September 6, 2013
I've never had a piece of clothing altered. Not ever. I'm too cheap. If it doesn't fit, I don't buy it.
Sure, I've had hems shortened, but that's it. That's my only experience with the world of tailoring.
For the past couple of weeks, I've been fully immersed in the subject, thanks to my co-worker, photographer Keri Wiginton.
Keri has trouble finding clothes that fit her small frame. And she loves vintage and thrift store finds. When she told me she had bought three too-big dresses — one new and two at vintage shops — and was going to take them to a tailor, I thought this would be a fine opportunity for me (and you) to learn about the ups and downs of alterations.
The big questions: Can a tailor make a baggy mess of a dress look great? And, is it worth the expense?
Yes to the first question. As for the cost, based on Keri's results, I'd say sometimes it is worth it. But not always.
Keri took all three of her dresses to master tailor Olya Burak, who warned her that the new dress, a flirty, almost backless $51.99 number by Minuet, couldn't be altered to a perfect fit on top because of the way it's constructed. And the tailoring would cost $28, more than half of what the dress cost. "She asked me if I wanted to do it anyway, and I said, 'Go ahead,'" Keri says.
Well, the altered top fits better now, but it's a little bunchy and not great. "I probably wouldn't do it again," Keri says. She says she should have taken Burak's advice to forget the tailoring and returned the dress to the online shop (modcloth.com) where she bought it.
Lesson one: Believe your tailor if she tells you in advance that the results won't be so hot.
Burak says she never buys clothes for herself that she'll have to alter. "No way. No way. If I'm a size 8, I'm never going to buy a 10 or 12. Never. Never."
Lesson two: To justify the cost of alterations, you better be in love with the clothes. "You have to like the dress so much. If you're 50-50, don't buy it."
After looking at the before-and-after of Keri's vintage green-and-tan knit dress, a $25 find at an Austin, Texas, vintage store, I think it was totally worth it to spend $50 for alterations. For $75 she has a one-of-a-kind dress that looks fabulous on her. It lives up to its quaint original label, "Pat Perkins … a dress to treasure."
The third dress Keri had altered is a gorgeous fuchsia silk that looked like she snagged it from some stout granny's closet — too big all over. She probably paid too much ($60) because the price included a matching knee-length jacket that Keri will donate since it's not her style.
The alterations were $30 and made the pink dress, like the green one shown here, a one-of-a-kind that now looks like it was made for her. Not long ago, I bought a dress for a very special wedding that looked a lot like Keri's pink one, and it cost much more than her total of $90. I'd say she got her money's worth and then some. (For more photos, go to chicagotribune.com/ellenwarren.)
About the entire experience, Keri says, "I don't know that I would make a habit of buying clothes that don't fit, but I like having that option available. I wouldn't do it again with a new dress, but, with the others, nobody else has these dresses. You can't buy them at Target."
Fit advice from the experts
Before you buy clothes that need alterations, advice from the experts:
Olya Burak, olyastailorshop.com:
•If it's too tight, forget it; highly unlikely it can be expanded.
•If the garment is lined, it will cost more to alter: "Lining is like a second dress."
•Chiffon, lace and beaded clothing will cost more because the fabric requires more care and time to sew; cotton is easiest and cheapest to alter.
Eric Boasmond, thetailorshop.net:
•Buy what fits in the first place. The salesperson who tells you, "Oh, just take it to your tailor," is not your friend. It'll cost you.
•Men's jackets are especially expensive to alter because of the complicated foundation pieces inside. Also more expensive to alter: skirts that are pleated or with a scalloped hem.
•A dress with simple straight seams and a back zipper is at the low end of tailoring fees, which can run well over $100.
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