By Jennifer Lam
In November 1882, Emeline Hopkins Cornell wore a stunning custom-made wedding dress to marry Herman Livingston in Catskill, NY. The white satin gown trimmed with point lace was largely copied from European designs and featured orange blossoms, a bustle and a fitted waist. After the wedding, the young bride moved across the Hudson River to the Livingston ancestral home at Oak Hill where the dress was packed away in the attic to join the generations of Livingston family paraphernalia. There the dress resided until the early 21st Century, when the house had to be sold and tough decisions about its contents - what to keep and what to sell - had to be made.
Well over a hundred years after Emeline Livingston boxed the gown away, it still continues to ignite the imagination. Writer and editor Elizabeth Livingston, whose husband is a descendent of Emeline and her husband Herman Livingston, is currently in the New York Public Library's Wertheim Study researching a book about the gown, its storied place in the Livingston family (it was recently sold at auction and then bought back), and how the tradition it represents ties to sociological studies concerning marriage. The Wertheim Study, which requires an application for use, is reserved for independent researchers in need of rigorous use of the general research collections for a prescribed period of time.
"Emeline's dress really propelled me into thinking about the idea of one singular transformative day in a woman's life," said Livingston, who - being a child of the Sixties and having been raised in a family decidedly unsentimental about these sorts of matters - wore a simple, short white dress to her own wedding. "I am fascinated by how much people really care about the idea of a white wedding dress despite modernization. And in the cases of women who pass on their dresses, the sense of connection and tradition these dresses embody."
While always stored in New York, Emeline's dress had in fact been worn four times. By Emeline herself and then by her three great-granddaughters (Isabel Church Livingston in 1965; Catharine VanBrugh Livingston in 1975; and Laura Mae Livingston in 1983). Why did these young ladies choose their great-grandmother's extravagant and outdated dress?
"I think a wedding dress is a visible symbol of a vibrant crossroad when actual transformations take place, creating a new present and future out of bits of the past," says Livingston. "Separate individuals become a couple with the freedom to create a unique future. The dress draws on the imaginative and magical aspect of stepping into this identity - the dreamy part. The dreamy part can get trampled with mundane reality ('real life'), but it's there, and dresses remind us of that."
The popularity of a white wedding soared after the fairytale nuptials of Queen Victoria of England to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg in February 1840. For the occasion, the Queen wore a sleeved white satin and lace gown adorned with orange blossoms, and a veil of white English lace. The royal wedding portrait was broadly circulated and, soon after, white became the de facto color for wedding gowns. In the centuries leading up the Victorian age, brides often chose to wear rich, colorful dresses reflecting the high fashion of their time and the wealth of the bride's family.
"Before Victoria, the aristocracy wore different colors, often with fur trimmings," Livingston said. "[For] whatever reason, Queen Victoria chose white; and the unusual part is the lasting impression, the fact it became the color for a wedding dress. I think this is because the wedding was lavish and conveyed a kind of 'once in a lifetime' drama and magic... plus the marriage was perceived as romantic: it was a love match."
In Livingston's continuing quest to find out more about matrimony, she is camped out at the Library's Wertheim Study scouring the Library's vast collection of books about the history of weddings and marriage and its social significance. She is also making good use of the Library's Milstein Division of U.S. History, Local History and Genealogy, where she can find details on family history such as deaths and obituaries. "I [can] conveniently go right downstairs from the Wertheim to the Milstein Division," she proclaimed happily. "There is a rich vein in the NYPL of this kind of information."
On Thursday, March 24, Livingston will give a presentation, open to the public, about the dress and her current research in the South Court Auditorium at 1:15pm. "The focus will be on the dress and the larger sociological issues surrounding marriage. How much does tradition hold you back and keep you from being free?"