I've loved vintage fashion since I was a teen, thanks to an early "discovery" of 1960s pop culture, plus the nostalgia of playing dress-up in pieces from my grandmother's closet long before.
A rewatch of Downton Abbey and its period-perfect 1920s costumes, however, recently spurred a renewed quest to expand my vintage collection. Instead of late-night Instagram scrolling, I'm scouring Etsy and eBay for the next perfect piece in my size and for the right price. My most exciting recent acquisition is an incredible Depression-era dress with a storied past... and present.
The calf-length dress was definitely homemade, but not for everyday wear. I imagine it was its maker's "Sunday best." The bodice is sheer, white cotton with little cap sleeves and a long row of 28 tiny, decorative mother-of-pearl buttons down a front panel with pleated ruffles on either side. The A-line skirt is navy blue silk with flat-sewn pleats that radiate down from a high, empire waist.
After the dress arrived last month, I was gleeful when, miraculously, it fit! As I lifted up my arm to awkwardly close the snaps on one side (zippers weren't widely used until the '40s), there suddenly came the last sound any vintage lover wants to hear: Rrrrrrip. The left underarm had blown.
The cotton was brittle from sweat and years of physical stress, and the seam had shredded far beyond a quick mend, although it wasn't beyond a crafty repair. Overall, the garment had several other flaws: tiny moth chews to the silk, a few sun-faded streaks on the skirt, and age-caused yellowing of the white cotton. None, though, appeared so serious as to deter me from bringing this 90-plus-year-old garment back to a wearable state.
Unfortunately, I unintentionally added another major step to its restoration when the navy silk bled blue dye all over the white cotton during an intended isolated soak of the bodice. In the end, the only way to fix this amateur blunder was to take the dress apart, and treat each fabric separately.
Through all of my efforts so far, I've learned an incredible amount about caring for and restoring vintage textiles: identifying fabrics, what's safe to wash or dry clean, and so much more. And each moment I'm hunched over to painstakingly pull out seams or re-sew one by hand, I always return to one thought: Whose dress was this originally, and what would she think of my care, nearly a century later, to bring this garment of hers back to life? ♦