The dress hung in my mother’s attic for over 20 years and in my basement for nearly a decade. The heavy plastic which protected the gown after its one and only wearing had collected dust and grime from years of neglect. But the contents of the plastic bag, sealed tight by a local dry cleaner, retained the winsome appeal that had attracted me in the first place. It was still a pretty dress, simple but elegant, with a single row of flowers down the front and along the bottom edge. The dry cleaner, who may have been a curator in a previous life, had even taken the trouble to shape the dress in a female form and fluffed it throughout with pink tissue paper visible at the neck.
After my parents died, my brother and sisters and I divvied up stuff that had accumulated during our parents’ 45-year marriage. One of the items I became the custodian of was my own wedding dress. Although divorced for many years at that time, I couldn’t bear to toss it. Maybe my then teenage daughter, Liza, would wear it someday.
When I got home to Baltimore, I threw the dress – gently, and giving it plenty of room – into a basement closet containing extra leaves for my dining room table, some curtain rods, and an old suitcase, and promptly forgot about it.
With the approach of my daughter’s 25th birthday, it was time for me to take stock of this still lovely size-nine dress that had hung in a closet for nearly 30 years. Although at that time there weren’t any nuptials on Liza’s horizon, the prospect of revisiting “something old, something new, something borrowed…” was in my mind, if not in hers.
Looking for a precedent, I found none. My own mother had married during World War II and worn a suit, flowered hat, and modest furs for the occasion. She had not kept her wedding garments to display to me and my four younger sisters – except in black and white photographs.
What about my grandmothers, one married twice, the other dead by the time I was seven? The subject of wedding dresses never came up.
As a rule, the women in my family don’t like hand-me-downs. Except for me, they don’t buy from thrift stores or consignment shops. They like to open a gift and see the tags. They like being first. They like new.
Hand-me-downs weren’t an issue for me as a child because I am the oldest. But as an adult I like finding something of value in a second-hand shop – whether a sturdy bookcase for my office, a sweater in mint condition, or a Dana Buchman skirt at a considerable discount. If in the first and second wearing the clothing still carries another woman’s scent, I don’t mind. I breathe deep and for a moment pretend to be someone else – a woman from a different country perhaps, another race, thinner, younger, wiser, funnier.
For whatever reason, this woman has cast off and recycled this piece of clothing instead of tossing it in the dustbin or wearing it herself till it is faded. I am the beneficiary. Secondhand is not necessarily second best so long as there is life and laundry detergent.
Given my own family’s preference for new, who are the women who pass down their wedding dresses to daughters, granddaughters, or nieces, and do so with an expectation of receptivity? Certainly there are practical challenges to this tradition. An obvious one is that the wedding dress must fit or be altered to flatter the bride; another that she likes her relative’s taste or style.
A more subtle consideration and perhaps the overriding one: Was the donor’s marriage essentially a happy one? Did the man and woman truly love each other? It seems to me that women who have had happy marriages are more inclined to want to share those feelings in a symbolic way – through the gift or loan of a wedding dress.
What then of former brides like myself, whose marriages ended in divorce? According to the statistics, we are one out of every two. Do we do our daughters a favor? Do we have their best interests in mind if we expect them to clothe themselves in our bittersweet past?
Because I hope my daughter will fare better in matters of the heart, I chose to donate my wedding dress to charity. It is my hope that a stranger will see the dress for what it is – gently used and with some history, but no baggage.
I can see her now, a young woman very much in love and with high hopes. As she raises the plastic covering, I can hear her say, “What a pretty dress. Simple yet elegant. Let me try it on.”
Dramatists’ Guild member Susan Middaugh has been writing plays since 1990. Nine of her short plays have been produced by community theaters in the United States, Canada, and England. Theatrical Mining Company has produced two of her full-length plays as part of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival: A Modern Pas De Deux and Black Widows. Susan is a member of the Playwrights Group of Baltimore and the owner of Have Pen, Will Travel LLC. Her essays have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and elsewhere.