In 1971, when Haya Stein first opened what would eventually become Ethos Bridal Group, she wasn’t in the business of selling bridal wear. Stein, along with her husband, Stanley, and her brothers, Sam and Hayim, sold indigenous handicrafts and clothing including embroidered Mexican dresses. These unfussy but beautiful cotton dresses were an unexpected hit with young brides who eschewed the more formal, polyester gowns of the time.
“This peasant-style, alternative dress was very big in the ’70s,” Stein says. Stein quickly observed what was selling and looked to expand her stock with a wider selection of boho dresses and unconventional wedding gowns.
“We’d get a box from Gunne Sax or Laura Ashley, and kids would come in, either for graduation or a wedding, and I would sell 20 in one day,” Stein says. “These dresses were so different from everything else available and, suddenly, everybody wanted them.”
The Gunne Sax line, in particular, spoke to the hippie movement of the 1970s. The inexpensive gowns featured simple silhouettes, higher necklines, leg-of-mutton sleeves, lace and came in light cotton, cotton eyelet or voile, a semi-transparent fabric made from cotton, wool or silk.
The dresses were a bona fide hit. To meet demand, Stein got permission from Gunne Sax to produce similar versions of its iconic frocks, and Ethos began to make its own in a factory in Israel.
“We didn’t plan it like that; it just happened,” Stein says. “If you wanted a barefoot wedding by the river, you bought this dress.” But, by the mid-1980s, Princess Diana’s gown was all the rage and simple cotton wedding dresses were pass. Brides wanted corsets, puffy sleeves, large trains, crinolines and elaborate accessories. Stein found herself with hundreds of the boho wedding dresses and no one to buy them.
“People asked, ‘What are you going to do with all those dresses?'” Stein says. “I couldn’t sell them. I gave some to charity, but I just couldn’t put the rest in the garbage. It really didn’t feel right.”
Instead, Stein carefully packed them all away. The boxes of dresses spent many years in storage in different locations in and around the Devenish Building on 17th Avenue S.W., Ethos’s current location. This year, with storage at a premium, Stein decided it was time to reintroduce the vintage dresses to Calgary. Stein plans to sell some online but will also sell what she has dubbed the Ethos Vintage Collection in her main store as well, featuring the original unworn 1970s-era dresses at reasonable prices.
Ethos’s stash of vintage gowns is unlike anything else on the market today. The simple silhouettes and easy-care fabrics are once again perfect for brides looking for an original, less-formal alternative to today’s gowns.
“People are looking for a nostalgic, romantic style of gown, and these have both,” Stein says. “They are so beautiful. They might not be for everybody, but someone here in Calgary will love them.”