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Tuesday, 19 May 2009

The Wedding Gown

By Claudia Chyle Smith

Six years ago, we celebrated my in-laws' 65th wedding anniversary in Iowa. At 92 and 91, Dad was hard of hearing and Mom had eye problems, but they enjoyed a good life in their retirement home.

Mom brought out her wedding photographs and my sister-in-law unpacked Mom's handmade wedding gown. The amazing thing to us, her offspring whose lives are consumed with 21st century stress, was that Mom quit her job a week before the wedding to sew both her wedding gown and her sister's maid-of-honor dress.

"Can you imagine starting and finishing a wedding dress in a week?" my sister-in-law asked.

"No, if it had been me, we would have had to elope when the dress didn't fit," I said.

Carefully smoothing out the old newsprint that flaked around the edges, Mom handed the faded, yellowed clipping from the society section of the Salina, Kansas newspaper to me to read aloud.

"Miss Alice Mae Williams became the bride of Mr. Robert Burton Smith, son of Mr. and Mrs. Jess B. Smith, of Kansas City, Mo., at one of the prettiest of early summer weddings at nine o'clock this morning at Christ Cathedral."

"We got married early because it was Kansas and hot, even in May," said Mom. We sat there picturing the couple before us as a young couple.

I read on about the "tall white candles, vases of Easter lilies and white snapdragons" that adorned the altar and the sophisticated selection of music chosen by Dad, a violinist himself. But the real pleasure lay in the description of her dress.

"The bride wore a floor length gown of white marquisette over white satin, with insertions of hand-made Irish lace emphasizing the high Empire waistline below a shirred bodice. The Irish lace banded the full puffed sleeves and outlined the square neck. Two full flounces finishing the form-fitting skirt were attached by the Irish lace. Her full veil of illusion fell in two lengths from a wreath of lilies of the valley. She carried a colonial bouquet of Johanna Hill roses and valley lilies, tied with satin streamers holding showers of Sweet Alyssum."

To see the dress in reality after reading this lyrical description was pure pleasure. The gown was a light froth of filmy fabric with stitches so tiny I could hardly see them without a magnifying glass. Even after all these years, the dress, though aged, looked lovely.

"Miss Thelma Williams, her sister's only attendant, wore a floor length gown of pink net with the bodice gathered into a high neckline edged with rose velvet ribbon. Four bows of the rose velvet accentuated the high waistline and edged the full puffed sleeves. She wore a large picture hat of horse-hair braid banded with rose velvet ribbon and carried a colonial bouquet of Premiere roses and sweet peas."

"Did you see how skinny Grandma was?" my daughter whispered. "She was tiny."

She also was one of eight children who grew up in modest circumstances, her mother a homemaker and her father a traveling salesman. When her parents each died early, the children ranged in age from six to early 20s. They banded together, the older ones going to work to raise the youngest ones.

Mom said, “We were poor, but we didn't know it."

Dad's family was more prosperous and his folks helped Mom's siblings with food, money and wherewithal. It was they who insisted upon a small wedding breakfast for the newlyweds at the local country club. Even this description brought the image to life:

"The large wedding cake, wreathed in flowers and topped with a cluster of blossoms, centered the table. At either end were white baskets of pink and white snapdragons and candytuft."

Mom and Dad, the new Mr. and Mrs. Robert Smith, left that afternoon

"...on a two weeks' wedding trip in the east, motoring to Washington, D.C., and New York City.

"For traveling, the bride wore a costume suit of Bachelor blue wool, with natural lynx trimming the tuxedo front of the hip-line jacket. Her hat was of blue felt, and her slippers and accessories were in Italian tan."

Dad piped up that their "motoring trip" almost ended before it began with car trouble. They pulled into a garage in a dusty Kansas town at ten to five. The mechanics had already gone home.

"The owner said they could fix it first thing Monday morning,” said Dad. “We were crushed. I explained that we had reservations at the Muhleback Hotel in Kansas City for that night. He called the fellas back in and they fixed the car right away."

As the mother of two daughters and survivor of both of their weddings, I know how stressful weddings can be. In the early years of our marriage, when I sewed yet another crooked dress with a wavy hemline, I promised that I would never sew our daughters' wedding dresses. He looked relieved. But when I looked at that lovely dress, it did occur to me that a handsewn wedding gown is a thing of beauty forever.

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


How the dress, the newsprint and the conversation capture a time and a family! Wonderful writing and a lovely reminiscence.

What a wonderful picture you've created in my mind.

Yes, beautiful! Wonderful story. You make it come alive for us.

The descriptions are so vivid. I can almost believe I was among the guests at that wedding.

This essay really brought back a lot of memories, thanks to the author's warm writing style.

I always thought early morning wedding were rare. My parents got married in South Dakota in 1936 at 7:00 in the morning - due to the extreme heat that summer. In this story, the aurthor reveals that her parents were married at 9:00 in the morning for the same reason. Maybe not so rare after all.
I also remember serving as an altar boy for weddings that commonly took place at 9:30 a.m. in the '50s.
Can you imagine a bride today even considering a ceremony at that hour!?

I can remember a time when a bride’s gown was described in the newspaper write up, but nothing quite like what your story tells. And, as for calling the mechanics back to work so the couple’s plans should not be interrupted, makes one wish we could go back in time.

This was beautiful on every level. Thank you.

Heavenly, heavenly! I wish I had been there!

I love anything homemade about a wedding. In our family, potluck receptions have been common, but probably won't be anymore, as the kids grow up with higher expectations of everything. I made my wedding dress in 1970, white crepe, a slim, floor-length, Empire waist with puffy sleeves.

When I was married 61 years ago most newspapers had a Society Editor who wrote about weddings, carefully describing every little detail. It really made for a wonderful memento of the bride's special day.

Today the video camera records the day. I hope the photos last longer than the marriages.

Thanks, Claudia, for a wonderful recreation of a fond memory.

This is wonderful. You didn't put in their that grandad had me in the back of the church with his car keys that I kept rattling trying to get "My Uncle Bob" to pay attention to me.

What a lovely story, thank you.

It has been so long since I read a wedding announcement that included a description of The Dress, that I had forgotten how much I used to love that feature. Beautiful and amazing reminiscence. Thank you.

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