Story of a Wedding Dress
Told in six brides and one best man.
On 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.
Wedding #2: A Casual Bride Becomes a Princess
The dress did not appear again for 27 years, this time on Maggie’s younger daughter, Beth, in Erie, PA, where the family then lived. She and her future husband, Harry Drucker, got engaged on an Oregon-to-Virginia bicycle tour, and were married 3 ½ months later, in October 1980. The original plan was for a modest, informal wedding, with Harry and the groomsmen in sport coats and slacks. “I told Harry the good news that I would not have to buy a dress,” Beth says, “because I could wear Mom’s.” But Beth had forgotten the photographs of her mother’s wedding. Once she tried it on, she realized “this gorgeous dress would set the tone for the wedding–casual and simple it was not,” and asked Harry and the men to upgrade to tuxedos.
“I felt like a princess in the dress,” Beth remembers today. “I had never before, and have never since, worn anything as beautiful.” Because her cross-country cycling companions had never seen her in anything but sweaty bike clothes, at the wedding they were astonished.
Both Beth and Harry, a real estate investor, are active environmentalists. They have three grown children and live in Wilmette, IL.
Wedding #3: A Coin Toss
The next bride was Beth’s older sister, Karen, one year later. She and a fellow Middlebury graduate, David Litttlefield, were living together in New Haven, CT, but Karen told a friend she needed “some kind of push” to move on to matrimony. “I could imagine being married to David but couldn’t see myself getting married,” Karen remembers. The friend had a pragmatic suggestion: she and her husband and Karen and David would all flip coins. “Heads you get married, tails you don’t.” Karen agreed. But, she says, “As the coins flew into the air, I had a kind of epiphany. All of a sudden I could see myself getting married. I knew it was the right thing to do.” (Three of the coins agreed.)
When Karen tried on the wedding dress, it needed “a bit of elastic stitching to make the neckline smaller. I also wore a hoop petticoat since I was a bit shorter than Beth. And of course, the corset. That was the magic piece that made us all fit the dress perfectly.” She wore the original lace cap, as did Beth, but both added new netting. Karen, a professor of Latin American Literature at Emory University, and David, an independent financial advisor, have two daughters and live in Atlanta, GA.
Wedding #4: The Dress Gets Feisty
The fourth bride was from the next generation—Kate (known to everyone by her childhood nickname, Skeezix or Skeez), the daughter of Kathy Moynahan Schutte, Maggie’s sister. Her 1983 wedding was accompanied by a series of unexpected mini-crises. Because she wanted to dance at her reception, Kate hoped to bustle the dress—gather up the six-foot train with a series of hooks so she wouldn’t have to hold it off the floor. A seamstress talked her out of the idea.
Instead Kate would use a “dance handle” to pull it up, but a couple of hours before the ceremony, she noticed that the handle had been accidentally sewn on the outside of the dress (“like a tail”) instead of underneath, where it belonged. Ever practical, Kate got out her sewing kit and fixed the problem herself, but not without pricking her finger and dropping a spot of blood onto the dress. It was quickly cleaned up but then near disaster struck: As Kate was putting on the hoop skirt slip, the plastic boning in the hem suddenly broke out of the seam and flew across the room. “In disbelief,” she recalls, “I got out the sewing kit again and managed to guide the boning back in and sew it up.”
A fourth problem was the weather this April day in Briarcliff Manor, NY. The couple had scheduled the wedding for spring to avoid winter travel problems for the guests. But April showers poured down upon them—and then turned to snow. Kate’s father made garbage-bag raincoats for the wedding party to wear to the church. Still, the gown was covered with water spots, which fortunately dried before the ceremony. Kate says, “I must have heard a hundred times that rain on your wedding day brings good luck. I guess it did, but I think the dress had something to do with it too.”
Kate’s husband, Richard Kelley, is general manager of the NBC-TV station in San Diego. She describes herself as “general manager of family and abode.” They have three adult children.
Wedding #5: Closet Shopping
Kate’s sister, Ashley, was next in the dress, seven years later, also in Briarcliff Manor. When she announced her engagement, she was asked where she would get her wedding dress. “I proudly said, ‘my Aunt Sister’s closet.’” (Since Kathy always called Maggie “Sister”, rather than by name, her children did the same).
As was true at the other weddings, the families, and many of the guests, knew the history of the dress, Ashley says. “They thought it was poignant.” Ashley and her husband, Greg Maddock, divorced in 1991, the only “dress marriage” that didn’t endure. An artist and clothing designer, Ashley lives in Sausalito, CA.
Wedding #6: Like It Was Made for Her
Now, 26 years later, the third generation (and sixth bride) is about to wear the dress, in New York City on December 15. The bride to be, Kathleen Littlefield, an actress, is Karen’s daughter—and the granddaughter of Maggie, the dress’s original owner. “I’d known about the dress,” Kathleen says, “but I didn’t know where it was or what shape it was in.” The dress was where it has always been between wearings: in a large box tucked away in Maggie’s home in Erie, PA. Last Christmas Maggie flew the gown to Atlanta.
Karen describes the family scene: “In front of the fireplace as we sipped wine, we opened the box to see what shape the dress was in after many years. Would it be intact, turned yellow, even disintegrated? We cut through layers of tape and plastic and removed layers of blue tissue. Gently we lifted the dress from the box—and it was gorgeous, just as gorgeous as I remembered it.” Next night, Kathleen tried it on. It fit perfectly, “just like the slipper on Cinderella’s foot,” her mother says (particularly appropriate because Kathleen played Cinderella in a high school production years ago). “The only alteration I might do,” says Kathleen, “is take in the sleeves under the arms a little.” Contrary to tradition, her fiancée, Michael Pantozzi, an actor, was given special dispensation to see her in the dress before the wedding. His awed reaction: “It really is magical.”
There are still two potential brides in the family, young women in their 20s whose names are withheld to avoid embarrassing them. When either, or both, are ready, so is the dress.