Second-hand wedding dresses are becoming a more common option for women looking to have an environmentally-friendly marriage celebration.
In 2019, the search term “low-waste wedding” was up by 235 per cent on Pinterest. In that same year, “thrifted wedding dress” saw a 41 per cent increase on Pinterest.
Vintage and zero-waste bridal shops like Vintage Bride and The Brides’ Project in Toronto cater to brides-to-be who don’t want to wear a brand-new dress just once.
Cher Thornton is the owner of Vintage Bride, a boutique that carries vintage dresses dating from the mid-1800s to the early 1990s.
“All the dresses are in good condition because they’ve usually only been worn once,” she said. “They’re better quality… the fabrics are more natural, and the designs are more iconic.”
The salon is filled with dresses of all styles and lengths. No two gowns look exactly alike. Each dress carries its own personality with a different story to tell with its beading, lace or colour.
Thornton first acquired the dresses in 2008 from a woman who sold vintage wedding dresses and casual wear in Mirvish Village.
She said she wanted to continue the cycle of sustainability and maintaining the authenticity of dresses, so she opened a bridal store of her own.
Thornton said the dresses she sells have a more authentic feel since they are all handmade.
Vintage dresses are also more environmentally friendly.
Thornton said she tries to use and save every bit of fabric to ensure she is reusing as much material as possible. With the extra fabric, she can create veils or modernize the dresses.
To maintain the integrity of the dresses, Thornton often reuses the materials of other dresses from the same decade for necessary alterations.
Thornton said she believes bigger corporations use the term “vintage” to drive up their marketing.
“When you search up vintage on Google, you don’t find true vintage dresses,” she said. “You find bigger corporations selling vintage style dresses. It’s hard to compete with that because they are so cheap from being mass produced or made out of polyester.”
Thornton said she defines a vintage dress as reusable, recycled or sustainable.
Reducing waste and fighting cancer
The Brides’ Project, a second-hand bridal store, is also joining the movement to reduce the wedding industry’s carbon footprint.
The shop opened in 2004 and accepts wedding dress donations year-round.
Owner Helen Sweet dedicated the store to cancer patients and donates all the proceeds to cancer charities. The charity has raised more than $1.3 million in its 17 years of operation.
The Brides’ Project is also budget-friendly and makes use of any and all material to reduce their waste.
“Weddings deservedly get a bad rap for the fact that wedding dresses, bridesmaid dresses, and mothers’ outfits are often worn once and then stuffed in a closet,” Sweet said
Sweet’s inspiration for opening a bridal shop came from her own experience with planning a cost-conscious wedding.
“There is a vast amount of waste in the garment industry, particularly in the bridal business,” Sweet said. “The worst issue is that the garments are only worn once, which is enormously wasteful.”
Although The Brides’ Project’s vision is to give every dress a new wearer, some donated dresses just aren’t in good condition.
Sweet decided to take her business’s sustainability efforts one step further and create the in-house brand Zero Waste Weddings. Fabric that can be saved from damaged gowns is used to make a new dress.
“Our focus has always been on giving wedding dresses a second life,” said Sweet. “Since all our dresses are donated and sold to be reused, they can all be considered zero waste.”
The recreation of a dress is an extremely laborious job as it includes taking apart a dress, cleaning it, and putting it back together.
Weddings in the time of COVID-19
Once the pandemic hit in March 2020, dresses of all kinds were in low demand.
After a year of inconsistent business due to lockdowns, Thornton said that the pandemic took a toll on her finances and mental health.
“Nobody is getting married right now, so it’s hard for such a niche store like a vintage bridal store to keep up with bigger corporations,” she said. “The government support has been great, but it doesn’t cover the bills.”
Thornton also said she can empathize with her customers since her own wedding was postponed due to the pandemic.
Thornton planned her wedding for June 2020. She moved the celebration to September 2020, where she wore a 1960s wedding dress.
To adapt to this new reality, Vintage Bride has been booking virtual sessions and one-on-one appointments for those who want to try on the dresses.
One client, Cassy Carpino, said she originally planned her wedding for August 2020 but postponed it to June 2021.
New restrictions only allow 15 per cent of total indoor capacity. Carpino said the current restrictions led to her postponing her wedding once again.
Carpino first met Thornton to have her mother’s wedding dress, first worn in 1991, altered for her bridal shower.
More than 20 other bridal shops had told Carpino they wouldn’t be able to alter the dress due to its delicate beading and fabric.
Since Thornton had experience repairing decades-old gowns, she was able to modernize the dress for Carpino.
Carpino also decided to buy a 60s wedding dress from Vintage Bride.
She said she was drawn to the idea of a vintage dress as a way to remember those who wore the dress before her.
“There is nothing more special than honouring those who came before us,” said Carpino. “Somebody else got married in that dress and just passing on that connection and that love is so beautiful.”
She added that another reason she wanted a vintage dress was because of its sustainability.
Carpino said she was adamant about ensuring her wedding was a zero-waste event. She used reusable dinner ware and repurposed her gown’s fabric.
“The wedding industry is very wasteful,” she said. “They always suggest to buy more than you need. There are so many weddings that just use and throw out everything. I don’t really like that.”
Part of something special
As for The Brides’ Project, all of their inventory has moved online due to the pandemic. The store is currently open to virtual appointments, fittings at home, online sales and curbside pickups.
The boutique is still accepting wedding dress donations through their 24/7 dropbox. They accept modern designs from 2018 or later.
Sweet said she finds it incredibly rewarding to work with women fighting against cancer while making a change environmentally.
“We’ve constantly changed to meet the needs of brides and actually began upcycling and creating zero waste pieces about 10 years ago,” she said.
“Providing an option post-wedding to have dresses reused, loved, and worn again is important. Many donate due to a loss, and it’s their way of giving back or remembering a loved one.”
Thornton also said she has the same feeling of fulfillment from being able to provide brides with their dream dresses.
“This is an experience brides will carry their whole life, and it’s special to be a part of it. They’re in love, and it’s a joyous time. I want them to love their dress,” said Thornton.