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Something old, something new: Saying ‘I do’ in a family heirloom

CAROL WOOD (right) converses with bride-to-be Rebecca Hanley (center) and mother of the bride Judi Hanley during a recent fitting of the dress. Wood is in the process of altering Hanley’s wedding dress, a gown worn by both the bride’s mother and grandmother at their weddings. Independent photo/John S. McCright

MIDDLEBURY — When searching for the perfect dress to walk down the aisle in on her wedding day, Rebecca Hanley realized she need not look much further than what was already in her closet. 

Well, her mother’s closet. 

Hanley plans to say “I do” in the same dress her mother and grandmother wore on their wedding days. Though she’d perused some other dress options at the start of her search, Hanley said she decided shortly after her June 2021 engagement that the family gown was the perfect fit for her big day. 

REBECCA HANLEY’S GRANDMOTHER, Almerinda Russo, smiles in a photo taken when she was married in November of 1948. Hanley plans to wear her grandmother’s wedding dress, with a few alterations, at her own wedding later this year.

“I thought it would be kind of cool to have this generational relic with me on the day of the wedding,” she explained. “My grandmother and I were very close, she passed away about six years ago. I wanted to do something that would have her there with me in a way.”

The family dress was first worn by Hanley’s grandmother Almerinda Russo, fondly known to Hanley as “Noni,” when she was married in November of 1948. Hanley said it’s been described as a renaissance revival style dress, with long, pointed sleeves and a long, flowy train. The dress also has a sweetheart neckline and a fitted bodice, both of which were popular styles at the time. 

“It’s kind of like a ‘Princess Bride’ sort of dress,” Hanley said. 

Aside from some stains, the 75-year-old dress held up pretty well throughout the years. Though, Hanley knew she’d need to find someone to help her clean the dress and alter it before the wedding. The bride-to-be stands around six inches shorter than her grandmother did at her wedding.    

Hanley said finding the right tailor to work on her dress proved to be a daunting task. 

“Out of the whole planning process, finding someone I could trust with the dress was the most nerve-wracking part,” she recalled. “I was looking for someone that had experience in vintage gowns, particularly professional experience, because the dress is very sentimental.” 

Hanley solicited recommendations for tailors on Front Porch Forum and was eventually connected with Carol Wood, who runs the costume shop at Middlebury College. A professional pattern-maker and draper, Wood’s experience is predominantly in costume building. 

For many years she worked as a draper in the San Francisco Opera’s costume shop, making patterns and interpreting designs for the stichers, who would assemble all of the pieces into the costumes seen on stage. 

Wood said getting a dress fit for a bride is similar to her work in the costume shop, both center on bringing a design in a sketch to life. 

“The process is about making something altered to fit, that’s exactly what I do in the theater,” she said. “I either look at something from the designer and make sure how it fits on the actor is exactly how it looks in the sketch, or it’s something we’ve purchased that we try to make look like how it does in the sketch.” 

BRIDE-TO-BE REBECCA HANLEY smiles while flipping through an album filled with family photos from her grandmother’s wedding in 1948. In October, Hanley will wear the same dress at her wedding that her grandmother did when she was married 75 years ago.
Independent photo/John S. McCright

CREATING A VISION

During their first meeting, Hanley and Wood discussed the future bride’s vision for her dress. Aside from basic alterations, Hanley wanted to rework the bodice of the dress and make some other changes to the gown. Following their initial conversation, Wood drafted a few sketches of what those changes could look like. 

“Seeing (the options) sketched out was nice because I know nothing about alterations. I didn’t really know what she was talking about, so I was able to pick out what I liked with her sketches,” Hanley said. 

One of the changes being made is removal of the dress’s train. The train was originally 15-20 feet long but was shortened prior to when Hanley’s mother, Judi, was married in the 1970s. 

Hanley said the plan is to now remove the train altogether and repurpose the material.   

“I’m using that fabric to make wedding favors for my mother’s family, just to have a little patch embroidered with the date of the wedding. That way it’s a little memento of my grandmother and I can give that to my family members,” she said. 

Wood will also remove the worn out lace on the dress’s bodice and have the dress dry cleaned to get rid of some stains from prior celebrations. Even with the proposed changes, the dress is expected to look largely the same once finished. 

Hanley and Wood have been meeting for monthly fittings and to check in about the dress, which is expected to be finished in July. Right now, Wood said she’s focused on reworking the dress’s bodice. In addition to removing the lace, she said she’s also reinforcing the lining of the bodice to make sure it holds up long after Hanley’s wedding day.   

