There's something romantic about the idea of a vintage wedding dress, with the wonderful stories it could tell. Maybe there'd be some delicate lace, too, or exquisite siren-worthy satin.
Reality, though, isn't always so pretty.
Some vintage dresses are those perfect gowns you dream of, says Mark Ingram, CEO and creative director of Manhattan's Mark Ingram Bridal Atelier, but others are too costume-y, too dated or, more likely, simply ill-fitting.
"You can reach back to some vintage eras and look as contemporary as buying a new dress. But," he says, "you have to consider your figure first and foremost. If the dress isn't flattering to your figure type, just don't go down the road."
Cameron Silver, owner of the Los Angeles couture vintage shop Decades, suggests these questions to ask -- frankly -- of yourself:
Do you need to wear a bra? Do you have a boyish figure? An hourglass shape? What about your hips? All of these, he says, are factors in buying any wedding gown, but particularly those meant to fit women of previous generations.
Silver, a resource for Hollywood red-carpet looks, also warns that finding a pristine white vintage dress can be hard, and that a good vintage dress, if it's not an heirloom, can be more expensive than you'd think. Even with your grandmother's dress, there could be pricey alterations.
"Don't do this because you think it's the easy way out, or that it'll
be cheaper," adds Ingram. "You have to want it -- you have to want to have this look."
But if you do find that ideal gown from yesteryear, Silver says, it's a magical moment. He once sold a full Chantilly lace wedding gown by Chanel. "It was such a thrill," he says.
There was a more recent Olivier Theyskens for Rochas gown that practically brought tears to his eyes.
(If you find a keeper, be ready to buy it right away -- no wavering -- because there's not another one stuck in some inventory closet.)
If you're partial to embroidery, look at gowns from the 1920s or '30s, while sultry, satin gowns come out of the '40s. Women with a full bust might look to the curvier '50s silhouette, says Ingram, WE TV's "gown guru," while mini-dresses of the '60s are cool, yet hard to pull off unless the event is casual or the bride prides herself an individualist.
Silver says that's usually the case with those who wear vintage. "This bride doesn't want to look like everyone else."
Still, you can hit contemporary fashion trends. Something from the '70s, a little bohemian but sexy, too, is probably the hippest look going.
The period to stay away from is, no surprise, the '80s, with its oversize pouffy shoulders and tapered sleeves. "Right now, the '80s looks so dated. Yes, 20-30 years back is 'vintage,' but if you're going back, that's a bad period to dip into. No 'Dynasty,' not even Princess Diana," Ingram says. "There could be a big trend back to the '80s if Kate [Middleton] wore it, but I can't imagine that. It's too big. The proportion was too big, and it wouldn't look modern now."
A bride's goal often is a timeless look, since the photos will hopefully last a lifetime, but each era still has its signature, says Michael Shettel, designer of bridal brand Alfred Angelo. You might be best off with a classic silhouette, while adjusting embellishments and details to current tastes, he suggests.
Wedding-gown trends don't swing as quickly as ready-to-wear fashion, he explains: Of course, white always dominates the market and the overall vibe is fancy, but when you line them up, you'll see differences in the size and types of pearls and beads, changes in popular lace patterns, hemlines going up and down.
"You want to make it your own, while still honoring whoever wore a vintage dress before. " Maybe you'd like to make it a little more low-cut, a little more fitted, maybe give it a fuller skirt," Shettel says.
He also borrows from the past for new gowns. The tight-bodice, tea-length ballgown, which "Mad Men" helped bring back in style, seems very fresh, Shettel says, and the asymmetrical neckline remains popular.
Ingram says the best of both worlds might be vintage or vintage-inspired accessories on a new dress. "Add a fur piece -- a shrug or a stole -- and it looks vintage, even if it's new, which probably means a better fit. The look could be 1910 or 2010," he says.
He also likes to add a beaded belt or sash, which also can give the illusion of a small waist, and carries that retro feel.
There's no reason, though, to go back in time for your beauty routine.
"If you do a vintage wedding dress, your accessories, hair and makeup have to be incredibly modern," says Decades' Silver. "You don't want to be the bride of Frankenstein. If the dress looks 'period,' you have to play against it in your styling -- unless you have a Renaissance theme, and who does that?"