What does a vintage stylist wear on her wedding day? Why, her mum’s dress of course. Irene O’Brien on why she wore her mum’s gown walking up the aisle
One unremarkable spring day some years back, I was helping my mum with a big clear-out of her house. Amidst the one-eyed dolls, long-silenced radios and dog-eared school projects all lined up for review, appeared a once-white cardboard box.
“Have a look inside,” urged my mum. Under the lid I found layers of aged tissue paper enveloping her beautiful wedding dress - the dress that I had only ever seen frozen in black and white imagery.
We took it from the box with ceremony, marveling at how well it looked; the lace delicate but strong, the neckline standing high, the train still falling as dramatically as it did in July of 1969.
Mum was transported back to that year, remembering the first time she set eyes on the dress. It was the sole item on display in the window of Rufina’s, an eponymous boutique on Leeson St.
She was charmed by the stand-up collar and long lace sleeves. Mum recalled Rufina as a beautiful African woman, known for her handmade bridal designs that she created in the studio behind the shop. Once mum had tried it on she knew this was her wedding dress. She put down a deposit, agreeing to pay the balance in instalments that she would save from her second job.
One particular day when she called by to pay a further £5 off her bill, Rufina told her that there were now others very interested in the dress and they were willing to pay the full price in one transaction. Mum was distraught; she thought she would lose the dress. She and dad called back to the shop together to negotiate.
In the end, they managed to raise the full amount and paid the balance ahead of time, saving her beloved dress. The total cost was £32.
As we continued to inspect the dress, my mum, ever the impulsive conspirator, squeezed my arm excitedly. “Put it on; go on, for the craic.” The vintage fanatic in me couldn’t refuse. It went on so easily; sleeves pulled gently over my knuckles, fabric drawn back over my shoulders bringing together the zip that rose so effortlessly up my spine. Cue overzealous admiration. At the time I thought mum was just tickled to see her recently single daughter in a wedding dress.
On reflection, however, I see how it might have been quite lovely for her to see the dress that she saved so hard for, the one that she wore on her special day, inhabited once more by shape and breath. “Will we show Cathy?” Cathy being my sister that lived a three-minute drive away.
My protests were short-lived, and soon I found myself in the front seat of my mother’s Ford, my lace-clad wrist gripping the handrail, her still rubber-gloved hands around the steering wheel, the whiff of bleach infusing the air with every sharp corner. Our little trip never did lead to my sister. Instead, we encountered her home-alone husband who watched us arrive and depart in a haze of vintage lace, the look of bewilderment on his face only adding to the caper.
So this dress and I had history. Fast-forward some years to my becoming engaged and I never really considered wearing anything else. My mum was concerned that I was feeling obliged to wear her dress after trying it. She went to great pains assuring me that she didn’t at all expect that.
She urged me to try other dresses, said I might like something better. I hadn’t seen the dress since that Runaway Bride afternoon, but I always remembered how much I adored those sleeves. When I got around to trying it on this time, I paid closer attention to the fit.
The style back in the late ‘60s was for the dress to fall to just above your shoes, but now on me, so much smaller in height than my mum, the length looked peculiar. I knew that I would need to customize it in some way if it was going to work.
When it came to it, altering the dress was terrifying. I was so scared of ruining it, especially after my mum had kept it so beautifully for all those years. After much internal deliberation, I finally decided on having the front of the dress taken up to just below my knee and the train slightly shortened to give balance. It felt more ‘me’, but still I worried.
However, on the sunny afternoon of my wedding as my friend zipped me into the dress, all of my doubts fell away. In that moment I was so happy to be wearing that very dress in that very form. It felt a little bit magic.
I never did try on another dress. I was always going to wear vintage because that’s who I am - I love to think of my clothes having a history. And for me, this dress had the most special history of all, that of my Mama and Papa. The morning after the wedding we gathered in the sunshine, reflecting on the day that was.
My aunt noted with glee that she had witnessed the dress walk down two aisles. She asked mum how she felt seeing it on me. A safe distance from potential influence, mum finally told me that my wearing it was the greatest compliment she ever received. So that was pretty nice too.
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