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Is a 127-Year-Old Wedding Dress a Wearable Heirloom or a Disaster?

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Bride Allison Rinaldi, 23, recently took her trip down the aisle wearing her mother's wedding gown. Traditionalist? Yes. But wait till you hear the rest of it: That high-necked, long-sleeved, ecru-coloured, chrysanthemum-patterned wedding gown is 127 years old and was also worn by her aunt, grandmother, and great-great-grandmother.

Fashion, though seasonal and ever-changing, is well known to operate in cycles, with the cycles appearing at shorter time intervals in the last 50 years than ever before. But, there is and has always been money made in "traditionalist" styles. "Classic" is a word thrown around almost as often as "new." And every few seasons, we hear that tradition and heritage is back in fashion. Generally, this traditionalism manifests in styles and styling (Kate Middleton might have helped push this trend with her stunning Sarah Burton long-sleeved creation, an anomaly in a sea of strapless mermaid gowns), and sometimes it is just a marketing tactic (Can something inspired by the '70s be considered heritage? Well, maybe to today's tweens). In the case of the 127-year-old wedding gown, it is, as they say, the real deal.

But where do we draw the line between tradition and latching onto emotional sentiment through material possessions? The dress doesn't look half bad, and the bride does look beautiful, but it seems to fit awkwardly (not because it hasn't been altered properly, but as if female ideals have changed between now and then, and are reflected in the cut of the gown). I know that for too many brides today, it is the last thing they picture themselves wearing on their wedding day.

While I was working as a bridal consultant to put myself through fashion school, we always had brides coming in who were looking for classic, elegant, or timeless. From experience, it is interesting to note that for every bride, these words mean different things, but none of them ever asked for a high-necked style, or long sleeves, or brocade-like patterns. And one thing I noticed about brides is that they are almost always at odds with their mothers. Sometimes it will show up disguised through obedience: "I'll try it, sure. What's the harm?" they say with a doubtful cast. And then they would turn to me and whisper knowingly, "no." Other times, it is more blatant: "Mom, no. No. No. No!" Anyone who has ever watched the TLC show, Say Yes to the Dress, knows this.

Sidenote: When I was a teen, I proclaimed my interest in vintage clothes to a friend, who asked, "Aren't you scared of wearing clothes from dead people?" Okay, ick. But here I am, a decade later, reading about this girl, no older than I, who knew since she was a child that she "always wanted to wear the dress." Guess she didn't have a friend like mine.

I am all for tradition, sustainability, and timelessness, but there is something almost impractical about this whole thing. It reminds me of the practice in combining last names in marriage. When a Smith marries a Jones, their children become Smith-Joneses. If their children were to adopt this practice, it starts to become awkward. In trying to establish ideals through identity, they lose practicality. What happens when Rinaldi's daughter is grown up, and turns out to be bigger, or smaller, or shorter, or taller, or worse, what happens if she simply has different tastes? Is she turning her back on a family tradition? It's a lot of pressure to live up to, for the bride, and future seamstresses of the heirloom wedding gown.

Of course, sentiment is the reigning premise in this story. The truth is, we attach meaning to what we wear, and this is just one example. Truthfully, when I first read about it on the front page of a sustainable fashion news blog, I took it as a sign of sustainability because the dress is used over and over again, therefore saving on fabric and environmental costs in production. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was not about sustaining the earth at all, but about sustaining a value.

Latching onto emotional sentiment through material possessions is plainly, tradition.

Fashion, through the ages, has always been about evoking feeling, sentiment and ideal. Ideas of tradition, classic and timelessness change aesthetically from person to person, time to time, but the sentiments behind them remain the same. When a bride asks for those things, she is thinking of a certain reaction and feeling she wants on her wedding day. She is thinking with her heart.

Some brides just know how to take this to the next level.

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