My friend, Mary Jean Gladfelter Hogg, keeps her grandmother’s wedding dress hung on a tiny dress form in her bedroom. Mary Agnes Yost Gladfelter, 20 years old, was married April 29, 1898. Her dress is a fine deep brown wool, it’s hem lined with brown velvet. The interior of the tiny bodice is supported with rows of boning. The high collar and “modesty” neckline are filled with handmade cream lace. Her waist was so narrow that the dress does not even close on the tiny dress form. The date that Mary Agnes and Arthur posed for the photo portrait was July 4, 1898; five months after their wedding. Mary Agnes is pregnant in this photo with Mary Jean’s father. The dress is machine sewn; the inside reveals fine machine and hand stitches and unusual scalloped pinked seams. We also know she worn the dress at least once again; for the photo. Mary Agnes had 2 children and lived her life in Nebraska and Kansas. She was a school teacher before she was married and lived to be 97 years old.
The provenance of having the dress, the photo and the granddaughter add meaning far more than a simple brown wool Victorian dress one might see in a costume collection or a museum.
“Special possessions are often harbored long past their period of immediate relevance in our lives for they enable us to relive important memories and feel connected to significant people and places from our past”1
Some clothing, like Mary Jean’s grandmother’s wedding dress, take on a greater meaning in the lives of the possessor and carry with them special memories of the original owner who they have outlived. These sacred garments are kept and passed down through generations as if holding memories of family, lineage, history and time within their fabric. This is a special Provenance which can be heightened by the possessions of a photo of the long passed family member in their prime wearing the garment for the special occasion it was made for. This garments are like “keys that unlock memories” It is as if a special wish was granted and a few minutes with this long lost person are granted; these special garments are a bittersweet reminder that life is beautiful but passes quickly. The most special day in someone’s life, long passed and now only a special memory for those who care to remember and hopefully will pass the story and possession to future generations who will also understand the significance.
The story of why the dress is brown in unknown. The tradition of the white wedding dresses started in 1840 when Queen Victoria wore a white wedding gown for her marriage to Albert of Saxe-Coburg, although other colors were still worn. I found this rhyme from that time which mentions the significance of differenct wedding dress colors.
“Married in white, you will have chosen all right. Married in grey, you will go far away. Married in black, you will wish yourself back. Married in red, you’ll wish yourself dead. Married in blue, you will always be true. Married in pearl, you’ll live in a whirl. Married in green, ashamed to be seen, Married in yellow, ashamed of the fellow. Married in brown, you’ll live out of town. Married in pink, your spirits will sink.”2
I also own a piece of the wedding dress and a photo taken in 1919 of my grandmother, Grace Johnson Turner, wearing her wedding dress. She holds in her arms a chubby 1 year old Edna Louise Turner, my aunt. Edna Louise wore a dark suit when she was married in 1947; too soon after WWII for the frivolousness of a white dress and at the age of 28; too old.
I was the first in the family to have the opportunity to wear the lace from Grace’s dress when I was married. My marriage did not last but I still have the lace which I cherish and have carefully packed away in acid free tissue. I had forgotten that I made a special page for my album, including one of the rubrum lilies from my bouquet and the letter that Eddie Lou sent with the lace. We lost Eddie Lou 2 years ago at the age of 91, still spunky and inquisitive, which makes the letter with the lace even more valuable to me.
I own another garment with a secret memory, the night gown my mother wore on her wedding night; entrusted to me to tuck away in a drawer to remember a special time. I had never seen it before, most likely because it is something very private and not to be shared with a young daughter. I was an adult when it was given to me and had become more a friend, confidant and support to my mother. She said, when she gave it to me, that no one would ever have know its significance if she had not told me. How sad to keep a special possession for 57 years and not leave it to someone to guard its memory. One of the most important days of my mother’s life is remembered in this simple gown which has now out lived the special man she bought it to wear. Just a simple white nylon gown purchased in 1950 and kept for 57 years, now tucked in my drawer with the memory safe, of a love long ago. I treasure it and wonder if I will be able to pass it on to someone who will care to safeguard the sacred memory and meaning that this gown holds.
1 Roster, C., (2001), “Letting Go: The Process and Meaning of Dispossession in the Lives of Consumers”, in Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, eds. Mary C. Gilly and Joan Meyers-Levy, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 425-430.
2 McIntyre, K., Guest writer, retrieved from: http://www.fromtimespast.com/wedding.htm