So you’ve decided the cookie-cutter “wedding look” isn’t for you. Congratulations! Putting together a unique look from vintage finds is the perfect way to ensure that your ceremony and celebration are as personal as possible. Sure, you won’t walk down the aisle in a gown that graced this year’s fashion runways. However, your chances of finding a gown that looks nothing like your friends' wedding dresses are high. Pair a vintage gown with a few personalized alterations, and you’ll end up with a one-of-a-kind dress that’s uniquely tailored to your vision–and yours alone.

Leave Yourself Enough Time to Shop

It’s hard enough for the average bride to find time to visit multiple dress shops until she finds the right gown. Multiply that by the number of shops you’ll visit that simply don’t have a gown in your size that day, and you’re looking at a lot of trips that amount to nothing. Leave yourself enough time to find a dress that not only fits, but is truly “the one.” Beginning to shop about a year ahead of time is your best bet.

That’s not to say that browsing thrift stores is a thankless task. The determined browsing-bride is rewarded with a wedding gown that’s not only much more affordable (the average thrift store gown costs about 25 times less than a new one), but also much more unique than a modern dress. If you’re not lucky enough to have a mother or grandmother who’s passing an impeccable vintage gown to you, your next best bet is to find one from the same era yourself.

When you see a vintage gown you love, there are several factors to check before buying. Surprisingly enough, size isn’t one of them. It’s an easier fix to take in a dress that’s too big, but even if it’s too tight, there are ways to let out a bridal gown that will still leave you with a gorgeous, well-fitting dress. More importantly, check the quality of the gown itself. When you pull at two sides of the material, can you see the stitches straining? If there are grommets, are any of them loose? Does the material look thin or frayed, especially around high-friction areas like under the arms? Are any of the white parts starting to yellow?

If you see any of these markers of wear and tear, it’s time to look for another dress (or at the very least, to demand a severe discount). A gifted alterations shop can work wonders with your thrift shop purchase, but the more work that has to be done, the higher the final price tag will be.

Luckily, however, if you’re looking at a wedding gown that has survived the years and ended up in a vintage shop, chances are that the dress was well-made to begin with. Carelessly-made gowns usually do not stand the test of time. Furthermore, a vintage shop is a good way to find a gown that’s been made with heavy, old-fashioned reinforcements, which are often more durable than inexpensive modern dresses.

Pair Your Vintage Dress with Matching Details

Finding a dress that makes you feel like a princess from another era is wonderful, but don’t forget to complete the look! Browse thrift stores for shoes, purses, jewelry, and accessories like wraps and gloves to ensure that it looks like you stepped out of a vintage photograph in your entirety. Depending on your style of dress, you may want to wear a birdcage-veil hat–or forego a shawl or wrap for a vintage-style feather boa.

For the finishing touch, wear your hair and makeup like a starlet from the same era as your wedding gown. You can look for old photos and magazine advertisements as well as stills from vintage films. If your own talents lie more in modern-day makeup, look for a stylist who specializes in the era you want to recreate. Don’t just look in the makeup department at the nearest mall, either; contact local theater and film organizations to see if there are any gifted makeup artists who specialize in period costume. Film and theater students, especially, will be happy to add your blushing face to their makeup portfolio. Always insist on a test run first, however, so you don’t get a surprise on the morning of your big day.

Whether your whole wedding is vintage-themed, or you want to stand out with your anachronistic elegance, you’ll want to remember the details of the day. Choose a photographer who can create an old-fashioned feel with the photos. Have fun posing seriously for some sepia and black-and-white shots. It’s only right that your vintage look should be captured in all of its beauty–and so should you!

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