Memories Returned: History of a Dress

By Liz Dubben Livingston '69 with Eleanor Livingston '41

It is an overcast day in August, and I am sitting with three other women at a lunch table, chatting about this and that. Three of us are in our fifties; Eleanor, our hostess, is in her early eighties. We are all Vassar graduates, but that is not what has brought us together today.

After dessert, as four glasses of white Zinfandel are drained, Eleanor pushes back her chair and says, "Well, shall we go look?" We all go into a bedroom. On the bed is a long white box. It holds the wedding dress that had been in Eleanor's family - except for a recent 10-month period - for over 100 years. I stand on one side of the bed next to Laura [Laura Jordan Sawyer '69], my close friend. Across from us are Eleanor [Eleanor Livingston '41] and Cate [Catharine Livingston Tyler '71]. Cate is Eleanor's niece and my sister-in-law.

Eleanor removes the lid of the box and carefully pulls back a fold of white tissue. Laura then lifts the dress, and as it unfolds, Eleanor clasps her hands to her breast. Who knew that she, who has not married, would have been so grief-stricken at the, albeit temporary, loss of the dress? At first I supposed it was simply a feeling for family history, but now in this room it seems more than that. Eleanor gives a short exclamation of pleasure, takes the dress, and holds it up to her frail chest. Her eyes are alight as she does a half twirl, saying, "Ladies, you never know, I might just wear this one day." I look at an elderly woman suddenly transformed into a giddy girl, and laugh in delight.

I cannot tell you very much about the dress itself. It is made of satiny material, and it buttons down the front to a kind of lace petticoat that bustles out in back. The lace looks old and slightly yellowed. My description is paltry because I know next to nothing about wedding dresses. When I married in 1976 I wore a dress I'd gotten at a shop that specialized in things from the Greek islands. It was white, but short and simple - without any personal, cultural, or traditional significance. Eleanor knows the dress intimately. It had been worn by her grandmother, Emeline Livingston, somewhere around 1879, and by Emeline's three great-granddaughters, Eleanor's nieces. The name and Fifth Avenue address of the dressmaker are sewn in the waistband of the dress, and there's also a pair of tiny (size 4 1/2 A) white kid-leather shoes.

Once we've all admired the dress, we fold it back into its box, and Laura and Eleanor make their way to the kitchen. They sit at a Formica table. Eleanor carefully makes out a check and pushes it across to Laura. Done. The dress is back in the family, the planets once again in alignment.

The decision to sell the dress, in which I had played a small part, was made quickly. It happened at my mother-in-law's kitchen table the previous November. My husband's family was in the midst of breaking up the house they - and generations before them - had lived in for many years. There would be an auction for some of the things, and countless difficult decisions had to be made: What do you do with a trunk filled with old letters? a butterfly collection? a tiny pair of children's shoes? Could we justify holding on to things that no one ever looked at, things destined to sit in boxes in attics? It was in this vein that the wedding dress came up. Cate and I both had daughters. What, asked my mother-in-law, did we think?

I was quick to answer. My family, unlike my husband's, barely acknowledges tradition ("Are they still doing that?" my mother asked recently when I told her I was going to a funeral). This, and the fact that I came of age in the '60s, made me pretty much indifferent to wedding "dither." Even though I had two daughters who theoretically could wear the dress, I couldn't imagine my girls would want something that old-fashioned. I voted to let it go.

For Cate, who had worn the dress, the question was more complicated. Like me, she'd been swept into the anti-establishment temper of the '60s. When it came to marrying, however (in 1975), she and her husband discovered they both felt strongly about having some traditional elements as part of the ceremony. So Cate wore the family dress and carried a bouquet (but the wedding was outdoors). Cate had two daughters who, like my own, were approaching an age when they might marry; but she didn't think they'd want to wear the dress. In hindsight, too, she remembered that the dress had given her a vaguely uncomfortable feeling of being in costume - and, then, her marriage had ended in divorce. The thought that the dress might add to the interest, and thus the success of the auction, was the deciding factor, and she voted to let it go.

Already exhausted from having to make so many decisions, my mother-in-law sighed and said, "All right then. Young people these days will have their own ideas about wedding dresses anyway."

Carl, I see you finally got a date." The auctioneer was ribbing his assistant who was pushing a headless mannequin onto the auction platform. There was a sprinkle of laughter as the mannequin, clad in the family wedding dress, lurched into place. Now, under the harsh lights of the convention hall, our decision seemed all wrong.

