Story of a Wedding Dress

Told in six brides and one best man.

Margaret MoynahanOn a frigid day in January 1953, Margaret Moynahan walked into the elegant Lord & Taylor department store in Manhattan to buy a wedding dress. She was 25 and worked at McGraw Hill book publishing.

It was immediately clear that Maggie had a problem. All the gowns on display were designed for summer, made of light material, like organdy and dotted Swiss. Maggie was getting married in a month. She needed velvet or taffeta, something heavier, more seasonal—and she needed it now.

Finally, a frustrated saleswoman pointed her toward the sale rack, in other words, toward the reject winter wedding dresses that did not sell the year before. The luck of the Irish! Maggie found exactly what she was looking for—ivory satin and Chantilly lace, with a six-foot train—at an incredible bargain price of $75. Maggie wore it at her Valentine’s Day wedding to James Stolley, a recent MIT graduate working for Procter and Gamble in Cincinnati.

The ceremony was held in the Church of the Assumption in Peekskill, a New York City suburb where Maggie’s attorney father was mayor. I was best man because Jim and I were twin brothers; maid of honor was Maggie’s sister, Kathy. (The local newspaper, the Peekskill Evening Star, where I had worked the summer before, put this pat-on-the-back headline on its story: “Dick Stolley Best Man at His Brother’s Wedding.”) Our father enlivened the proceedings when his zipper broke during a visit to the men’s room, and he had to sit and walk (and pose for pictures) with extreme caution the rest of the day.

Maggie picked February 14, not because of its romantic connotations, but because the church’s old German priest opposed Catholic-Protestant pairings and told her that after Lent, which began a week later, a “mixed marriage” could not have music or flowers and could not take place at the altar. (When Jim died in 2014, they had been married 59 years and had three children.) After a traditional wedding like theirs, the gown is most often packed away, to be gazed at fondly through the plastic wrapping on occasional trips to the attic. Not so with this one. In the 63 years since it was found on the rack at Lord & Taylor, this dress has been worn by five women in the family, and a sixth bride is coming up in December. Through all these weddings, remarkably, the gown has survived undamaged; only slight alterations–raised hem, shortened waist–have ever been necessary.