Would You Say Yes to a Secondhand Dress?

More brides are opting for used models

by
Photo by Getty Images

Photo by Getty Images

Megan Pettit didn’t bother going wedding-dress shopping when she got engaged in 2008. “If I want to buy something, I don’t go to stores,” she says. Instead, the Hamilton, Ont. resident headed straight to eBay, and immediately found an ivory silk Vera Wang—slit in the back to reveal accordion pleating, with a modest train—in her size. The seller had it listed for just $400, far below the original price ($5,000), and was upfront about the fact that the zipper stuck and that she hadn’t had it cleaned after her reception (the bottom was filthy). Pettit bought it anyway. “I just figured if it didn’t fit, I’d resell it and try again,” she says.

The dress did fit, and, since its previous owner was a few inches taller than Pettit, the dirty part was easily removed with hemming; she had the zipper replaced with an inexpensive plastic one. Pettit and her now-husband didn’t want a conventional wedding—there was no aisle and no bridesmaids—but there was plenty of dancing. She remembers stopping to eat a cupcake when the ’60s surf-rock ditty “Surfin’ Bird” came on. She rushed out to the dance floor—solo. Then, “I felt a burst of cold air—my zipper had busted. I wasn’t wearing anything underneath.” Nonplussed, Pettit changed into a backup dress (she had thought she might need something shorter for dancing) and shoved the gown in a garbage bag in her trunk. After her honeymoon, she threw it up on eBay again, and sold it for $380 to a woman from the U.K. who was shorter than she was.

Pettit is not alone in her non-traditional nuptials. “People don’t feel compelled to do the 10 or 15 standard things anymore,” confirms Alison McGill, Toronto-based editor-in-chief of Weddingbells. These days, some brides might attempt to outdo one another in uniqueness (gourmet poutine stations! homemade granola as favours!) but the stigma that once came from doing things differently has abated. Who’s to smirk at a used dress when the ring-bearer is a Shih Tzu?

The rough economy is undoubtedly another reason why more women are buying used gowns, as is the fact that many of us are getting married older: in a reader survey of 2,200 Canadian brides conducted by Weddingbells/Marriage Québec earlier this year, the average age of respondents was 29. These brides are more likely to pay for their weddings on their own, have probably lived with their husbands before marriage and may already have kids. Often, notes Darsi Pizzolato, the Toronto-based founder of frugalbride.com, “the future is of the utmost importance.” Dropping several thousand dollars on a wedding dress is not.

McGill first noticed used wedding dresses entering the mainstream about three years ago; when Pizzolato launched frugalbride.com in 2000, resources devoted entirely to budget-conscious brides were scarce. “There was a stigma of being difficult to work with,” says Pizzolato. In just a decade, attitudes have changed and there are plenty of resources for the cash-strapped (including sites such as DIYbride.com and thebrokeassbride.com; the latter has inspired a book by the same name that will be published by Random House later this year). “Economical weddings are normal and nothing to be embarrassed about now,” says Pizzolato. Sites like hers appeal to women with a realistic world view: the wedding is not as important as the marriage.

This isn’t to say that bridal excess is extinct. Take, for example, the enduring popularity of TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress (synopsis: bratty Jersey brides convince their hapless moms to refinance their homes for gigantic gowns while sharp-tongued bridesmaids look on). Kleinfeld, the New York-based bridal institution where the program is taped, struck a deal earlier this year with Hudson’s Bay to open a 20,000-square-foot outpost within the Toronto flagship in 2014, with Vancouver and Montreal locations to follow. Vera Wang recently made headlines for charging women 3,000 renminbi (almost $500) for the privilege of trying on dresses at its new Shanghai salon, in part to evade copy-cats, before killing the fee to quell a heated internet debate. And in Canada, the average cost of a wedding is now more than $32,000, with amounts spent on both the reception and the gown rising steadily over the past few years.

