Maureen Leavenworth takes a pantsuit (black with white lapels that puff up from the coat like unfurled scrolls) off a rack in her Orleans bridal shop and, using her hands, starts drawing invisible lines across it, imagining out loud all the ways it could be remade into something new.
“Think of how you can pull this apart,” she says. If, for instance, you want something a little more summery, you could cut off the sleeves of the coat and turn it into a vest with a white blouse underneath. If you want to show some skin, skip the blouse, move the buttons on that vest down, so the collar plummets a little lower, and voilà.
Leavenworth is the proprietress of Vintage in Vogue — a shop she started in Orleans in 2009 as a way to channel a fascination with vintage clothing that began when she was thrift-shopping for her own outfits in high school during the 1970s. In 2013, she opened an outpost in Provincetown. And, soon after that, when the wedding dresses she was collecting started taking up too much space in both shops, she moved them all to this separate bridal boutique.
Besides being a collector, Leavenworth is a painter, a practitioner of 18th-century-style open hearth cooking, and a seamstress. The last skill empowers her singular attitude toward clothing. She regards each item less as a finished product and more as a pliable resource — something that, by being taken apart and put back into a new permutation, can yield a whole different something.
For gender nonconformists seeking wedding or nearlywed special occasion outfits, Leavenworth’s shop holds special appeal. Her approach to wedding clothing — taking a traditional garment, wrenching it out of its original context, and giving it a fresh spin — is, in a way, queer. It is akin to what gay men have long done with mainstream, heterosexual culture: taking artists like Cher and “recoding them with gay meanings,” as David Halperin has written. Or what lesbians have done with biker culture and men’s crewcuts and L.L. Bean’s über-WASPy hiking clothing.
There are still very few official “gender neutral” clothing offerings in stores. But there are almost infinite ways to mix together gender binary offerings and create something more sundry and transcendent. Constraint can be a boon to creativity.
The answer, then, to a successful gender nonbinary wedding ensemble might lie less in tilling a new garden and more in grafting something new onto old rootstock.
Leavenworth has a keen understanding of those roots. A self-described “history of clothing geek,” she mentions that, in the 1860s and 1870s, the sleeves of women’s wedding dresses bore a striking resemblance to Civil War soldiers’ coat sleeves. The “beautiful tails” of equestrian dressage jackets found their way into wedding attire, too, she says.
Jia Tolentino’s essay, “I Thee Dread,” in the collection Trick Mirror, provides a relevant history of wedding traditions. The white wedding dress, Tolentino writes, dates back only to 1840, “when twenty-year-old Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, her cousin, in a formal white gown trimmed with orange blossoms.”
Before that, for centuries, brides wore color: in ancient Greece, violet or red; in Renaissance Europe, usually blue; in 19th-century France and England, black silk. Yet, in 1849, less than a decade after Queen Victoria’s wedding, the American women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book declared that, for brides, “Custom has decided, from the earliest age, that white is the most fitting hue.” Tolentino’s point is that, when it comes to weddings, tradition has long been more of a sales pitch than a reality.
Leavenworth’s shop is indebted to history without being sentimental about it. As fascinated by vintage garments as the owner is, she seems to have little interest in hewing to tradition. She speaks encouragingly of eschewing the status quo, adding what seems to be her mantra on the subject of wedding wear: “Your day, your choice.”
Rather than using the idea of tradition to manipulate customers, she’d rather help them by cutting off a sleeve here or bringing up a hem there.
And, as far as the rules of fashion go, this seamstress has a rebel streak. The trick, she demonstrates, is not so much in breaking the rules but breaking them well. And if dressing for your celebration were a chance to act up with style and grace — that might be what it’s all about, no?