I was sitting with several members of the family and Laura, who was just to my right. She'd come along to the auction hoping to find porcelain, but as the bidding on the dress - halting at first - accelerated, she got a resolute expression on her face and raised a hand. Laura has one son, no daughters; I couldn't have been more surprised.

She stayed in, until she got the dress. Later I asked her why. "There I was in the midst of your family - including your sister-in-law, who'd actually worn the dress - and I just couldn't stand the thought of it going off to strangers." Seeing the dress on the block had given me the creeps, but to me the dress was more a relic than a living piece of history. Then again I hadn't worn it, and - maybe more importantly - I hadn't ever dreamed of wearing it.

Eleanor called several months after the auction to ask if I knew what Laura planned to do with the dress, clearly upset by its loss. As it turned out, Laura had no plans. She'd vaguely thought of donating the dress to a museum, perhaps with a proviso that family members could borrow and wear it for their weddings if they chose to. Basically it had been put on a shelf in her closet, where it might have stayed for years if I hadn't called. Laura was delighted to think of the dress finding its way home.

A woman stands in her wedding dress in one image and processes with her new husband in another
A woman stands in her wedding dress in one image and processes with her new husband in another

Isabel Church Livingston (left) and Catharine VanBrugh Livingston '71 (middle) donned the family dress in 1965 and 1975, respectively, both getting married in Hudson, New York. Eight years later and across the country in Grand Forks, North Dakota, Laura Mae Livingston (right) wore the gown.

The return of the dress put us in a celebratory mood, and we all decided to go and walk the Vassar campus, which is not far from Eleanor's home. We parked at Alumnae House, and then walked down the hill, setting out along still familiar paths and sidewalks. As we passed old buildings and new, we remembered, or tried to, the names of classes and professors, and told stories of our times as students. I have thought back on that day more than once, of the deep feeling of connection I felt to these women, suspended as we were between past and present.

Later Laura and I drove back together to our homes in neighboring suburbs. "Just out of curiosity," I asked her, "where is your wedding dress?"

"In the attic," she answered simply.

My nontraditional dress was in the attic, too. I'd thought about getting rid of it from time to time, but somehow I couldn't. The dress newly rescued by Eleanor would undoubtedly be relegated to a closet shelf or a place in the attic. There are probably thousands - perhaps thousands upon thousands - of wedding dresses in boxes in closets and attics all across the country. What was the sense of all this? I wondered.

I pointed out to Laura that this had not been a "good-luck" dress. Cate divorced after wearing it, as had her older sister. Her response was quick and emphatic, "It's not the fault of the dress!" she said. It turns out Laura had called off her first engagement, just weeks before the wedding. "I put my dress in the box," she said, "then crisscrossed it with tape as if it were a spirit to be locked in." Later, when she was ready to marry (a different man), she pulled the tape off the box, and retrieved her dress.

I thought of my sister, who had one of the most bitter and protracted divorces in history. Had she saved her wedding dress? "No," she answered when I asked her some days later. "I finally decided not to keep it; but I did keep the garland of flowers that I pinned to my hat." A memento of the beginning, even though the end had been harsh.

But what about Eleanor? Why such pain about a wedding dress? Eleanor and her cousin Alida were in line to wear the dress, she told me, the only two in their generation to be eligible. Alida, however, died at the tragically young age of 23, and Eleanor has not married. The beautiful dress was passed on to a new generation; but even so, Eleanor's feelings about its importance, the connections and the rich associations embodied by the dress, remain to this day.

As I thought about Eleanor's strong emotions, two pictures came oddly to mind. In the first, my daughter Elizabeth is setting up a Barbie wedding under the apple tree behind our house. She and her best friend are busy lining up all the guest dolls, putting apple blossoms in Barbie's hair. Ken, in a suit, stands ready to claim his bride. The girls are totally, happily absorbed in their production. Now flash forward to Elizabeth, age 17. We are driving home from a college visit, and she is worrying about the cost of tuition. I tell her that her father and I have planned how to cover the expenses, and not to worry - maybe it just means she won't have a big-deal wedding. Her face falls. "Oh, but I want a beautiful wedding," she says, and goes on to describe in startling detail how the bridesmaids will look, the wildflower bouquets on each table.

The past, the future, the fantasy, the reality - so much comes together in a wedding dress. Like many in middle age, I want to get rid of things, to simplify. I am all for cleaning out the closets of our lives; but this was one time it felt right to put something back on the shelf.

Liz Dubben Livingston '69 is a writer and editor living in Connecticut. She is working on a collection about wedding dresses, and would love to hear from any readers with stories they'd like to share (vq@vassar.edu). Eleanor Livingston '41 lives in Colorado where she is pursuing research in biochemistry.