History was very much in the air as I sat in the kitchen of Sarah’s beautiful Dorset rectory – a house to which Thomas Hardy was once a regular visitor. ‘He used to cycle out from Dorchester to visit the vicar,’ she tells me, ‘as he was supervising the building works in the adjacent church.’
But today the story is not of Hardy, but of an ancient wedding dress: first designed in 1949 for a society wedding in Knightsbridge; then worn in a 1990’s country wedding, not far from where we’re now sitting; before having its third outing at a humanist ceremony in Scotland earlier this year.
Here’s Sarah’s tale.
“ The dress was first worn by my mother, Monica, who married my father, Hugh, in Knightsbridge with a reception at Searcys – very much the standard arrangement in those days.
My parents married just four years after the war had ended. The best we can do on who made the dress is that it would have been a local couturier seamstress. There was clearly still rationing of everything and the range of materials available would have been very limited. I always thought the fabric was sourced from France, but when my niece, Clare, took it to be re-cleaned earlier this year, one company said it was perhaps synthetic. This would seem surprising, as my mother came from a very good family and she had beautiful clothes – I still have two of her full length black velvet cloaks and several ball gowns and day dresses – and that generation didn’t take lightly to synthetics. But, whatever it is, when I looked at it for my wedding I loved the fabric. It feels very heavy, very thick. It has a beautiful spider-web pattern woven into it – gold thread stitched into a beige-cream background.
Like so many brides of her time, my father wasn’t the man my mother had originally expected to marry – he’d sadly been killed in the war (history doesn’t relate any more detail). My mother’s parents had divorced when she was five, very unusual for those days, and when she got married her father was the ambassador in Helsinki.
During the war my mother had worked as a
junior secretary in the Cabinet War Rooms
We have a picture of her in there with senior military, poring over the maps. She spent many a night working late, after which she’d walk home to Knightsbridge – the family home which was bombed when they were in it. Also, her mother had a brain haemorrhage and two of her brothers were tragically killed in the war – and this was all before she was twenty.
My parents had overlapped in childhood years but I think were reintroduced during the war by my father’s step siblings. My paternal grandfather was a tea planter in Ceylon (as it was in those days). My father also had several tragedies. His mother died when he was seven and when his father remarried he and his brother, Peter, were rather left to their own devices. In his adult life he had an immense knowledge of butterflies and moths, that stemmed from hours spent walking along the hedgerows as a boy.
I have three siblings, and all four of us were born at home in Suffolk. My mother wasn’t very well after my elder brother was born so she got a nanny in for the first six weeks. ‘Nanny’ stayed for 28 years.
I met Richard as we worked in the same merchant bank. I joined in 1984 and we finally got married in 1990 when we were both in our mid-thirties.
I was intrigued by what my mother had worn at her wedding,
I’d seen photos and was interested in having a look at the dress.
She was very good about saying ‘no obligation’ as she didn’t want to put any pressure on me. When I decided to wear it, I’m assuming she was quietly thrilled. Although, now I think about it, probably the greater relief was that I was actually getting married. I was the last in the family, and, unbeknownst to me, my father had always kept a half bottle of champagne ready, hoping that a visit home might finally herald an announcement.
For him it was also wonderful that I wore the dress. But perhaps he was even more proud of the fact that he could still wear the same morning suit that he’d worn at his own wedding when he walked me down the aisle. That’s quite something, to have two of the same outfits being worn, forty years on – and neither needing any alterations due to height or girth.
When I got the dress it had been stored in a grotty suitcase
– really disgusting. It’s like a plastic alligator skin –
but not even as nice as that sounds.
Just a really tacky case, about 30” by 20”, into which the dress had literally been stuffed, not wrapped in anything special. It’s interesting that I put it back there after I’d used it, and it will probably go back in when Clare returns it – perhaps wrapped in a bit of fresh tissue. That way, we all know which suitcase it’s in.
Because we married quite late I didn’t feel any obligation to have it at my parents’ house, so we got married from our cottage in Dorset – on just the piggiest day. It was foul, the wind and rain coming over the church roof delaying our coming out of the church.
My mother was a very good-looking six-footer when she married. I’m not as tall (about 5’ 10”) but my niece Clare is nearer 6’ 3”. So there’s tremendous height in the family. Remarkably the dress wasn’t too long for me – my husband has to work really hard to be as tall as I am so I wore flat gold pumps. I had, however, assumed it would be too tight as my mother was very slim – they were a tiny-waisted generation and we’d always said she was a 22-24 inch waist. But it fitted. And actually, when I recently took it out of the suitcase for Clare, both my sister and I tried it on for a giggle and were amazed we could both still wear it. So perhaps my mother wasn’t as tiny as family lore tells!
When I first saw it I was surprised at how pretty it was. If I’m honest, one of the reasons I wore it is because it saved me buying one. Once I’d decided I quite liked the fabric, the essential characteristics of it and the very pretty veil, I thought, right, fine, it’ll be much cheaper just to alter it rather than buying a new one. And I guess I’m not very adventurous, why re-invent what’s already there to wear?
