My grandmother has another woman’s wedding dress in her closet, and it's completely on accident. We learned this fact together last month, in her home in Sharpsburg, Georgia. It all started with a request I made.
I’m getting married in less than three months. My fiance and I got engaged in May and set the date for October, about four and a half months out. Naturally, the first thing on my list was a dress. I made a couple appointments at different dress shops and went through the whole ordeal -- you tell a usually young, female attendant what your wedding day will be like and what styles you prefer; they select a dozen or so dresses and hang them up in your private dressing room; you try them on with the attendant’s help (this was always the funniest part to me -- they use those industrial strength metal clamps to pin the dress to your body, like stretching a canvas over a pickup bed). Up until then, it was all smiles and polite courtesies and oos and ahs and “Oh, Cindy, you HAVE to see this one on her...” and lots of picture taking. But then they asked when the wedding was. And I told them October. And those smiles evaporated like steam.
Grandma remembers picking her wedding dress out of a book. She was a freshman at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, 18 years old. Her mother, back in Rome, Georgia, sent her a catalog in the mail, and grandma (Betsy is her name) told her mother which ones she liked. When Betsy returned home, there was her dress, hanging up in her room. Her mother had ordered one for her while she was away. Betsy thought it was lovely.
Today, in the world of wedding dress shopping, saying you need a dress in four months is like saying you want to build a house in four weeks. It’s possible, but Jesus, why didn’t you start earlier? Wedding dress shops are stocked by samples sent to them by various designers. The sample dresses are usually sized very large (hence the need for the metal clamps to try them on), and once you find one you like, you place your order with the shop, who takes your measurements and orders it from the designer in your custom size. That can take months.
When I saw the worried look on the faces of the shop attendants after telling them my wedding was less than four months away, I started considering alternate options. A used dress would work. Buying a sample dress would be an option. I also thought of my grandmother’s dress.
Grandma and grandad got engaged in 1953 on their birthdays (they're one day apart). She was turning 18, he 21. They decided to marry after he graduated from Emory University the following year. In the interim, Betsy spent a year at college, where she remembers calling grandad on the dorm’s single phone in the hallway, to the delight of her female hall mates. Grandad was in his final year of college at Emory University, enrolled in ROTC. He fielded her phone calls from the single telephone in his hallway at Emory, and they married in Atlanta in 1954, one week after his graduation and commission ceremony into the Air Force as 2nd Lieutenant. Betsy pinned on his bars.
I had seen pictures of grandma’s dress, but never the real thing, which she kept in a sealed box in her closet. I wanted inspiration. Her dress was classic. Covered in lace, with a fitted bodice and a full skirt. She wore a veil and gloves. She even wore a small hoop skirt beneath the dress. In their wedding photos, Betsy and Sam are beaming.
When I asked my grandmother if I could look at her wedding dress last month, she got excited. Yes, she told me. She had kept her gown in a large box in her closet, sealed with tape, unopened since she received it from the cleaners decades ago. It would be the first time she’d seen it in years.
My aunt Cathy, grandma’s youngest daughter, got married in 1980. She wore grandma’s dress. There’s a picture of her on her wedding day, with my dad and my aunts and uncles, grandma and grandad’s entire family. They look so young. The dress is still beautiful. Timeless. It was St. Philip's Cathedral in Atlanta.
Grandma was expecting us. My mom, my sister, and I drove over to her house in the pickup, on the road through the woods that connects our two houses. Grandma and Grandad were there, waiting. They had the box out in the living room. It said "Bridal Gown Treasure Chest" on top.
I took lots of pictures. It was a moment to remember. I wanted to see grandma’s face when she saw it again. Grandma and grandad even gotten their wedding photo album out and put it on the table. Inside the first box was another. The top of this one said "Lifetime of Loveliness" in cursive:
Inside this box, another one. This one, gold, with a window in it showing a portion of the dress through. Grandma opened it, too:
But something was amiss...she took it out to look at it better.
And realized, rather assuredly, that this was not her wedding dress. Not the one that she wore in 1954, not the one that Cathy wore in 1980. I think she was a bit shocked. She'd had this box in her closet for over 30 years, believing that her wedding dress was safe and sound inside.
I finally found a wedding dress. It was a sample, a dress used by a bridal boutique for trying on. I had put away the notion of wearing grandma's even before I went to visit her, deciding to wear something less full. The fact that she opened a box with another woman's dress inside makes me wonder about the whole notion of a dress anyway. It's a costume, really. A costume that you make special by what you do in it. Grandma believed for so many decades that she had kept hers. But she hadn't. Someone else's memories are in that dress. Hers are somewhere else.
I don't know if the mystery will every be solved. I'd like to say we've made inquiries about it somewhere, but we haven't. And in a way, it's I think it's actually okay.
Betsy and Sam just celebrated their 59th wedding anniversary in June. That dress served it's purpose.
My wedding day is October 5. I don't know if I will save my dress. I haven't even really thought about it. But I'm sure that I'd much rather spend 59 years with Trae than 59 years with my wedding dress.