Girl Talk: My Incredible Search For The Perfect Vintage Wedding Dress

I’m not proud to admit I’ve already clocked more hours on my wedding-gown search than I did choosing a college.

From afar, it seemed like a fun task to find a gorgeous vintage dress to get married in. On the other hand, it only has to be the most knock-’em-dead dress of a lifetime, to be photographed more than any other outfit I will ever wear.

The upside of going vintage is that nearly every gown is one of a kind. This is also the downside. When you find a real beaut, there’s always at least one thing wrong: color, condition, price, it’s already sold (second most common problem), or the most common and aggravating issue of all, size.

Sketchy eBay auctioneers and online shops further complicate the search…. A weird, awkward, uncomfortable-looking model distracts from the dress. One model had a lazy eye. I have no idea what the dress she was modeling looked like, or if she was even wearing anything.

Although I am a modern size medium, compared to the majority of women of half a century ago, I am behemoth. Women of the past might as well have been another species. What kind of sideshow has a 22-inch waist? It’s telling that my antique sewing tape measure, which I use to measure and re-measure my hopeless proportions before passing up yet another teeny dream dress, only extends out to 35 inches.

Not many online vintage clothing stores let you filter their merchandise by size, so shoppers of greater-than-small proportions are tortured with images of unique, heavenly creations designed for wasp-waisted mutants. To give an idea of how the sizes break down, one shop currently offers 24 dresses in size small (And extra small! Punch!), seven mediums, two larges, and ZERO extra larges.

And yes, the larger size dresses do tend to have less festive, more matronly designs. Because if you had a waist over 27 inches in the ’50s, you must have been nearing the end of life. No more parties for you, Old Maid!

On the bright side, there are about 20,000 vintage dresses up for auction on eBay at any given time. Any cool-looking dress that would be considered a medium by today’s standards tends to have 20+ bids on it before it sells, bringing the price into the low hundreds, which is reasonable for a wedding dress. But even if you do win (fat chance, fatty) that’s a gamble to make on a garment when you don’t even know how it looks on your body.

Officially-designated wedding gowns are usually too formal and demure for me; they’re designed for someone from the past who’s not marrying for the first time at age 35, doesn’t live with her fiance, and is not me. I’m looking at evening gowns and ball gowns, drawn to descriptors like “wiggle” and “bombshell,” “knockout,” “breathtaking” and “stunning.” And it’s a wedding dress; it has to be stunning. It can’t just be the first one that sort of meets your criteria and by some chance actually fit your mammoth body size. Other good buzz words for my online dress searches are “New Look”, “WWII” and “Deco”. Yes to tulle, taffeta, chiffon, crepe, silk, acetate.

No to the legions of dresses that are too prom-y, or any with the following words in their descriptions: Southern Belle, Civil War, Victorian, Reenactment, maxi dress, mod, pageant, cruise, mother of bride, hippie, princess, caftan, kimono, ruching, Hawaiian, muumuu, disco, sheath, tube, day dress, secretary dress. No jersey, cotton, or poly. Those are just some of the ways those 20,000 dresses are eliminated. You can create saved searches tailored to your specifications on eBay, but you can’t save all of that in one search.

Colors I have ruled out are black (too goth), red (too Renaissance Faire), pink (too Barbie), yellow (pretty, but not my color), blue (not a fan), white (can’t see it happening unless it also has some color); brown/gray/other neutrals: too subdued. That leaves green, which is what I pictured to begin with.

So I’ve got quite a tall order happening here, and tragically for my career, it’s the best procrastination project I’ve ever taken on! I can’t look through every vintage dress on eBay at once. All I can do is look at every dress whose auction will end in the next 24 hours. This is my job now.

Sketchy eBay auctioneers and online shops further complicate the search. Some online stores should be linked by an Internet museum as an example of the Information Superhighway of the 1990s. Elsewhere, dress photos were taken by a camera phone, they don’t show the dress on a model or dress dummy; or the dress description says something like, “feels great on” (which conjures images of the seller wearing it around the house like a creep). A weird, awkward, uncomfortable-looking model distracts from the dress. One model had a lazy eye. I have no idea what the dress she was modeling looked like, or if she was even wearing anything.

I find myself adding dresses to my eBay watch list just because they’re almost what I want. This is feeling eerily similar to online dating. I’ve made little rules for myself: only gowns within two inches max of my current waist size. I try “Price is Right”-esque bidding tactics that might not even make sense on eBay, like tacking an odd number of cents onto my highest bid.

Early on in the search, I won a dress on eBay that one of my bridesmaids found. Fifty bucks. It needed work, it had some fading, and one more thing—its waist was four inches smaller than mine. I was bargaining with myself, planning to lose inches on the waist using some magical diet where I can still eat cheese and not exercise. I would wear a corset. I could fix it.

As soon as I attempted getting it on my oafish body I knew it would never fit unless I had ribs removed. This dress clearly belonged to someone shaped like Tinkerbell; too bad I am Baloo the Bear. This is the equivalent of finding a smokin’ hot guy, then learning he only dates Asian women.

But I’m learning: I’ve picked up new terms to locate more dresses like the ones I like: “Watteau” and “panels” describe dresses with a flow-y back, as do “streamers” and “scarves.”

Another lesson: When you’re disappointed in another fantastic-but-impossible gown, look up its designer or label to find similar gowns online, and create saved searches for the names on eBay. Also contact your favorite online shops to describe what you have in mind; some keep track of that for potential customers.

I now have a staff of robots working for me—27 eBay saved searches using various descriptors and designer names. It’s quite handy; the ‘bots email me daily with their findings.

Finding the perfect vintage gown for my wedding is a task on par with finding the right person to marry. You can’t just make it happen when you want it to happen. But with eight months left to search, I’m far from giving up. I have this feeling, when it’s the right one, I’ll stop in my scrolling-down-the-page tracks and know.

Meanwhile, I comfort myself by buying other dresses, rationalizing, “I could wear this one to the rehearsal dinner. Just need to find the perfect pair of knee-high boots to go with it.” I wonder how many other items I’ll buy by the end of this search. I regretfully had to pass on a rare gown by Mary Quant (the London swingin’ 60s designer) that was way out of my price range. But I remain fixated on it, so a friend comforted me by finding a pair of Quant 1970s sunglasses for sale on eBay for $50. I bought them. Look how much money I’m saving!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a mission to accomplish.