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Vintage Weddings: It's All Fantasy Anyway

By Retha Hill and Fritz Hahn
Washingtonpost.com Staff
Saturday, March 20, 1999
    Jennifer Manlove and Mike Duggan, both wearing vintage-style outfits, dance at their January 1999 wedding reception
Jennifer Manlove and Mike Duggan, wearing vintage-style outfits, dance at their January 1999 wedding reception. (Courtesy Jennifer Manlove)

When Jennifer Manlove and Mike Duggan decided to tie the knot, there was no question what their wedding theme would be: the brassy, bold, raucous 1940s, where everything was Big from the wide lapels of a full-cut suit, to the tom-tom riff of a beat in full swing, to the thought that a legion of GIs could crush fascism.

"We met swing dancing, so that era is really special for us," Manlove says. "We set the mood with outfits, the band the J Street Jumpers and [a] really nice dance floor."

Vintage weddings, like Manlove's and Duggan's January ceremony, are popular at the close of the 20th century as couples look back even as they look forward. From the 1920s' flapper era to the 1950s' supper club scene, Generation Xers are trying on the trappings of their grandparents and great-grandparents for their step down the aisle.

See a photo gallery of vintage bridal gowns and other outfits.
"So many of my friends are into this swing era and it gives us an opportunity to dress in clothes that are a little more elegant and more figure-flattering for the woman," explains Tricia Reneau, a sales and marketing director who lives in Arlington and whose October 1999 wedding to Thomas Iveson will have the look and feel of a post-war supper club. "It gives us a chance to pretend we were in the '40s, even though I know there were problems, with the war going on.

"There is a certain glamour associated with it. Everybody had a free spirit while holding their morals steady," she says.

Reneau recently hosted a vintage-theme bridal shower for her friend Carolyn Biczel. The shower featured a fashion show of bridal gowns and other outfits from the 1930s and 1940s.

Pushed by the resurgence of swing dancing and music, vintage clothing shopkeepers and collectors are rushing to fill a parallel niche in the wedding industry. Old dress and suit patterns are being posted on the Web and tailors who specialize in mimicking the heavy satin, bias-cut dresses of the 1930s or rakish style of Cab Calloway's "Minnie-The-Moocher" signature zoots are in high demand.

The Web has become an indispensable source for vintage wedding information, from dresses to flower arrangements that capture the era of choice. Sites such as eBay have made old wedding dress patterns available for credible reproductions. Others like Jitterbuzz.com offer advice on where to find vintage dresses and tuxedos for sale. Retro (www.retroactive.com/) has a tutorial to help a couple recreate a 1910s- to 1940s-style wedding down to the smallest detail, like lace capelets influenced by the opening of King Tut's tomb, which appeared on the dresses of brides in the 1920s.

As with any wedding, a ceremony with a vintage theme takes planning.

Finding the right dress the one you'll love can take time, even though there are lots of them still around.

"You won't have any problems finding vintage clothes for women," said Frank Morra, Web master of Washington Lindy Week In Revue, who is emerging as a Washington-area expert on the 1930s and '40s. "Women saved their wedding gowns. We see lots of them from the early part of the century. If they have any damage, it's usually from moths or from having been stored for such a long time. They're usually not too expensive."

"Finding my dress was the hardest part," recalls Manlove. "I looked at all the vintage stores in the area, but I didn't find the one that I really wanted. There's not a huge selection most places only have a few dresses." She combed Web sites, eventually finding Stitches In Time (http://www.stitchesintime.com/), where she found a 1940s' rayon satin dress that was perfect.

Reneau also searched the Internet for her gown, eventually buying a $175 heavy satin number that she found in Austin. She said when looking for a vintage gown, brides should remember that women were smaller in the first part of the century so it is important that you deal with an establishment that will allow you to ship back any gowns that don't fit.

Bridegrooms are coming to the altar in custom-made zoot suits, purchased from places like the El Pachuco Web site (http://www.elpachuco.com/) out of Fullerton, Calif., or from tailors like Calvin Ruffin, the former owner of Circa 1940 in Dupont Circle who now has a custom-tailoring business in Silver Spring. Older, truly vintage men's clothing is harder to find because men back then had only one or two suits and wore them until they fell apart, vintage experts say.

All of Ruffin's drape suits a simpler, more elegant version of the zoot suit but with the same longer jackets and higher waists tuxedos and tails are custom-made from original swing-era patterns. "I do this for the theater, so it has to be precise," he says. The prices reflect this: Top-of-the-line suits, made with vintage fabrics, start at $1,200, although Ruffin says he can make less costly suits for individual customers. He also stresses that his suits "aren't a costume, like you see those guys in swing bands wearing. These suits are made to last. You can keeping wearing this suit" after the wedding or after the next swing dance.

As you hunt for clothes, look around for a venue that will reflect your era of choice. Most major cities have preserved many of their historic sites, including old schools, hotel ballrooms and mansions. Washington is filled with beautifully maintained reception sites, among them the Art Deco-style Kennedy-Warren ballrooms (in the Kennedy-Warren apartment building near the National Zoo), where Duke Ellington's orchestra used to play on New Year's Eve back in the 1940s. The Scottish Rite Temple, located at Columbia and 16th streets NW, and the Foundry United Methodist Church in Adams-Morgan are also wonderful examples of Art Deco design and architecture.

For the 1950s' feel, consider the Yenching Palace restaurant in Cleveland Park. "It's one of the last real 1950s-style restaurants downtown. The interior looks like it hasn't changed since the '50s," Frank Morra says. "They have a large dance floor where they used to have dances back in the '40s. And the food is good, too."

Find a band that can play music from the era: a Latin bossa nova band to bring alive the 1950s, or a swing band to get people in the mood for swing or the jitterbug. Ragtime music could frame a 1920s' theme and an orchestra with a really good vocalist could set the scene for a 1930s-style wedding. Marie Quidas, an Alexandria accountant, and her husband, Tom, a plumbing designer, hired big band leader Peaches O'Dell and her orchestra to give their August 1997 reception at the Kennedy-Warren a vintage feel, even though the bridal party did not wear vintage outfits.

Short of hiring a band, look for CDs of the classic vocalists and musicians of the era: Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole.

Finally, use flowers to help set the mood. Reneau is working with a florist to transform a very spartan, Federal-style reception site into a 1950s' supper club. "We will be having a lot of palms. The centerpieces will be the attraction. They will be three-feet tall and sprout out and create a canopy," she explains.

Extra touches for a vintage wedding include inviting the guests to dress in period clothing, sending invitations patterned after those found in Harper's Bazaar or Life magazines and engaging an instructor to teach the basic dance steps of the wedding's theme era. That way the guests can get in on the fun besides watching the happy couple start their lives together, of course.

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