There was never really any question in my mind that I was going to thrift my wedding dress. Why on Earth would I spend thousands of dollars on a piece of clothing that I was only going to wear once? Not that I’m judging those who do (well maybe a little bit…more on that later), but for me specifically, it was never an option. I just love thrifting too much.
If you’re an avid thrifter, you already know that it can be like an addictive game. You’re always trying to find the next amazing find, one that outdoes anything you’ve found in the past. I keep popping into the thrift store, even when there’s nothing I need, just to see if treasure awaits. I’ve found an $8 Prada sweater dress, $15 Escada trousers, $40 Gucci loafers, a neglected closetful of designer dresses and brand-name swimsuit coverups. My next brag-worthy find could be just a few minutes of rack-browsing away.
Up until I was a bride-to-be, my favorite moment showing off a thrifted find was at a very fancy wedding I attended in Connecticut a few years ago. And I mean fancy! The reception venue was an exclusive country club that looked like slightly smaller duplicate of the White House. The cocktail napkins were monogrammed, there was a live band, and the floral arrangements were nearly twice as tall as me. I was wearing a slinky red gown with a plunging neckline from a recently defunct boutique designer. (Normally I wouldn’t wear a red gown to someone’s wedding, but it was Christmastime so I figured I could get away with it.)
While I was waiting in the ladies’ room a very elegant fellow guest complimented my dress. I beamed and said, “Thank you so much! I got it at the Goodwill for $8.” The woman clutched her pearls (actually, I think they were diamonds) and said, “Oh my…don’t tell people that! But you look great.”
In terms of etiquette, I committed quite a faux-pas by being so honest. In some circles, talking about how little you spent on something is almost as bad as talking about how much you spent. But being surrounded by nipped, tucked and tanned one-percenters clad in luxury brands and knowing I look just as good for the price of a muffin and a latte is a pretty amazing sober high.
So by the time my boyfriend started dropping casual comments about ring-shopping, I was already gearing up for the defining thrift of my life. I gave myself carte-blanche to try on every wedding dress I came across at a thrift store. I was a bride-to-be; I was allowed to twirl in front of the mirror and admire myself. I gave myself a loose budget of $1,000 and told myself I could buy as many dresses as I wanted within that limit.
Okay, so…confession time. Technically, I bought my first thrifted wedding dress before I even got engaged. I found it at Goodwill for $8 about a month beforehand. It was an Eden Bridals column-silhouette gown with a fitted bodice and layers chiffon ruffles cascading down from a built-in crystal beaded belt. It fit like a glove and still had original tags. I hid it in the trunk of my car until I finally earned the title fiancée, at which point I hid it at my mother’s house so the groom wouldn’t see it.
Rather than just an impulse buy, that first dress was a proof-of-concept. I wanted to prove to myself and to anyone who doubted my plan, that you could find a practically new, stylish, and contemporary wedding dress from the thrift store for the tiniest fraction of what a new one would cost.
There is a misconception that the only dresses you can find at the thrift store are decades out of date. For my generation specifically, the phrase “thrift store wedding dress” conjures up raspy taffeta encrusted with fake pearls and flanked by ballooning leg-of-mutton sleeves. (If you need a quick visualization, Google “Princess Diana’s wedding dress”.) In other words, the style that many of our mothers walked down the aisle in. This maximalist style was the height of wedding fashion at the time, and undeniably romantic, but it defined its era so thoroughly that to wear those styles today would just look like a period costume.
Not all women hold onto their wedding dresses forever, chemically preserving them in hermetically sealed boxes that get pushed into the back of the closet until the eldest niece or daughter has a chance to politely turn it down and skip off to David’s Bridal. While many women do in fact do this (my mom did, which allowed me to wear her dress to my wedding rehearsal), there are plenty of women who willingly donate their dresses. And it doesn’t necessarily mean the marriage failed and the dress now has bad relationship juju. Some women just aren’t that sentimental.
But once I started thrifted wedding dresses, I made a discovery that surprised even me. A good half of the dresses I found appeared to be unworn. Many of them still had the original tags. It turns out there is another source of second-hand dresses that many of us don’t consider: out-of-business bridal stores, shut-down ateliers, bridal shows, and photoshoots. While I don’t have actual proof that that’s where these like-new dresses come from, I know the wedding dress business isn’t easy, and last-season’s sample dress that didn’t sell as well or that a model already wore down the runway can’t be returned to the manufacturer. Their loss is our gain.
