a problem. Silk when crushed in a box for a long time, as it is likely to be in someone's attic, has ``the most stubborn wrinkles,'' says Sewtique assistant manager Barbara Crooks, who coordinates the gown repair work. Sewtique uses a special pressurized iron on wrinkled silks.
AND what about the athletic bride of today who is more robust than her dainty grandmother? To accommodate a bride's larger arms, back, and waist, Kennedy must often enlarge a gown, which is a bit trickier than taking it in. She may steal fabric from a side or back seam, or add gussets in a matching fabric. A piece of lace may be taken from a ruffle that lies partly underneath another ruffle.
Many brides want new headpieces to give an antique gown a more contemporary look, or perhaps they want a new bodice, sleeves, or waistline, and Sewtique does those alterations, too.
The trickiest job is repairing crumbled and torn antique laces. ``If it's a lace dress, they can be almost frightening,'' Ms. Crooks says. Lace falls to pieces over time. Often, it can't be saved at all. To replace lace with a similar pattern, Crooks pores for hours through hundreds of pages in millinery books.
If lace repair is needed, it may increase repair costs considerably. Sewtique charges $30 an hour; the average cost of a restoration is $350 to $500, but one dress ran over $1,000. Many brides are surprised at how expensive it is; but, says Kennedy, ``it's all handwork.''
SINCE antique gowns were entirely handmade, working with them is very labor-intensive. ``We may spend four hours ripping out one side seam,'' Kennedy says. The work can take several months.
Despite the costs of restoration, many brides are thrilled when they discover a gown can be saved. A bride may have trotted out her grandmother's wedding gown from the attic for periodic tryings-on since she was a little girl, hoping against hope she could wear it at her own wedding.
``They come in thinking it's impossible,'' Crooks says. They find out otherwise.