Newly engaged and taking her time finding a gown, cosmetologist Gigi Nugent had no intention of buying a vintage dress to wear at her wedding.
Last December she walked past LuLu's at the Belle Kay, a high-end Chicago vintage apparel shop. She stopped in her tracks; she was entranced by the fashions in the window: big pouffy 1950s dresses with tulle and glittering rhinestone handbags unlike anything she might find at Kate Spade or Louis Vuitton.
Ms. Nugent knew instantly she had to wear one of this store's dresses for her yet-to-be-scheduled wedding. She ended up buying a 1950s pale-gold chiffon dress over a taffeta slip, much like the one Marilyn Monroe wore in "Some Like It Hot."
She didn't stop there, though: She paired the dress with a cream brocade coat from the same era, a Walborg beaded handbag, vintage Jack Rogers slingbacks, and a Vendome necklace and earrings.
There are other brides-to-be like Nugent who are seeking out old wedding dresses to make their special day stand out. They, too, want the detail and the tailoring that are hard to find in a contemporary gown, unless they're willing to spend thousands on a one-of-a-kind Vera Wang.
Many vintage gowns, dating back to the early 1900s, cost from $100 to $1,200. But designer outfits or those crafted from handmade Irish crochet lace can fetch thousands.
For brides who can afford it, cost isn't as important as having something that fulfills their dreams.
A wedding is "such a special event in so many women's lives; we talk about it [from the time] we're little," says Karen Augusta, a North Westminster, Vt., vintage clothing dealer and appraiser. "It has an emotional connection. Wedding dresses and baby clothes are saved more than any [other clothing]. When we look at them in a museum, and read about who wore them, there's a mystery and identity tied up in them. If you look at wedding dresses ... from the '50s, you think of Elvis Presley. Looking at furniture from the same period doesn't evoke the same connection."
The popularity of vintage wedding gowns has spawned dealers and shops specializing in them. These professionals often find their stock at estate sales, auctions, and occasionally even at vintage stores and garage sales.
Donna Barr, a dealer in Plant City, Fla., found two Vera Wang dresses when she bought the contents of a bridal shop going out of business. She gave one to her son's bride. Had Ms. Barr kept it, she would have sold it for $800, a fraction of what it would have fetched in a high-end couture boutique.
Buyers tend to be retro fans: swing dancers who want to wear two-tone shoes and Lindy Hop to the sounds of Glenn Miller and his orchestra, car buffs who want to drive their vintage Bel Air to the wedding dressed in the appropriate vintage attire. Others are taking a page from the "Austin Powers" movies and doing a '60s theme: Barr had a customer who bought a vintage mini wedding dress and wore it to a "mod" wedding in England.
"These are for women who have an affinity for the past and history," says Laurie Demma-Davis, owner of Lulu's. "This is what they feel good in."
Lacy Victorian dresses, 1930s bias-cut gowns, 1940s suits worn by brides who had soldier husbands heading off to the war, strapless 1950s tulle gowns, and 1960s beaded princess-style sheaths (popularized by Jackie Kennedy) are all in demand.
Gowns from the 1930s and 1950s are most desirable to show off brides' toned physiques. Loose-fitting flapper-style gowns from the 1920s "Great Gatsby" era are not as popular, for the same reason. Gowns that were made earlier than the 1920s were generally made for small women, especially those with tiny waists.
Older gowns from the turn of the 20th century tend to be less well-preserved and more fragile than those of later eras. An active woman might not feel comfortable wearing one on her special day.
When they can be found, Victorian-era frocks may be remade to fit contemporary taste and shapes. A high neckline will be lowered to make it more comfortable, the "pigeon's breast" pouf flattened out to make it more attractive.
Barr once obtained a museum- quality, handmade lace dress and veil from the estate of a woman whose soldier fiancé never returned for the nuptials. A note from the bride was included in the package. A bride-to-be bought them for $800.
An ensemble with matching gloves, shoes, headpiece, and photo will fetch more because there's a history attached to the outfit. It's more than just another vintage dress. "It has more of a personality attached to it," says Barr.
Alderfer Auction Co. in Hatfield, Pa., sold for $900 a 1940s wedding ensemble that included a teddy, brassiere, silk stockings, shoes, and dress.
It also sold the same bride's silk damask going-away suit that was missing its matching shoes. A dealer probably bought both outfits, says Desire Smith, the auction company's vintage-clothing consultant.
Tori Gulisano, a vintage clothing dealer in Fort Myers, Fla., sold an exquisite, large-size 1930s ivory-silk bias-cut gown with matching hat and belt on eBay in January for $1,600. "It was phenomenal," she says. "I got 35 bids on that."
The buyer was a woman in England who wanted to wear the dress to Art Deco events.
Dresses from this era are sought out because "they have more style, they don't fall apart like modern clothes," Ms. Gulisano says. "People want to look like Jean Harlow or Marilyn Monroe; they were icons. These women were the epitome of fashion. Nowadays you've got Britney Spears. Back then, the stars still had style and class."
After the wedding, brides can resell their vintage gowns and recoup their investment, if they haven't paid much for alterations.
Contemporary dresses are unlikely to be worth as much on the resale market since there are so many of them. Gowns from top-name designers such as Vera Wang, however, will always be popular.
Nugent is happy with her vintage wedding ensemble, which she will wear later this month at the Buddhist ceremony she and her fiancé will have at a local Greek restaurant.
Her fiancé will wear a black tuxedo with tails, a white tie, and black top hat to complete the retro theme. They'll play Cole Porter and George Gershwin tunes at the ceremony.
"We both have a love for the past," she says. "It reflects our taste."