The fancier the meat, the better the scraps, of course—and the internet has optimized the hunt. Canadians bought almost 10,000 wedding dresses, both new and used, from eBay in 2012, up 24 percent from the year before, with sales of secondhand gowns up by 31 percent. Aside from eBay, Craigslist and Kijiji—all of which have thousands of gowns for sale—a handful of specialty sites have also popped up, including oncewed.com (which launched in 2008 and now has over four million page views a month), preownedweddingdresses.com (which launched in 2004) and stillwhite.ca (which originally launched in Australia in 2010). The gowns are deeply discounted—in some cases, thousands less than what they’d sell for new—and purchasing them comes with what many women would consider to be another upside: not having to hit the boutique circuit with potentially critical family members and bored bridesmaids in tow.

Searching for a dress was not something that I wanted to spend a lot of time on when I was planning my own wedding last year. I ordered an inexpensive gown from J.Crew, but sent it back because it didn’t fit well. Then I ordered a cream-coloured Marc Jacobs ready-to-wear dress, and also sent that one back. Fed up with the vagaries of online shopping, I set out with my maid of honour, my mom and my sole bridesmaid, and bought my dream gown (fitted and strapless, with Art-Deco style beading) for $1,800—taxes in—at a small downtown bridal shop.

I now know that women who have more patience than I do can get exactly what they want online. Shelbie Vermette-Grant was hoping to find a dress for under $4,000, but the French lace V-neck Monique Lhuillier she had fallen in love with would have cost her more than $6,000 with taxes and alterations. Instead, she found it used on oncewed.com, and with the addition of a silk sash, spent $1,900; its previous owner had worn it for just one hour during her ceremony, before changing into a reception gown. “I could have bought a new dress but it likely wouldn’t have been this one,” says Vermette- Grant, who, along with her husband, covered the majority of her wedding expenses herself. “The dress had been professionally cleaned and the tags and receipts were included, so for all intents and purposes, it was new.”

When Jessica Parker Kitney finally found her Scarlet (a lacy Lhuillier number with a Queen Anne neckline, cap sleeves and a back cut-out) at a high-end Toronto bridal salon, she was informed that she’d left her purchase too late and would need to pay nearly $10,000 to rush the order. “My heart sank. It was absurd to think I could spend almost half of our wedding budget on the dress, but I was determined; this was my dress,” she says. A few weeks and many Google searches for “Monique Lhuillier Scarlet” later, she found one listed on preownedweddingdresses.com by a woman in Toronto. She went to the seller’s house and tried it on. The dress was a little short, but otherwise fit, and it was just $1,800. Her aunt gave her an old piece of lace from her great grandmother’s wedding dress to extend the hem. “I got to walk down the aisle in the dress of my dreams, with a piece of family history attached, for a bargain,” she says. “Everything fell into place so perfectly, I believe I was meant to get married in that dress.”

Browsing through resale sites can, however, be a reckoning with just how tenuous love is. Many of the gowns online are unworn, with their tags still on—some for sale by women who’ve changed their mind about the dress and some from women who’ve changed their mind about the fiancé. Descriptions like this one abound: “Broke off my engagement and want to sell dress fast therefore taking a huge loss.” In relationships, as in fashion, love is fleeting when the fit is wrong.

Aimee Newton, who lives in Calgary, still adores her three-year-old Romona Keveza—a diamond white, pure silk, one-shoulder ball gown with a sweetheart neckline—though she can’t say the same for her ex-husband. After their divorce, Newton put the dress up for auction. “It would have been my hope that if I had renewed my vows in 50 years, I could have made it into a little cocktail dress,” she says. “I’m still disappointed that I have to sell, but what am I going to do with it?” Newton listed her dress on four sites for $4,800 (she paid $9,500) but had no takers, then dropped it to $3,500. Still no luck. She decided to try a wedding-dress consignment store in January, but it hasn’t moved: “I’m now hearing that designer/couture dresses are hard to re-sell,” she says.

Expensive gowns are especially difficult to unload if they are more than a year old, likely because brides who can afford to spend several thousand on a gown would rather buy new. Mey Ngo, from Woodbridge, Ont., tried to sell her St. Pucchi gown after her 2009 wedding. One of five dresses she wore (she’s keeping the traditional Vietnamese and Chinese gowns and the cocktail frock), the St. Pucchi—whose Queen Anne top is hand-embroidered with ostrich feathers, rhinestones and smoked purple Swarovski crystals; its skirt is peau de soie silk and lace—was an extravagant surprise from her fiancé. Ngo had swooned over it in InStyle Weddings and had been trying to figure out how to have a knock-off made. “I thought if I could find the lace, I could do it,” says Ngo. “Then I found out that the lace was from Thailand and was exclusive.” Her fiancé sold his motorcycle to cover the $20,000 price tag and flew to Philadelphia to pick it up. After the wedding, the 16-kg cathedral-length train made it awkward to store, so Ngo listed it for $6,000 on oncewed.com.

