When it arrives, the box is stupendous, heralding dramatic contents; cream-colored, stamped in gold, SAKS FIFTH AVENUE BRIDAL SALON, with the four Saks stores, now long gone, listed: New York, Chicago, Beverly Hills, Detroit (Detroit!). The box reminds me that the age of the great department stores coincided with the rise of American industry, which provided wives and daughters with the means to go out to lunch in the stores’ lavender-colored teashops, then spend the afternoon trying on and buying. Now the department stores and the industries are mostly gone—but not my wedding dress.
The huge box is enclosed, tightly, in a cardboard outer box, for shipping. On the side of this outer box, a handwriting I know well has written, “MISS SALLIE’S WEDDING DRESS.”
For decades, these two boxes have lain undisturbed on one of the wide shelves in the storage room “back home”—not back home to me although it seems to figure in that way in strangers’ imaginations.
Now I pry the inner box out of the outer box. The lid of the inner box flies off in an explosion of slightly tarnished white tissue paper. The contents are held securely under more layers of tissue papers, tied on top with a delicate white string. No one has untied that string in more than fifty years.
I hesitate to untie it. I never knew what happened to this dress, and frankly, I never cared. It was my mother’s choice; it cost—in 1950’s dollars–$525, plus an additional $19.95 for the crinoline petticoat she wanted to hold the skirt out wide: crinolines—those instruments of torture, as I found them, sitting in a movie (crinolines existed to pouf out date dresses) while the net worked its small sharp fangs into the backs of my thighs.
I carry the munificent cream satin dress—an armful—to my closet, which is full of today’s anonymous clothes, blue jeans and shirts and jackets. There is ample space at the back to hang the dress. The tightly fitted bodice, puffed out with tissue paper, a modest edging of antique lace at the neck, is fastened in back with twenty-six tiny satin-covered buttons, the most remarkable of the dress’s features.
The skirt of the dress is its masterpiece, and would have needed no crinoline for its expansion. Layers of creamy satin flow from the sharply defined bodice in waves that descend into a magnificent train, tied with a giant satin bow. The dress seems designed to be looked at from behind, with all those buttons and that grandiloquent train and bow—not by accident, since the people sitting in church pews for the ceremony would have seen it from behind. Only God and the preacher would have viewed the front.
How extraordinary it seems that this artifact has survived while marriages, wives, husband, aunts, uncles and parents have all withered and passed into oblivion. It seems to me as much a monument to the past as the Lincoln Memorial or the Eiffel Tower, also great erections that long outlasted their makers, their funders and generations of their viewers.
But the wedding dress, unlike those monuments, has not been touched, or soiled, by human eyes or human fingers. It keeps the past, or that small section it commemorates, chastely closed between the folds of that stupendous skirt, in that stupendous box, with Francis Wilson’s handwriting marching proudly across the side. As our family seamstress, she would have been in charge of fitting it.
I remember how carefully Francis opened boxes of store-bought clothes, examining the seams through her rimless glasses; the workmanship never equaled the clothes she made herself, but the store clothes came from the big cities and displayed the latest quirk and curlicues. Francis probably knew from the fashion magazines what each season offered, but her workmanship was confined to fitting the clothes that came readymade. Home-made dresses, even those sewed by a highly talented seamstress, wouldn’t have made the cut in 1950’s Louisville.
When my mother was married, the seamstress hired to work in her Richmond home probably made at least some of her dresses. But that was to save money; the Binghams had no need to penny pinch.
How discreet Francis always was when perusing these store-bought garments; it would have been unthinkable for her to offer an opinion.
Later, kneeling in her dark suit on a square of white fabric, her mouth pursed around her straight pins, she would have pinned up the hem of a dress before stitching it on the sewing machine that in my memory was always whirring.
The servants—as they were called—were always invited to family weddings although not to the receptions where they would have been taking coats and serving food. At my wedding, Francis had a special role: as I hurried up the path to the church door, Francis came ten feet behind me, holding up my train.
Now it seems to me the real meaning of the wedding dress lies in Francis’ care of it, which concluded when she stuffed it with tissue paper and folded it away in the enormous box.
Perhaps over the years she sometimes glanced at the box when she was taking towels or sheets from that cabinet. Perhaps she wondered.
The last time I saw her, she was retired, living in the small brick ranch house her husband Curtis built for their last years; he had died soon after they moved in. And so she was alone in the small, neat rooms, glad to see me but subdued, without her work, her employers or her husband.
Shortly after my visit, I heard she had moved into town to live with relatives and the brick house, Curtis’ masterpiece, in the modest subdivision laid aside for African-Americans, had been sold. I don’t know when Francis Wilson died.
The survival of artifacts like my wedding dress seems obscene when in contrast with the swift disappearance of human beings; satin may last longer than skin, but a dress, even a beautiful white satin one, has no soul.
For the prelude to this piece, read Bingham Estate: The Return of the Wedding Dress.