“It’s really making sure that when she’s all tied up and reaching for something that it maintains its integrity, so it doesn’t fall apart,” Wood explained. 

CAROL WOOD, DIRECTOR of Middlebury College’s costume shop, points to a piece of the vintage wedding dress she is currently tailoring for bride-to-be
Rebecca Hanley.
Independent photo/John S. McCright

DECONSTRUCTING THE DRESS

Wood has deconstructed the dress and created a paper pattern to guide her in cutting the correct shape and size of the altered bodice. She’ll use the paper pattern to construct a sample bodice first and make sure the sizing fits Hanley before going to work on the actual dress. 

Wood said there’s a lot to keep in mind when altering vintage pieces such as Hanley’s dress, particularly maintaining the quality of the material you’re working with.  

“With antique fabric such as this, I consult experts on fibers and antique garments, then take incremental steps to ensure the integrity of the weave, color, sheen and drape,” she said. 

Wood added that there’s an element of unpredictability when working with vintage pieces, as fabric created nowadays reacts differently than antique fabrics. The dress is made out of a polyester satin fabric, which behaves differently than a more modern polyester would. 

“Part of that’s because cloth is different today than it was decades ago. Then there’s the age that you put into it that adds to the unpredictability,” Wood explained. 

Despite the hurdles of working with vintage pieces, Wood said she enjoys projects like this one and the reward of shaping a piece into the perfect piece for a client. 

“What I like most is the challenge of the fit. First and foremost, the bumps and curves and corners are all in a different place. We’re not symmetrical so making a garment fit on the person is satisfying,” Wood said. 

Hanley has also been enjoying the alteration process. 

“Carol’s been amazing,” she said. “I really appreciate how comfortable she’s made me with having this piece of family history in her hands, her very capable hands.” 

CAROL WOOD (left) converses with bride-to-be Rebecca Hanley (center) and mother of the bride Judi Hanley during a recent fitting of the dress. Wood is in the process of altering Hanley’s wedding dress, a gown worn by both the bride’s mother and grandmother at their weddings.
Independent photo/John S. McCright

THE FUN PART OF PLANNING

With that weight off of her shoulders, Hanley said she’s been able to focus on ironing out the remaining details in preparation for her Oct. 13 wedding. In addition to wearing her grandmother’s dress, she and her fiancé, David Payne of Shoreham, are planning to make additional tributes to loved ones at their wedding.  

“We are going to have a memorial table of our family members that are close to us that have passed on, like my grandparents and my uncle,” she said. 

Hanley said the couple wanted their family to play a big part in the wedding, including during the ceremony. Payne’s sons, Gage and Oliver, will make up the groomsmen and Hanley’s daughter, Grace, has been dubbed the “maid of awesome.”  

“We wanted our kids to be involved in the wedding as well, rather than onlookers,” Hanley explained. 

Hanley said the couple also felt strongly about who to have officiate their wedding.

“Our officiant, Ben Wells, introduced us — so we saw it fitting that he marry us too,” she said. 

The wedding ceremony and reception will both be held on Payne’s parents’ property in Shoreham. With the wedding taking place outdoors, Hanley said the couple has decided on a laidback dress code. 

“We don’t want people to stress about what to wear, so we’re just having it be a costume party,” Hanley explained. “We’ve told people ‘Please just come in your best hot dog costume that you never got to wear, don’t worry about dressing fancy.”

Another nontraditional element of the wedding, the pair has decided to forgo flower arrangements. Instead, Hanley said each table will be decorated in tribute to gothic horror novelists, such as Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King. 

Hanley said she’s enjoyed searching for decorations and finetuning the other, smaller details of the wedding. 

“Right now, I’m just thinking about all of the little things,” she said. “But that’s the fun stuff, now I think I’m at the fun part of planning.”

Hanley recalled that the early days of the planning process were much more stressful and said her biggest tip for those planning a wedding is to enlist the help of a wedding planner if possible. 

“I felt all over the place for the first three or four months,” she recalled. “Until everything was settled there were a lot of doubts, and I kept telling my mom I wish I had a wedding planner.” 

With most of the planning behind her, Hanley said she’s now just looking forward to enjoying the special day with friends and family. 

 “I’m just excited to throw a huge party and sit back and watch people enjoy themselves. I really hope someone shows up in a hot dog costume,” she said. 

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