Gwendolyn Stulgis knew exactly what she wanted in a wedding dress: a long-sleeve lace gown with a beaded train. She also knew she would only wear it once — which bothered her, given the steep price of designer dresses.
Staring at her reflection at a bridal shop in Warren, Ohio, Stulgis decided she’d splurge.
“I fell in love with it,” said Stulgis, 37, who is the vice president of a staffing agency.
But she had some reservations.
“I didn’t want to spend so much money on a dress that I would put in a box and never wear again,” she said. “That’s just not me.”
So, Stulgis came up with a plan. After her wedding on May 6, she would gift the dress to a bride-to-be who otherwise couldn’t afford a gown.
“I knew it wasn’t something I wanted to keep,” said Stulgis, who paid for the dress in monthly installments up until just before her wedding.
Knowing how exorbitant gowns can get — the average price of a bridal gown last year was about $1,800 — she decided to give it away rather than sell it.
She took to social media to find a bride who would be just as thrilled to wear it as she was.
“I felt absolutely gorgeous in it and want someone else to feel how I felt,” Stulgis wrote in a May 19 Facebook post that she shared in various groups.
She included several photos of the gown and clarified the size in a comment. She also laid out some particulars: The recipient of the dress should have a wedding date within a few months of the post, and after it is worn, the bride must dry-clean it and pass it on to another bride, creating an ongoing chain.
Her goal, she wrote, was to “keep going as long as the dress can stand.”
She asked anyone interested to send her a private message explaining why they wanted the dress. The post was shared widely, and once local news picked up the story, it spread even further. Submissions started pouring in, and by the June 2 application deadline, Stulgis had received 72 messages — all of which she read with her husband.
One submission stood out. It was from Margaret Hyde, who lives in Portage County, Ohio.
“Between covid and life throwing rotten lemons at us, our wedding budget keeps getting smaller,” Hyde, 32, wrote in a private Facebook message to Stulgis.
She went on to explain why she wanted the dress and shared a bit about herself.
“I am a simple woman who doesn’t like to talk about herself much,” wrote Hyde, who works at an auto-parts store.
“I serve my community as much as I can,” she continued, adding that she keeps several little free pantries around her neighborhood stocked and donates to her local food pantry whenever she can.
Unbeknown to Hyde, her soon-to-be sister-in-law, Alycia Ashley, also messaged Stulgis on Hyde’s behalf a few days earlier.
“She is the most selfless person I know,” Ashley wrote. “I’ve never met a more deserving woman who would carry on your wish to pass this gown on to someone after her.”
Hyde said she was initially hesitant about entering the dress contest, but she had told Ashley that she was interested in the gown. It was the style she had wanted but couldn’t afford.
“I’m a giver. I’m not normally a taker,” said Hyde, who at the last minute decided to send Stulgis a submission.
In a Facebook Live on June 4, Stulgis announced the lucky bride who would get her dress. Hyde was in shock.
“I wasn’t expecting to win at all,” said Hyde, who had searched far and wide for a dress but couldn’t find one that was affordable. She was considering making her own outfit as a last resort.
“I found several that I loved, but there was no way I could fork out thousands of dollars for one night,” she said.
Stulgis met Hyde in person to pass along the dress, which Hyde intends to give away — along with her shoes and some costume jewelry — once she has worn it at her wedding in October.
“I met her, and I felt like it was meant to be,” Stulgis said.
“The fact that I can pass this on, too, I absolutely love,” Hyde added.
Others were intrigued by the concept. In the process of trying to find the recipient of her dress, Stulgis received messages from many women who also wished to give away their wedding gowns.
“There’s just so many dresses and so many kind people,” Stulgis said.
She decided to start a Facebook group called Shared Dream Dresses to encourage women around the world to also give away their gowns to someone who would love to wear it.
“All gowns are free and donated and cleaned from the previous owner and passed on,” the group’s description reads.
Women are entitled to alter the gowns as they wish, Stulgis said, with the caveat that, once worn and washed, they will repost it in the group for another bride to claim.
In the four weeks since the group has launched, more than 2,100 members have joined and roughly 100 brides have successfully secured a dress to wear on their wedding day.
“It’s not about me anymore. It’s about other people wanting to give away their dress to someone else who needs one,” Stulgis said. “It’s really working out, and it’s so lovely.”
Jennifer Francis, 58, was one of the first members to join the group and excitedly offered up her formal ivory strapless gown, which she bought for her upcoming August wedding but ended up picking a different dress. The gown is unworn, and all the tags are still on it.
“I really just wanted to bless somebody with this dress,” said Francis, who lives in New York City.
Several women wanted it, Francis said, but there was one bride who was only a few days away from her wedding and, due to financial hurdles, still hadn’t gotten a gown. Francis paid to have the dress express shipped to Cambridge, Md., where the woman lives.
“She was very appreciative,” said Francis, who is one of five moderators in the Facebook group and also monitors the posts to ensure no one is trying to sell anything.
In the end, “I didn’t get that dress for myself. It was really for her,” Francis said.
Along with wedding gowns, women have also started sharing bridesmaids dresses, mother-of-the-bride ensembles and other accessories.
Stulgis’s mother, Lisa Toner, gave away two of her own gowns in the Facebook group.
“I’m never going to wear them again, and I want to let somebody enjoy them,” she said. “They were going to hang in my closet forever. At least someone now can wear these gowns and not have to worry about the burden of spending thousands of dollars for something that they’re going to wear for four to five hours.”
“When Gwendolyn decided to do this, I was just amazed,” she continued. “I think it’s a wonderful idea. I hope it spreads all over and makes every woman smile.”
That’s exactly her daughter’s wish.
“I’d like to help as many brides as we can,” Stulgis said. “Everyone deserves to feel beautiful on their wedding day.”