One problem with finding the perfect vintage dress is the temptation to make it a fail-safe charm that’s pulled out of the wardrobe whenever there isn’t enough time or inspiration to try out a different look.
Keeping these dresses as a sartorial go-to means paying attention to wear and tear. Handing over one such precious garment to anyone but an expert for alterations or repairs is a false economy: a hand-stitched 1930s silk gown is not going to benefit from a machine-sewn hemline. I recently met up with two London-based seamstresses specialising in repairing vintage dresses, who have first-hand experience of how sewing styles have changed over the decades.
Lindsay Rodham, “The lady that does”, has an on-the-spot alterations booth at the wonderland that is Clerkenwell Vintage Fashion Fair. She takes photographic records of any unusual sewing techniques she discovers in the dresses she alters. “It’s a real privilege to see how these garments were made. Some of the techniques are so elaborate you wouldn’t find them even in a couturier’s atelier these days. Last year I worked on 18 wedding dresses. One bride wore an Edwardian dress that was having its third outing, worn twice before on the groom’s side of the family. Restoring a dress to its former glory is a journey I take with the bride. I like to try and impart some history, for example by showing what kind of corsetry was required to create those incredible silhouettes.”
Nanna Sandom runs Splendid Stitches from her studio in north London. Like Rodham, she is a specialist vintage clothes seamstress and is passionate about vintage fashion. Garments can be customised or restyled to suit the owner, or an old favourite can be copied in a new fabric. “My customers can trust me with their favourite dress – working on something that is cherished is a real pleasure and can feel very personal,” says Sandom.
“Many of my clients wear one or two pieces of vintage on a daily basis – a 1950s silk scarf or handbag, perhaps a 1940s jacket I’ve tailored to fit them perfectly,” says Rodham. She maintains that more often than not vintage pieces are mixed with contemporary fashion – few go for the caricatured period look. This observation rings very true – an art-deco statement necklace over a simple black dress or a 1960s houndstooth cape over skinny jeans.
Repairing a precious vintage item is less about “make do and mend” and more about preserving something of historical style value, and that holds unique memories. Posterity is also important – inheriting an exquisitely tailored vintage dress will mean even more to our daughters, goddaughters and granddaughters than it does to the Net-a-Porter generation. Clothes can be heirlooms, too – they just need the right kind of TLC.