Bridal trains, memories flow

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was so different from the first time. Some of the women polished off yardwork minutes before zipping into their wedding gowns, which had to be retrieved from crawl spaces, scooped off playroom floors or unscrewed from airtight preservation boxes where they'd been entombed for years.

Oblivious children did not appear to notice that, on an ordinary weekend afternoon, Mom suddenly materialized in shiny white shoulder bows, sweeping the kitchen floor with a silken train instead of a broom. But this wasn't about an audience. This was about leg-of-mutton sleeves, Austrian crystal beading and seven-layered skirts of tulle.

This was about the women underneath.

Some 60 brides-have-been gathered at Baltimore's Engineers Club recently for a wedding-dress tea, an occasion for post-nuptial frippery that organizers said may have been the first of its kind. Those who could find - and fit into - their wedding dresses did; those who could not brought snapshots. Women wed in every decade from the 1940s on posed shoulder to puffed shoulder, their voluminous skirts overlapping. They laughed a lot.

"When you try on that dress, it's magic," said Suzanne Kennedy of Elkridge, a guest who worked in the bridal industry for 25 years. "You say, 'This is it.' It's like falling in love. Then, most people never wear it again."

Her cousin, Mabelle Nestor Thomas of Catonsville, was the tea's mastermind and host. Married 12 years ago, Thomas always yearned for another chance to flaunt her gown and this winter began thinking about having a wedding-dress party.

What a sweet idea, the invitees thought, when word of the party started circulating among the 44-year-old Thomas' friends and family. In many a woman's heart, the wedding dress amounts to more than pretty white brocade stitched with pearls.

But at the tea, after sighing a while over memories of perfectly tucked bustles, Alencon lace and floor-length veils fluttering in long-subsided breezes, the women's minds turned to less romantic matters. Good thing Sunday's tea was held at the Engineers Club: Physics was of the essence here.

"Suck it in, girls!" Thomas cried as she and other guests wrestled with their petticoats in a makeshift changing room at the club, used by women who had traveled a distance to get to the tea - and they came from as far away as Germany and Oregon - as well as those who didn't want to risk wearing their regalia one second longer than necessary.

"I popped!" a miserable someone whispered.

Many had their bodices altered, but Roberta Lesnevich of Catonsville lost 25 pounds so she'd fit into her 10-year-old gown. Others kept a zipper at half-mast, a snap unsnapped, or simply wore the veil.

"If you can't get into that," one woman said, "you're really in trouble."

There was much talk of "baby ribs" - not an item on the menu (which, tactfully, consisted of the most delicate of dainties), but rather the midtorso region that can expand with childbirth. Also problematic were feet, which spread with the weight of pregnancy. Instead of Cinderella slippers bought to match, sparkly flip-flops peeked out from beneath some dresses.

Still, several women said they felt better than ever in their nuptial gear. Some lacy collars still had sweat stains on the inside from the first time around. Not only are many weddings held in the summer, but, apparently, they can really stress a girl out.

"It's much more comfortable this time," said Kathy Gunner of Raleigh, N.C. "It's fun. I'm not feeling like everyone is looking at me."

But Ann Quinn of Catonsville said she never took her gown too seriously. The flowered shift she wore to the tea could have passed for barbecue attire but fit the relaxed atmosphere of her 1996 ceremony. And Lynda Bender of Marriottsville, a self-described "rebel bride," said she always shunned the full-blown bridal look.

"I didn't want to be the white virginal lamb to the slaughter," she said. "I tried to convince Richard" - the hapless husband-to-be - "that Spanish women wear black."

Instead, she settled for a flouncy, white cocktail dress that, before she "sealed it up in plastic and waited for it to turn gray," was recycled four times. Sunday made five. And Jackie Galiardi of Baltimore said that if she had to "look silly in a big white dress," everyone else at her 1991 wedding had to appear equally absurd. So she commissioned a colonial-style gown with bell sleeves and a whalebone corset and requested that guests appear in costume; Napoleon Bonaparte, Fidel Castro and others complied.

Yet even the skeptics were glad to have their dresses on Sunday, a day when divorcees proudly wore regalia that outlasted their vows. It was also a chance for Barbara Rice of New York City to show off a strapless satin wedding dress that she'd never been married in. After a broken engagement, the tea was the gown's debut.

"It's kind of a relief," she said.

The occasion did come with some disappointments. At midnight the night before, Marcy Pike called the hostess from the crawl space in her Severna Park home, half-hysterical because she couldn't find her dress after a recent move. Others discovered once-snowy fabric now stained, faded or hopelessly wrinkled after decades in storage.

A few women, most of them older, were well aware that their dresses were missing. The hostess' mother, Mabelle Nestor of Tampa, Fla., said her blue cotton dress simply wore out.

And the hostess' aunt had lent hers to four friends in the 1940s and 1950s, none of whom had the money to buy her own. After the last of these weddings - which involved rain and a churchyard packed with red clay - the dress was unwearable.

"It had 82 satin-covered buttons in the back," recalled Christine Beck of Elkridge, who was a bride more than a half-century ago. "I guess it served its purpose."

Her husband, Howard C. Beck III, was the tea's official photographer and - along with a few bewildered-looking waiters - one of the few men present. You bet he remembered that dress.

"She looked good," he said. "There was a thunderstorm when she was coming down the aisle. It was like lightning came down from the ceiling. August of '47."

It had indeed served its purpose.

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