In October 1955, my grandmother walked down the aisle in a gown of ivory satin and Alençon lace purchased from Helene’s Bridal (still in business in East Providence). In the style of the time, it had a fitted bodice and a circle skirt, poofed out to its full volume with a hoop skirt underneath. The simple veil fell to her waist, and was attached to a beaded and sequined crown-like headpiece.
My mom, in 1981, wore the dress for her wedding, with a few alterations that she did herself. Because of untreated staining, most of the train had to be trimmed off, and the front panel replaced. Lace appliques were scattered artfully across the satin to cover any other spots that couldn’t be cut away. Tucks were taken in the bodice, and the gown was hemmed to better fit my mom’s 5’2” frame. She also replaced the lace in the crown, a process that involved removing each sequin and then sewing it back on to a new lace backing. Despite all the work, the gown looked resplendent for my parents’ wedding. She wore a regular petticoat, not a hoop, and the gown had a more modest amount of “poof.”
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I decided I would wear this family heirloom for my own wedding, but it was long before I met my fiance. I had grown up looking at my mother’s wedding portrait, where the ivory gown is set off in dramatic fashion against a stark, black background, and the decision came to me sometime in high school. At the time, more than anything, I wanted to own a pair of designer shoes (Manolo Blahnik, ideally) and the only event for which I could foresee justifying such a purchase would be my wedding. I would wear the shoes again, I reasoned, unlike the dress. Why not spend big money on my dream shoes that I would get more use out of, and simply wear my mother’s (and grandmother’s) dress, which was free?
Years later, this still felt like sound logic to me. But… it’s more than just the shoes. I love vintage fashion, have been wearing vintage regularly for years, and there simply couldn’t be a more perfect gown for me than one from the 1950s. The fact that it was worn by my mom and grandmother only adds to its value; I’m a history nerd, I work at a museum, and my favorite things are old things with a story.
Last spring, as soon as Rob and I began to talk about getting engaged, I pulled the wedding dress box out of my mom’s closet to take stock of it. She had gotten it cleaned and boxed after her wedding, but warned me that the lace had come out a little worse for wear in the process.
We opened the box, and for the first time, I laid my eyes on the dress I had only ever seen in pictures. The bodice was facing up with the skirt folded underneath. The lace and scattered beading seemed to be in perfect shape. As we unfolded the skirt and lifted the dress out of the box, however, we began to notice issues: patches of lace on the skirt had detached, and hung off the dress in strips. There was one brown stain on the back of the shoulder. I put the dress on and could only manage to button a few buttons at the waist, and none of the buttons that went all the way up the back; the dress was too small for me.
I suppose any rational person would say to themselves, “Well, that’s that,” find themselves a nice, new dress to say ‘Yes’ to, and move on. But my resolve to wear the dress, regardless, was strong. “I salvaged this thing once,” my mom said. “I suppose we can do it again.”
My mom and I both sew; I’ve done it for a few years, but she’s done it her entire life. As a result of being petite, my mom has spent much of her time hemming my clothes, taking them in, and adjusting them here and there. I have a habit of looking at something that blatantly doesn’t fit me and thinking, “We can make this work.”
And so, we’re making it work. At the time of this writing, the sections of detached lace have been restored with a combination of careful sewing, new tulle backing, and fabric glue. The brown stain will likely be covered by an applique, and as for the bodice not fitting… stay tuned and cross your fingers. It will involve either adding a new satin panel, or retrofitting some sort of open-V back.
My grandmother passed away in 2013 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. My mom and I have pored over her wedding album in recent months, trying to get a sense of the dress in its original state. I imagine she’d be happy that I’m wearing the dress she picked out over half a century ago, but I can also picture her generous soul asking if I was quite, quite sure I wanted to wear the dress, and offering to help get me a brand new one.
We liked to shop, my grandmother and me. I spent my middle and high school years at the now-defunct Swansea Mall with her, trying on back-to-school clothes while she sat outside in her wheelchair and read a book as I changed (a former librarian, she never left home without a book). She would always compliment me on my ability to find a good sale. Since her passing, every time I find the perfect thing for the perfect price, I like to imagine she had something to do with it.
And as for my Manolos, I got those babies second-hand, on sale, for $55 on theRealReal.com. They’re gold, and I love them. Thanks, Granny.