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I didn’t fantasize about a wedding — until I put on my great-grandmother’s dress

LEFT: The author’s great-grandmother’s dress, before alterations. RIGHT: The dress after alterations. (Photos courtesy Heather L. Hughes)
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The mice had shown no mercy. They chewed right through the organic linen garment bag I’d bought to protect my great-grandmother’s wedding dress.

Granted, even before the rodents, age had taken its toll. My great-grandmother walked down the aisle wearing the silk-and-lace custom creation in 1898. No matter how well constructed, how gently it’s been handled, after 117 years a garment shows its age. With a tattered hem and a train that shed bits of cloth — no matter how slight and subtle the motion — the dress had entered Miss Havisham territory.

Since my great-grandmother died before I was born, I knitted together an image of her from photos, portraits and my mother’s stories.

Like her, the dress in its prime had been more elegant than ethereal. Its train was modest by wedding-dress-standards. There were no bows, no puffs, no flounces. The skirt didn’t billow, but hung straight. It was a dress that didn’t seek attention through excess; it had an aura of reserve that would have suited my great-grandmother well.

Despite the hopes and expectations of a happy marriage that the dress might have represented as she walked down the aisle, 10 years later Mary Isabel Lockwood divorced her husband on the grounds of infidelity. She never remarried.

Though my great-grandmother’s marriage was beyond repair, I wanted to salvage her dress. Neither my grandmother nor my mother wore it for their own weddings. Still, my mother kept the dress as a memento of her grandmother. (Marriage, however, did not lose its appeal for my great-grandfather — he wed twice more.)

More than four decades later, my older and younger sisters married in simple city hall ceremonies, eschewing traditional formal attire. So my mother passed the dress on to me, the only single daughter remaining.

I’ve never had wedding fantasies, not even as a little girl playing dress-up. Maybe because what follows the wedding seems like a letdown; all that spectacle, excitement and heightened emotion followed by the routine and familiarity of marriage.

In my early 20s, I declared I wasn’t interested in marriage because of its patriarchal roots. One afternoon at my part-time bookstore job, I was holding forth on the innate inequality of marriage. My co-worker Marjorie, a single woman in her late 40s, waited for a pause and said, “You know, not every woman receives a marriage proposal. Some women don’t get to choose to say no, or yes.” That possibility never occurred to me before.

[I’d love to attend your wedding, but I can’t afford it]

Despite my apathy toward marriage, when I first tried on the dress, at my mother’s house during Christmas, a fantasy started unspooling itself: I wanted a wedding that would allow me to wear this dress. I had turned 40 the summer before and was occasionally hooking up with an Albanian carpenter 12 years younger than me; we had very little in common except an enjoyment of each other’s bodies. For my wedding fantasy, though, he would do just fine. He’d get a green card; I’d get to wear the dress.

Back home in New York, my interest in the carpenter faded, as did the fantasy. But my fascination with the dress remained. For a while I had it hanging, uncovered, from the door of my hall closet. The dress had a spectral quality to it, as if it didn’t require a body to occupy it, but was perfectly capable of gliding down the aisle by itself. No groom required.

Still, the dress required an occasion, and nothing suitable presented itself. Marjorie’s words about marriage proposals came back to me: What if she hadn’t been speaking just about herself all those years ago? What if my disinterest in marriage was self-protective, a reaction to never having been in a relationship that got anywhere close to the altar? The men I tended to become involved with were resolute bachelors, scornful or suspicious of marriage. Or they had already been married and weren’t interested in trying again. Or they were still married.

[How I survived my ex’s wedding]

This year, as I packed up my apartment to move from New York to New Orleans, I contemplated the dress once again. In its mice-altered state, it was unwearable — yet I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of it. I took the dress to the tailor, fully expecting him to tell me that the dress couldn’t be salvaged.

Roy, the tailor, examined the dress and pulled out a special chalk that would be visible on the lace. As I watched Roy peer at the hemline, pins in hand, my anticipation rose. Visions of the creation that might emerge flooded my head. I would be featured on street-style blogs! I would wear it to my freelance assignments in SoHo and Midtown and downtown Manhattan! The dress would acquire a different character depending on the situation and place, but it would always have history and a great story behind it. It might take weeks, perhaps even months, for the dress to be ready, but the wait — and cost — would be worth it …

“It’ll be ready within the hour,” Roy said. “Fifty dollars.”

When I picked up the finished dress, it seemed less mysterious and regal than I remembered it. Shorn of the train and several inches of skirt, it looked … ordinary. Rather than real Victorian elegance, it resembled a rendering of Victorian elegance, as imagined by the nameless designers of Anthropologie.

I had such visions wrapped up with the wearing of the dress, of how I would be transformed. I held on to them the way I had kept my grandmother’s monogrammed silk handkerchiefs long after the fabric had begun to tear, making them pretty useless; similar to how I refused to throw out my father’s nightshirt after he died, even when the cotton became whisper-thin and smelled of sweat no matter how many times I washed it. They became talismans, representing times that no longer existed, the last physical connections to people I would never see again.

The dress would come with me when I left New York, but as something lighter and less complicated. After so many years it was, finally, a dress and nothing more.


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