According to Old English folklore, the tradition of ‘something borrowed’ being incorporated in some way or another in the wedding ensemble of a bride, is one that promises good luck. One record dated from 1898 tells specifically of the practice of brides-to-be borrowing undergarments from women who have had children, as a way of ensuring the bride’s fertility. Though the notion of donning a pair of someone else’s knickers on your wedding day is not all that appealing, the tradition of borrowing something to wear for the special day remains. Whether it be an accessory owned by an ancestor, carefully preserved over the generations and kept specifically for family weddings, or simply an item from a friend, passed on with love and well-wishes, there is something heartwarming about the sentiment. But more than this, there is something so singularly, so particularly, and so utterly magical about the history that lurks within second-hand garments themselves.
In a small ceremony which took place at Windsor on the 17th of July, Princess Beatrice and Edoardo Mapelli Mozzi tied the knot. Instead of borrowed jewellery, as is perhaps expected of the Royals, with both Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle choosing to borrow tiaras from the Royal archive for their respective weddings in recent years, Beatrice’s ‘something borrowed’ was rather more bold, taking the form of the wedding frock itself. Originally designed for the Queen by Norman Hartnell, the dress made its first outing in 1962 when it was worn by Her Majesty to a premiere for Lawrence of Arabia at London’s Leicester Square. The cinched waist and full, bejewelled skirt of the dress had something of Dior’s ‘New Look’ silhouette of the 50s about it. Paired with satin gloves and an evening bag dangled from the crook of her arm, the combination was deliciously chic. Complete with a tiara perched atop her brow, the entire ensemble – for want of a better phrase – was ultra-feminine, and delightfully princess-y.
For Princess Beatrice’s wedding, the Queen’s sixties dress was reimagined, gaining puffed, organza sleeves, and this time accessorised with a grander, altogether more opulent tiara. Rather than altering the dress beyond recognition, these additions served to reenvision the gown, making its past coalesce ever so smoothly with the present. It was as if the history of the dress was made visible via the addition of the sleeves, but in such a way that the separate parts of the dress entered into conversation with one another, acknowledging each other. The garment was not forcefully, tactlessly modernised, but was lovingly, thoughtfully reworked for its new context.
In the official photographs released by Buckingham Palace, Beatrice can be seen ducking out from beneath an arch overflowing with pale pink roses. Only glimpses of the dress can be seen through the mass of flora – the puffs of organza as she crouches through the arch, the satin pleats of the full skirt, and the drips of diamante beads emerging from the nipped-in waist, just visible behind the carefully clasped bouquet. But the effect of princess-y glamour embodied in the first outing of the gown remains, even its new setting. It is as if the Queen’s initial wearing of the dress continues to live on within the very threads of the piece; a magical process whereby her movements are somehow remembered by the garment and held within it as Beatrice carries it forth anew.
It is precisely this ghostly and yet romantic feeling that accompanies the wearing of vintage clothing, or the passing down of a family heirloom. I wear vintage dresses on a near-daily basis, and the charming notion that a garment has had another home and another wearer, that it has seen other times, other worlds and other locations, never ceases to fill me with awe. I wear homemade frocks from all eras, bought secondhand on eBay and Etsy, and wonder for what purpose they were originally sewn. I sift through the dusty, full to bursting racks of jewellery in antique shops and imagine what journey they had to take to end up there, whose ear they dangled from or whose neck they adorned. When I buy and wear these pieces, I insert them into new contexts whilst carrying that lingering sense of history with me, flashes of its imagined past winking at me with every swish of my second-hand skirt or a twinkle of a vintage earring.
Though of course the wearing of secondhand pieces is on occasion less about the tantalising sense of its history, than rewriting that history for the better. For years I wore my mother’s engagement ring from her first marriage, though on my right hand. She had divorced my father, her first husband, and my brother and I were no longer in contact with him. The ring had long been banished to the back of a drawer, the red-velvet box gathering dust. My decision to begin wearing the ring once more was both a nod to my mother (as if my wearing of it amounted to carrying a piece of her with me each day) and a reimagining of the original piece – suffusing it with new memories as I wrote over the unhappiness the ring had come to be associated with. On my hand, it was no longer an embodiment of a marriage gone wrong, but a symbol of the closeness of my mother and me as I reinserted it into a new life through its new place on my finger.
According to Marc Jacobs, “clothes mean nothing until someone lives in them”. Though he wasn’t necessarily talking about the particularities of second-hand and vintage garments, his sentiment is rather apt. If clothes are things that come to life through their wearers, we truly are wearing living garments when we recycle vintage pieces. As they are worn and re-worn, bought and sold, the lives that lurk within the fabric of garments and the metals of jewellery accumulate so that they – and we as we wear them – become carriers of history. We are free to add to that history, to rework it, or to update it. But what we must not do is ignore it; ensuring we embrace the magic of these second-hand pieces that have traversed decades, eras and contexts.