You might wonder why I chose thrifted dresses as opposed to consignment or resale websites like Still White and Once Wed. The quick answer is that it’s cheaper. In my view, those websites are for former brides who have been told that they can recoup some of the hundreds or thousands they spent by re-selling their dress after the wedding. The truth seems to be that there are more dresses than there are brides to buy them. Just because you loved your dress and were willing to pay a hefty price for it, doesn’t mean there’s another lady out there who shares your taste and budget, even if you are selling it for less than you paid.
While finding an abundance of supply when it came to used dresses was comforting (I knew there had to be something out there that I’d love), it brings up another issue with traditional wedding dress shopping: it’s super not green. If you measure the sustainability of an outfit by the ratio of how much resources go into it versus the amount of use you get from it, wedding dresses are astoundingly wasteful. A wedding dress probably contains more fabric than any other single piece of clothing you’ve ever owned (depending on what your prom or quinceañera dress looked like). All that fabric and hours of highly skilled sewing went into something you’re only going to wear for a few hours. It’s hard to think of an piece of clothing that’s more disposable, except for maybe edible underwear. I’m glad to see sites like Once Wed gaining traction, but I wanted to distance myself even further from the traditional wedding dress industry if possible.
The most popular wedding dress style when I started looking was the lace mermaid gown with an open back. In fact, when I look back at my “Wedding Ideas” Pinterest board from 2017, that’s exactly what I was pinning. I thought that silhouette would be flattering to my small waist and curvy hips. I knew I was small-busted enough that I could pull off a deeply plunging neckline without actually showing any cleavage. I knew that finding that exact silhouette was going to take patience, but patience is exactly how amazing thrifted finds happen.
As it turns out, I didn’t have to wait very long. Just a few weeks after I got engaged, Brittany popped by the newest Goodwill store in San Francisco and found a cream chantilly lace mermaid gown for $20. Luckily, because we’re identical twins, she was able to try it on for me and confirm that it fit. She sent me a photo and I told her to buy it. I took it to my mom’s house and when I tried it on for her, neither of us felt like it was the one. Maybe it could be with a few alterations here and there, but I decided to keep looking anyway.
Next, I started my thrifting online. If you don’t know about ShopGoodwill.com, you really should. The inventory comes from Goodwill organizations all over the country and items are sold auction-style like EBay. The wedding dress section of the site became my new online shopping obsession. I bid on dresses from Goodwills in South Florida, North Florida, Central Ohio, Central Texas and Nebraska. I had two ballgowns, two A-line dresses, and one with a silhouette I still don’t know how to describe. The most I paid was $95 (including shipping) and the cheapest one was just $23.
To my surprise, it was the ballgowns, not the sleeker silhouettes, that became my favorites. Before I started shopping I thought this style was too over-the-top and Disney Princess for me. But it turns out I am that extra. Also, I kept thinking about what my fiancé said the one and only time I asked him what kind of wedding dress he pictured me in. He said, “big.”
Speaking of big, one of the dresses I ordered online came in a giant preservation box so huge that it cost almost as much to ship as the dress itself. With no lace or beads of any kind, it certainly didn’t look like the dresses on Pinterest. But the blurry photos seemed to show a nipped waist that I thought would be flattering on me. When it arrived I locked myself in the bedroom and released it from its erstwhile tomb. After struggling through the layers of tulle underskirts, I finally got it on, only to find that I couldn’t zip it up. I even grabbed a pair of pliers with the hope that an improved grip would help, to no avail.
Disappointed, I packed the dress back up and brought it to my mom’s to show her the one that got away so she could share my pain. It was then that I learned a very important thing about trying on wedding dresses. Unlike pretty much every other ready-to-wear garment that you buy, wedding dresses aren’t intended to be something you put on all by yourself. I stepped into the minimalist ballgown, and with my hands bracing the bodice from the front, my mom was able to zip it right up without a problem. Suddenly the dress was back in the running.
The very last dress I bought was also a ballgown, and it was the most expensive (though it was still really cheap compared to new). Britt and I went to a vintage shop on our way back from a ski weekend in Tahoe. On a mannequin was a dress with layers of silky chiffon trimmed in lace with a fitted bodice dripping with lace appliqué. I tried it on, I twirled, I glowed, and I haggled the price down to $150 from $200.
Any woman who enters into the dress-shopping adventure with enthusiasm rather than fear dreams of her “Kleinfeld’s” moment. You emerge from the dressing room and an all your friends and family who have watched you try on a dozen dresses start to tear up, which makes you tear up, until a room full of adults is trying not to get wet spots on the satin. But without the traditional bridal salon experience, how would I know which dress was “the dress”?
