Turning something old into something new
by Loretta Bolger Wish
Photos by Matoli Keely Photography
W hen Courtney Elise began rummaging through the clothes in her grandmother’s attic and trying on her mother’s retro castoffs, she didn’t realize she was laying the groundwork for a career.
Years later, the gowns she restores and sells are fulfilling the wedding fantasies of women around the world. Whether a bride-to-be yearns for a pearl-encrusted Edwardian frock, an Art Deco satin sheath or a bouffant mid-century chiffon, Vivian Elise Vintage can meet her need.
“They’re completely unique and beautiful dresses,” the Frederick, Md., resident says of the creations displayed in her online boutique.
Describing herself as “the most sentimental one in the family,” she calls her shop Vivian Elise as a tribute to her mother and grandmother, who share the name. She also considers “Vivian” a more glamorous name than her own.
Her lifelong fascination with old clothes and collectibles has been a running joke among her relatives: ask Courtney before you toss anything out. When she was growing up in North Carolina, her mother’s closet proved to be a gold mine of wearable antiques.
“What really got me hooked on vintage was going through those hand-me-downs,” she says. One of her discoveries, a purple sundress from 1980, is still part of her wardrobe.
Sundresses, day dresses, cocktail and formal wear, skirts, blouses and lingerie are available, but bridal merchandise accounts for 75 percent of all Vivian Elise sales.
Elise currently has over fifty wedding gowns listed along with accessories such as jeweled and floral combs, lace headbands and veils in a variety of styles.
Often a customer will buy a period headpiece to set off a contemporary gown or select a modern veil to wear with a vintage dress. Elise considers this more becoming than head-to-toe garb from a single era.
“In order not to look costume-y, you try to pair the old with the new,” she adds.
When she got married in 2013, shortly before launching her business, Elise wore a 1950s gown with her mother’s veil from 1980.
“I also wore my great-grandmother’s crystal necklace from the 1920s or 1930s,” she says. “I mixed a bunch of eras, but they all worked together.”
Elise admits she was worried, however, because she wanted to look just right for the man she was marrying.
Kyle Martineau, whose late grandmother owned a bridal shop in New Jersey, shares his wife’s passion for old things. He also had definite ideas about bridal style — “nothing poufy” was his chief request. Luckily, Martineau loved the ensemble.
For the reception, Elise wore a dress she had found on a J. Crew clearance rack long ago and remodeled.
“My original plan was just to get it hemmed but I ended up altering it and adding a rhinestone embellishment,” she says.
Her first major reclamation project began when a yellowed gown circa 1960 turned up in a thrift shop. It was “marked down a ton” because of a huge brown stain, Elise says, terming it a “sad-looking dress.” But as she studied the lace bodice and train, she could see it had potential. It became part of her inaugural inventory thanks to a successful cleaning job. Cleaning remains a tricky proposition despite all the information Elise has since collected about laundry products and antique textiles.
“Every vintage restorer and reseller will tell you something different,” she says, but there’s always an element of trial and error. This unfortunately led to her “practically melting” a favorite gown she was attempting to launder.
While she has no standard protocol, Elise usually begins by soaking a dress in the tub with organic dish soap, which is gentler than most washing solutions. Removal of spots and stains comes later along with mending and other repairs. If necessary a dress can be dyed a different shade such as ivory or dusty rose, and possibly repurposed for use by a bridesmaid.
In describing merchandise to prospective buyers, she’s careful to explain that no gown can be brought back to its original flawless condition. Elise tries to be as candid as possible, detailing all imperfections such as pinholes, scuffed hemlines and discolored buttons.
“There are always going to be flaws on these dresses,” she says. “I call them beauty marks.”
Each listing has specific measurements rather than simply a dress size. Elise tries to “navigate people toward the best choice,” one that will fit properly and suit the client’s body type.
Since females of the early 20th century tended to have slighter frames, today’s customers may find the arms and hemlines too short, the shoulders too narrow or the midriff too small. The oldest gowns might have tiny waists because they were meant to be worn with corsets.