Most brides who are considering buying their dresses secondhand aren’t prepared to spend that much. On eBay, for instance, the average Canadian wedding dress sale is a skimpy $163. (The aver- age purchase price of a “luxury” bridal gown on eBay—those over $1,000—is $1,850.) If you have patience, then there’s a good chance you’ll find what you’re looking for. Amanda LeClair, a childhood friend of mine who lives in Sudbury, Ont., scored her Amsale dress on preownedweddingdresses.com. With a demure high neckline, sleeves to the elbow, and no ruching or fussy detailing besides a beaded belt, it looks like a classic 1960s gown. The dress retails for around $3,000; Amanda paid $240 (yes, you read that right). She did the alterations herself. “The hand-sewn hem may not be up to professional standards, so it wouldn’t be worth selling,” she says. “But it will be one hell of a fun dress-up dress for my daughter one day.”

Our daughters—real ones, future ones and ones who will never be born— have a disproportionate impact our decision to keep or discard our wedding gowns. When I spoke with Ngo, who has a two-year-old girl, I got the sense that she wasn’t willing to drop the price of her dress because she didn’t actually want to part with it. “I’m in no rush,” she admits. “I kind of want to keep it and give it to her. But I’m not sure if she’s going to like it because that will be so long from now.” (Shortly after our conversation, she took her listing down.)

Vermette-Grant won’t be selling her Lhullier. “I love the idea of passing my dress down to my daughter or granddaughter one day. Even if they don’t want to wear it or if it doesn’t fit them, I’d like them to have the opportunity to have it,” she says. “I cherish the things that my grandmothers and mother have passed down to me, and I would love to give the future generations of my family that window into my story.”

Stephanie Arsenault, who lives in Calgary, says that if she has a daughter, she’d want to her to pick her own dress, so she’s decided to sell her strapless Vera Wang, with billowing layers of tulle and organza, cinched at the waist with a thick dusty rose ribbon. “I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect dress,” she says. “Why not let someone else have that chance, especially because it’s such an extravagant gown?” It’s a sentiment echoed by Helen Sweet, the Toronto-based founder of The Brides’ Project, a bridal consignment boutique whose proceeds are donated to cancer charities. Having another woman buy your wedding dress to wear on her own special day, she says, is the “greatest compliment” you can receive as a bride.

My own dress has been hanging in my closet, wrapped in clear plastic, since my wedding last October. I’ll never wear it again, though I have concocted several far-fetched schemes in which I could slip it on once more. I could hem it to the knee, dye it black, and wear it as a cocktail dress; I could throw massive anniversary parties every decade where I’d be obligated to wear it (provided I could still do up the zipper); I could be a vampire bride for Halloween. Of course, I’ll do none of these things, nor do I think my daughter, if I have one, will want to wear it. My husband and I have just bought an old house and could certainly use some extra cash for renovations. Yet I still don’t want to sell. It’s the most extravagant, flattering, expensive garment I own and for now, at least, that’s something worth holding onto.

Ready-to-Wear Bride

Designers had their beautiful way with white this season in dresses intended to be worn all over town, providing a useful-now-and-later solution when neither new nor used traditional feels right.

Ready-To-Wear-Wedding-Dress-1

Carven cotton dress, $1,175, net-a-porter.com.

Ready-To-Wear-Wedding-Dress-2

Acne Studios lyocell/viscose dress, $400, lagarconne.com.

Ready-To-Wear-Wedding-Dress-3

Jil Sander silk/cotton dress, farfetch.com.

Ready-To-Wear-Wedding-Dress-4

Christopher Kane silk dress, net-a-porter.com.

Ready-To-Wear-Wedding-Dress-5

Tibi cotton dress, $585, (212) 226-5852.

Ready-To-Wear-Wedding-Dress-6

Alexander McQueen silk gown, farfetch.com.

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