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A Tale of Three Wedding Gowns: 1932-2010

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Courtesy of Joan Gage
Courtesy of Joan Gage

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The other day, as I tried to track down some photos I took in the seventies, I dragged out of the closet two sealed cardboard boxes containing all our unsorted family photographs from that decade. Although I didn't find what I wanted, I unearthed a treasure that I didn't think existed -- a photo of my parents dressed for their wedding in August of 1932.

I had heard stories of the sweltering day when my Minnesota-born father arrived, landing in a Kansas cornfield in the small private plane flown by his (rich) brother-in-law Millard, who was to be his best man. The wedding took place in the church of my mother's father, a Presbyterian minister, in Oswego, Kansas, and then the reception was held in the church hall or in the rectory next door where my mother had grown up.

I was always told that the amateur photos someone took didn't come out, so the bride and groom had to re-stage the event. But many details in this photo seem authentic to the wedding day -- the three white calla lilies my mother told me she carried, and the look of terror in their eyes. My mother (Martha Dobson Paulson) is wearing a Juliet cap, I think it's called, a drifty veil and a bias-cut long white satin dress that looked like a slip or a nightgown. The photo doesn't really show the gown, but I remember, when I was about 10 or 12 years old, finding the dress in a trunk. Naturally I tried to put it on but, even as a child, I was too wide to pull it over my hips. (My mother struggled all her life with being underweight.)

I assume that this dress was made for Martha either by one of her sisters (there were seven girls in the family -- all talented at sewing) or by her mother, Anna Truan Dobson, who gave quilting and sewing lessons as well as teaching French and piano. There was not enough money, I suspect, in the salary of a minister with nine children to buy a wedding gown, even if there had been an appropriate store in Oswego, Kansas.

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Finding that photo reminded me of buying my own wedding gown in New York in the summer of 1970. I was making about $100 a week as a journalist, and shopped my way down Fifth Avenue, until I got to Lord & Taylor on Fifth and 38th. The matronly saleslady in the bridal department brought out what I recognized as The Dress as soon as I tried it on. It was a sample, worn by a model. It had lots of lace and a modest neckline and long sleeves. (In those days no bride would dare to wear a strapless dress in church.) It had a lace-edged train and buttons all down the back. And because it had been worn, I could buy it at half price -- $250 instead of the original $500!

The headpiece -- a circular lace-covered ring with a short veil of tulle with unfinished edges -- cost me only $30 because I had it made by one of those milliners working out of a cubby hole somewhere in the Fashion District around Seventh Avenue. The sort of open pill-box shape was my private homage to Jacqueline Kennedy

I already knew which photographer I would use for the formal wedding portrait -- Jay Te Winburn, a society photographer who became famous for his shots of Brenda Frazier, the debutante of the year in 1938. Winburn took only black and white photographs, using only natural sunlight that poured through the windows of his second-floor studio on 57th Street. When I posed for him in my princess-style dress he said to me, "That headpiece is not worthy of the dress." I knew he was right, but I couldn't afford a better one. He also told me that I was to be one of his last brides, as he was retiring. True or not, I always like to say I was the last Jay Te Winburn bride.

In those days The New York Times wedding pages would use formal portraits of the bride, not snapshots of the happy couple in a casual pose. And when I collected mine, I was proud to see "Jay Te Winburn Jr." on each one in his miniscule script.

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When daughter Eleni broke the news to me in June of 2010 that she was planning to be married in Greece, and that the wedding was only four months away, she added that we had an appointment to go shopping in Manhattan at one of the only two places in New York where a bridal gown could be bought off the rack. It was called The Bridal Garden and we found it on the ninth floor of a grim industrial-looking building on 21st Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.

The gowns in the vast suite were all samples, most of them worn once by models and then donated by the store or by the designers themselves. All of the gowns are sold for a fraction of what they'd cost at retail, and all the proceeds go to charity -- to a charter school in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

There were two other bride-plus-Mom couples there, shopping with the efficient help of salesladies Winona and Vivienne. Eleni found The Dress within 90 minutes, a vision in point d'esprit lace with a halter neckline and a beautiful lace-edged hem and train (like mine). And on her wedding day on 10/10/10, she carried calla lilies -- as did my mother in 1932 -- but Eleni's were miniature and flame-colored. Her lace mantilla was a vast improvement over the headdresses that her mother and grandmother wore.

When Eleni made her selection, the salesladies told her the dress was unique -- it had arrived from Barcelona, Spain, only a week before, donated by the designer, Rosa Clara, and it was immaculate, having never been worn. (Dresses that have been soiled are cleaned by the Bridal Garden's special dry cleaner for $250 -- a bargain price today, but back in 1970, $250 was what I paid for my whole dress.)

Winona said that most brides, when they find The Dress, get a particular expression, a "bride face," when they see themselves in the mirror. Eleni was wearing her "bride face," and when she twisted up her hair and Winona placed a simple veil on her head, I felt my eyes fill with tears, just like all the other MOB's who come to The Bridal Garden.

Eleni wrote a check to pay for her own dress -- less than half the price it would have cost in Barcelona, and all for a good cause. Then we headed off to a French restaurant nearby, to have lunch and raise a glass of wine to the One Perfect Dress.

Soon it would be flown back across the ocean to Corfu, where it would be topped by a Spanish-style mantilla, posed on a red staircase, and worn in an open, horse-drawn carriage to a Catholic church for the first wedding mass, then paraded around the town square, escorted by musicians and costumed troubadours, to a second, Greek Orthodox church for a second ceremony. Then it was walked down cobblestone steps to the edge of the sea, below an ancient fortress, to the Corfu Sailing Club, where it would twirl to "You're Just Too Good to Be True," and finally, lit by sparklers and a shower of good wishes, would sail away from the shore into the moonlit sea of the future.

Three generations of wedding gowns, each with its own tale.

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