Even if the size is correct, the style or fabric may not be appropriate; a clingy satin sheath can look sleek and dramatic but only if the figure underneath is slim, toned and well-proportioned.
Despite her best efforts to match each woman with the right dress, Elise admits she always fears a gown won’t meet expectations. With all of her transactions conducted online, half of which are international sales, there’s no opportunity for showroom visit.
“I put so much work and so much love into these dresses, but with every dress that goes out I feel nervous,” she says. Judging from the feedback on her Etsy website, Elise has an excellent track record when it comes to customer satisfaction.
Bride-to-be Helen Yeo describes her as “lovely to deal with” and her online boutique as “far and away one of the nicest” of the Etsy shops.
“The dress arrived in excellent time … beautifully packaged and in perfect condition,” says the United Kingdom resident, who will wear a 1930s beaded Art Deco gown at her September wedding.
Awarding Vivian Elise five stars, Lisa Healey of Pittsburgh says she wished the rating system permitted more. She was delighted with the ultra-romantic 1950s bouffant dress she discovered on the Etsy website.
“She went above and beyond to make sure I was happy with the purchase,” says Healy, who will be a June bride.
Signe Peterson of Minneapolis found herself overwhelmed by trying on armloads of possibilities at bridal shops. Suspecting the gown of her dreams was elsewhere, she visited a costly vintage store before locating more sensibly priced options on the Vivian Elise site. Analyzing her measurements, Elise found several options that seemed well-suited to the statuesque brunette.
Once she ordered an empire-waisted confection from the late 1970s, Peterson grew apprehensive about making such a big decision based on photos. Elise assured her that if it wasn’t right they would find an alternate, but when the shimmering gown with the sweep train arrived from Maryland, it didn’t disappoint.
“I teared up the moment I put it on,” says Peterson, who married Carlus Dingfelder at his family’s farm last August. “It fit perfectly and was more beautiful than I had hoped.” Occasionally a bride considers restoring a gown that’s been in her family for many years, but Elise says this is a complicated process and requires a major commitment of time and effort.
“A lot of people think it’s a good idea without thinking it through,” she says. “You have to be really in love with that particular dress.” While Elise doesn’t do actual fittings, she is able to make adjustments such as hemming, changing necklines and removing sleeves.
Essentially, though, the refurbishing process is complete by the time a gown is advertised in the Vivian Elise Bridal Boutique.
When buyers browse through the online catalogue, showing several photos of each item, they are often seeking a special style or period. In many cases, celebrity wedding pictures or costumes from a film or TV show are providing the inspiration. Lace sleeves have been in vogue lately along with tiaras and crowns, possibly the influence of Princess Kate’s wedding attire. The sumptuous outfits shown on Downton Abbey, spanning 1912 through 1924, have had a huge impact as well.
“Movies and TV affect the industry like crazy, and part of my job is knowing what’s happening in entertainment,” Elise says. “Before the prices go up, I have to anticipate trends and get in front of them.”
Elise’s personal preference tends toward the Art Deco fashions of the 1920s and 1930s, and she notes that the 2013 remake of The Great Gatsby has spurred requests for these designs. Elise also saw late 1970s wedding apparel catch on once American Hustle premiered. Thanks to Mad Men, 1960s fashions remain in great demand as well.
Meanwhile, the market for the traditional lengthy veils and trains of the 1950s through 1990s has declined. Elise speculates that contemporary brides are foregoing these enhancements so they can dance and move around more easily at their wedding receptions. She’s also noticed that sleeves are making a comeback, following many years of sleeveless and strapless dresses, and that bridal apparel is becoming more modest overall.
“It’s nice to see people heading away from the very funky, revealing dresses,” she says.
This return to elegance has been good for business, and the practical advantages of pre-owned gowns are also a major attraction. Recalling the $40 her grandmother spent on satin to make her own wedding dress, Elise calculates that the same fabric would cost thousands today, a price range out of reach for the average bride.
“Quality draws people to these gowns,” she says, noting that the superb materials and workmanship they represent is hard to match today.
Yet whatever the dresses have to offer, she says the bride’s sense of romance and imagination is an important factor, adding: “Vintage bridal takes a very special person.”