I didn’t like the styling around the bodice, which, more than forty years on, was quite dated. My mother said it was fine for me to alter it, which is perhaps not what I would have expected. There was a very brave friend in the village who offered to do it and she undid all this weighty pleating and re-worked the bow. She dyed the new fabric using tea to match in with the colouring of the dress. Actually the tea was a bit prophetic as on the day someone spilt a large cup of it on the dress’ train, which is why Clare was trying to get it cleaned again when she received it, twenty-five years later.
I am delighted that I wore it on my wedding day, delighted. I think there’s a lovely continuity and an opportunity to re-celebrate both an event and a generation.
And I felt equally delighted when I saw Clare wearing it this summer. No, it didn’t make me cry – because I’m not emotional – well, I can be, about some things, but not with that.
However, I was very surprised when Clare asked if she could try the dress on. She’d been a bridesmaid at my wedding, aged about eight and already very tall. Through her mother she let it be known that she’d be intrigued to see it.
So I got the dress out of the disgusting suitcase and took it to
London, where my sister-in-law stuffed it in a carrier bag and
took it to Newcastle – there’s not much ceremony surrounding it.
Clare and her husband met at Cambridge and some 12 years later they got married (although my mother got married very young, so it’s not exactly a theme of this tale). Clare is a chemical engineer working on soap powders, so it was with some knowledge that she went about restoring the dress when it was her turn to wear it. But she certainly wasn’t prepared for it turning black when, as the cleaner suggested, she hand-washed it in the bath. I only heard about this drama well after it had happened, and in the event the black came out, but for a while she thought it was ruined.
Just as with me, the dress fitted Clare really well – it was just rather shorter. Once more she changed the bodice a bit and removed my bow. The first time I saw her in it was when she sent me a picture from her bedroom of her trying it on. But, just like with my mother, we didn’t liaise at all – you want to be entirely hands off in events like this.
Clare’s ceremony was fundamentally different to my mother’s and mine. When I married I was very clear that I wasn’t going to be doing any obeying, but apart from that it was all pretty traditional. Clare and Ian had a humanist ceremony, where they wrote their vows and then shared publicly what they were committing to each other. I thought that was very special.
Clare is amazingly resourceful. I doubt she went to look at any other dresses, and if she hadn’t worn the family one she’d probably have made her own. In fact, she and her husband did their whole wedding themselves, from the catering to the bunting. They’d cooked all the food previously and had 80 for supper on the Friday night and 150 for the the wedding.
When we arrived at the ceremony – in the grounds of a hunting lodge, straw bales and idyllic weather – the very nice man officiating started with, ‘Right, lots of you probably don’t know about a humanist ceremony, so if you’d all like to stand up, then we’ll take off our clothes and if you’d like to follow me we’ll run around the garden and then go to the lake.’ And you had this sort of nervous flutter as people realised what he’d said…
I think it speaks for the strength of our family that Clare and I both chose to wear the dress
although I also think it speaks for a certain parsimony and frugality that certainly runs through my side. That and a general lack of interest in fashion; meaning we’re not really minded to spend money on clothes.
That aside, the fact that three generations have worn the same dress must say something about our essential values: that one’s wedding is an incredibly important event and yet part of the tapestry of life. Therefore the opportunity to be reminded of the associations that come with family and generations are made possible when you have an event at which you can all wear something that is clearly a rather special once-in-a-lifetime item.
Both my parents lost siblings in the war, so theirs was a generation that suddenly shrunk. My father had one brother who died, my mother had three siblings, of which two were killed – so there weren’t any cousins at my wedding. But at Clare’s, with my three siblings and all their children, my side of the family immediately made 25, and then there was Ian’s large family there as well – his mother being one of four sisters.
It would have to be a real pleasure to think that
someone else might wear the dress one day
– there’s definitely another generation of very tall sylphlike young women in the running. Who knows if anyone will; it’s possible. Absolutely. Although we may reach a point where the actual thread will need replacing on the seams as they continue to deteriorate over time and the many fabric covered buttons are beginning to rust.
We’re not particularly traditional as families go – there’s a difference between being traditional in the sense of not being prissy about life and how you need to do things, versus old fashioned. My mother was presented at court; I declined. And Clare in turn has had a much less formal upbringing than me.
The tea stain never did come out – although it didn’t show as the colouring of the fabric and where it was on the train hid it. But it’s definitely not a dress that could have been worn by a perfectionist – someone who took their appearance very seriously. That kind of person just couldn’t have worn something with a stain, let alone a history. Clare had a choice – and I think she chose to regard it as part of the dress’s character, its provenance.
And I will think the same, when I stuff the dress back into the disgusting suitcase. Until, one day, perhaps, somebody asks me – or one of my heirs – about the possibility of wearing it again. ”