Altering Vintage Clothing With Love

Not everything I buy is a straight-out-of-the-bag winner.  As we know, sometimes, in the spirit of style experimentation, I buy things that are totally ridiculous and I never wear them because they were never really something that suited me (usually, I have been distracted by how pretty they are and haven’t thought about whether I’ll really wear them).  Sometimes, as in this case, I buy something that is actually pretty great and totally “me”, but which I still never wear.  The latter category is so annoying to me, because I haven’t yet figured out what stuff will fall into this category and so every so often I still buy stuff I think I will love and yet leave languishing in the wardrobe.

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This blog post starts with a vintage dress, which I bought from Painted Bird in Auckland earlier this year.  It was pink (a big fave) with beautiful gauzy sleeves and a fitted bodice and skirt.  A frill ran right around the neck and then down one side of the skirt and around the hem.  I loved it at first sight and eagerly snapped it up, along with two other pieces.  But while those other pieces saw the light of day and remain in my wardrobe as cherished items, the pink dress just hung there.

I took it out several times and put it on, and each time I loved it.  I just never reached for it – my outfits have to mirror or enhance how I feel, and this never quite fit.  I seriously considered selling it to someone else so that they could love it and wear it, but I couldn’t let it go.  So I did something that some people would consider blasphemy, and I altered it into a top.

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That’s right – I had my dressmaker take off everything below the bottom of the zip (about half a metre of fabric) and finish the bottom with a perfect hem.  Suddenly, the dress that hadn’t ever quite worked was now a beautiful fitted top and has taken its rightful place in my wardrobe.  Now – my dressmaker is amazing and is also used to my nonsense, but even she paused on this one.  The dress was very pretty and obviously vintage, and much like the hairdressers who have historically second-guessed my intentions when I roll up asking to have my hair snipped short, she just needed to check that I was sure.  You can’t sew the skirt back on once it’s gone, so fair play.  However, triple checking seemed like a lot. 

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There is some clothing that definitely shouldn’t be altered.  Anything with historical or cultural significance – girl, don’t do it.  However, my general feeling is that if I can buy it (i.e. it’s relatively affordable) from a retail store then it’s unlikely to be in that category.  I’m not precious about my clothes.  While I want to treat them well and look after them, I don’t form emotional attachments to my clothes, so I will change them if I think it will make them more wearable.  I do think there are two important questions to ask yourself before you take the scissors to one of a kind, 50 year old dresses.

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First up: is this the best alteration you can do?  I wouldn’t hack off a hem and then tack it up with a needle and thread.  That item has made it through decades of existence, so I think it’s important to respect that history and do the best job of your alteration that you can.  Alterations don’t have to be terribly expensive – this job cost $20.  Imagine the top you could buy new for $20 (I’m prepared to boldly claim that it would be a piece of crap).  To me, it’s well worth spending that money to essentially magically create a fabulous new top out of a dress I never wore.

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Secondly: will this alteration last?  By that I don’t mean physically – if you have done the best alteration you can, this shouldn’t be an issue.  I mean as a style.  Are you altering something unique and beautiful into something that is too au courant and which won’t be appealing to you in a year or two when the trend has faded?  Or are you making it too generic, and removing its specialness?  This top is a great example of this – I wanted it to remain obviously vintage, not to turn it into something that looked like I could have picked it up at Zara on a weekend.  Apart from the fact that the construction and fabric are both far better than what Zara generally produces, I decided to keep all the details (including those beautiful sea anemone cuffs) and just lose the excess fabric so I could tuck it in properly.

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As I say, this dress is older than me.  It always seems miraculous to me that clothes can still be found that are half a century old, and yet, perfectly wearable.   I love to think about the women who owned my vintage fashion before me – who they were, why they bought or made that item, where they wore it and how it made them feel.  This dress came to me in immaculate condition, which tells me that the women who owned it before me loved it and cared for it.  How many of us can say that we’ll care for our clothes so carefully that they’ll still be perfect in 50 years?  That’s why I think any alteration needs to be done with respect.  However, I also think that if, when I’m 85, a young woman wants to snip apart a dress I loved and turn it into a top she loves just as much, I will be totally on board.  After all, clothes are made to be loved.  If we can make that love last another 50 years, that can only be a good thing.

Please note that I am wearing my Kathryn Wilson shoes again: I hope you like them because I am going to be wearing them a lot! My earrings are from Qualms: you can buy them online or (if you’re in Wellington), from the Cool Sh*t Happens Pop Up.