I got engaged in July and by December I had 8 dresses. I quickly eliminated two from the running because they were poor quality or just not my style. Clearly, I didn’t have the wherewithal to make the final decision alone. So I decided to host my own “Say Yes to the Dress” party. I invited all the ladies in the bridal party, my mom, stepmom, my future mother-in-law, and my sister’s mother-in-law. One of my bridesmaids offered her family’s home as the venue. I drew fashion illustrations of the remaining dresses and placed them on easels in the corner of the room. As Brittany helped me into one dress after another, the ladies voted by putting heart-shaped stickers on the illustrations. I even had thrifted veils ($10 each!) and a bouquet to complete each look.
I should note at this point that none of the dresses that made it to the final round were without compromise. There were skirts that needed to be shortened, bodices taken in or let out, straps to remove or shorten, and stains to hide or try to remove. The same is true for many off-the-rack dresses, so I didn’t feel like these alterations fully eliminated any of the top six dresses.
My sister’s mother-in-law Linda, who is an expert sewer and used to work in the fashion industry, told me that whichever dress I chose, she’d do the alterations for free. She had made Britt’s wedding dress from scratch four years earlier, based on a design Brittany created herself (another sustainable option if you have immensely talented and generous family members). She wasn’t going to make me a whole dress, but she was happy to help tweak one that already existed.
Thankfully, by the end of my little fashion show, there was a clear winner. The illustration of the minimalist ballgown had a halo of hearts. The bodice already fit me like a glove, and as Linda and I discussed shortening the skirt, she told me that the material was very high quality silk, and the fabric alone would have cost hundreds of dollars. Everyone was blown away that the dress was only $53. The dress doesn’t have a brand tag, so I’ll never know how much it actually cost new. After doing some comparison research, I’m fairly sure it costs thousands.
I will always be amused by the fact that I paid $120 to get my $53 dress dry cleaned. That was the cheapest quote I could find. Many of the dry cleaners I talked to didn’t have a rate for wedding dress cleaning that didn’t include preservation. The idea of needing to clean a secondhand dress so it can be worn again seemed to baffle some of them.
The rest of my wedding day look came together seamlessly. I found $89 silk Kate Spade flats at TJMaxx, I bought a petticoat for $10 off ShopGoodwill.com, and Linda shortened the dress and a cathedral length veil to match the length of my train. I wore rhinestone drop earrings from San Francisco Goodwill, a bracelet that I already owned, and a silver pendant that my husband had made for me for Valentine’s Day. All told, my entire wedding ensemble cost a little more than $300.
I understand that $300 is a lot for some people (including me!), and I certainly could have been even thriftier about it. The significance of that number is the value I got for it. I was able to afford one of the dreamiest parts of my dream wedding. My dress wasn’t the only thing about my wedding that was unconventional and DIY. About half of my bridesmaids bought secondhand dresses. My husband and I made our own huppah (wedding arch), centerpieces, and table signs. I did the graphic design and illustrations for our invitations, signage, programs, and menus. I wrote the ceremony and my step brother was our officiant. This freed up my budget for wedding day luxuries, like professional hair and makeup, getting the tastiest caterer in the county (hello mini chicken and waffles appetizers!), and hiring both a photographer and a videographer.
There’s something I want to be super clear about. I don’t actually believe that there’s just one perfect dress for any bride. I still think about the discarded dresses all the time. I wonder how I would have looked in my wedding photos in those other dresses. I know I would have looked equally beautiful in any of them. In the end, I chose the dress that matched the vision my husband and I had for our wedding. Nerds that we are, our theme was “outer space”, and I knew that a romantic and ethereal lace-trimmed dress wasn’t going to match that theme. So I chose acres of smooth, sumptuous ivory silk instead.
As I write this, my wedding dress is hanging in the back of my closet, ripped at one of the bustle connectors with a hem smudged with guests’ dusty footprints. My wedding day was less than a year ago and I’m not ready to let go of the dress yet. Maybe I never will be. But I am ready to let go of the might-have-beens. I’m donating the rest of my wedding dress collection to Goodwill, in the hope that some other bride will fall in love with one of them the way I did. I’m tucking a note into each dress, asking any bride who buys one to tag our Instagram so I know that it was enjoyed at least one more time.
All of my dresses will be for sale at Bridal Event at the Menlo Park Goodwill Boutique from 9:00-12:00 on Saturday, July 13th!