By Leigh Anne Brown
Whenever people talk about the various collections that they have, I smile. I smile because of the passion that collectors have when they discuss what they love. Most people collect items that are relatively small like stamps or teacups or pocket knives that can be kept in a cabinet or closet. My collection, on the other hand, is not small and takes a really BIG closet. Why? Because I collect and display over 215 wedding gowns. Yes, I know that sounds crazy. I mean, what do I even DO with them? Where on earth do I keep them? Why would I get into this in the first place? To answer that is a good story…
I am a life-long lover of old and vintage textiles. One of my earliest memories as a child in the mid-1970s was playing in my mother’s closet with her shoes. Hanging in the back was something that she had purchased several years earlier before she had married. It was a mini dress with a late 1960s psychedelic print made of wool and chenille squares. I remember being fascinated with the feeling of those squares on the skirt and wondering what the dress looked like, but it was something that she no longer wore. In fact, it was not until my late teens that I “rediscovered” the dress and deciding to wear it, found out how cool a dress it actually was. From that point forward until now, I was hooked on vintage. It is a love that has continued to this day.
I did not set out to collect wedding gowns. If you had told me 25 years ago that this is what I would be doing, I would have laughed and said you were crazy! Yes, I loved old clothing but other than being beautiful, what is the point of old bridal attire? It was not until my marriage in the early 1990s, in fact on my honeymoon, that I found the first vintage wedding gown that I wanted. I remember my new husband asking me, “What do you need another wedding gown for? We just got married!” My answer: “Because it’s soo-o pretty!” Given that I was a newlywed and still finishing school, I did not purchase the dress I found that day, but I never forgot it.
A few years later my official collection did begin, as I had started buying Victorian and Edwardian clothing wherever I could find it. Initially, I started out collecting everyday accoutrements. However, after finding online a beautiful 1890 wedding dress with its provenance, I remembered that gown I had seen on my honeymoon and decided then and there to shift my collection to wedding attire.
At its inauguration, my new focus concentrated on pre-1930 bridal ensembles. I had put together a dozen gowns and kept them on rotating display in my dining room. People always asked what my husband thought about that, and I’d tell them, ” Well, he collects guns and knives for his office, so… (grin). ” In fact for several years there was a “guns for gowns” program in my household. I also spent my time concentrating on my career and family as I was working full time as a wedding coordinator, theater director and being Mom to my two children. Life was good, I was happy, and the dresses were mine. They were as private and personal a collection as anyone could have. I had them because I loved them and if you thought that was weird, I didn’t care, because they weren’t for you.
But all that changed one day, some 15 years ago. I was part of an extravaganza at the church that I attended that was going to be the mega event of my career for my resume. It was a “vow renewal ceremony” to celebrate the love of the couples of the church. I was asked to be on the floral design team with several other designers, and we were very enthusiastic about the evening we were planning. In fact, I was so excited about the event that I secretly decided that I was going to wear one of my 12 antique gowns to the party. I tried all of them on and paraded around in front of my husband and told him I’d let him choose the dress in which I would marry him again. However, some complications were about to arise, and they were going to have a dramatic result in my life and career. The problem stemmed from the response of the church when they learned about the specifics of the event. Everyone had decided to come to the party! The RSVP count versus the number that we had been planning for was more than two and a half times the space available. The design team was in serious trouble trying to decide what we were going to do and where we would put people. Oh no! What if a woman showed up for the vow renewal ceremony wearing her wedding dress (and was just ecstatic that the gown still fit!) and she needed four seats when we could only offer her about half of one? With that in mind, we decided we couldn’t allow any wedding dresses to be worn to the party! Of course, I was the one most crushed by this news, and because I was on the committee, I could not be the one to break the rules. But there was a light at the end of this tunnel.
The main director for the event called and asked me if I would bring my gowns and set them up for the party. I remember asking her, “why?” and she had to convince me that people would like to see the dresses and that she would love to see them. The idea that others might enjoy looking at old wedding gowns never crossed my mind. It’s not that I would not have shared, but remember, the gowns were mine – I never, ever thought I would share them with you. Because I only collected up to 1930, I decided to contact some friends to see if I could borrow their dresses to display at the party. Most of the women I spoke to, for whatever reason, no longer had their wedding gowns. Of those that did, many were packed away in sealed boxes waiting for a future generation to wear. I did persevere though, and the night of the event, I had managed to borrow 51 gowns from people and put 63 dresses on display that evening. Frankly, I had no idea what I was doing handling dresses I had never seen before, trying to keep them all straight. I almost went insane trying to make sure that Amy’s dress stayed separate from Ginger’s veil, going back into Anna’s box and on to Lisa’s house!
But the event itself was a watershed moment for me. During the party, as people entered the room they were naturally drawn to the display around the perimeter. Their conversations as they viewed the gowns were eye-opening as they were reminded of their own personal wedding memories. Even if the dress did not have the same sleeves, skirts or neckline, there was something about it that elicited a positive response or memory from their wedding or of a loved one who had passed on. That was the point for me that the proverbial “light bulb” went on and I realized that I needed to do something with my gowns, that they could no longer just be mine. Although I did not know what I would do, exactly, I knew a change was coming.
In the following week, as I was returning the borrowed gowns, many of my friends said to me one of these phrases: “I have moved for the last 20 years with the military. This dress has been all over the world, why am I even hanging on to it? Would you like it, Leigh Anne?” Or “This dress was being saved for my daughter to wear. She took one look at it and said, ‘Eww, Mom, is that what you wore?” so, would you like it?” Or “I was saving this gown for the daughter I never had. Instead, I gave birth to three sons – would you like it?” And then there’s my personal favorite, “This is my wedding dress from four husbands ago. I kept it way longer than I kept him! Would you like it?” And because I say “yes” to every dress, suddenly I had a collection that spanned the entire 20th century.
At that point, finding myself with an assortment of 40 plus gowns was something of a novelty to me. Very quickly I realized that I would need to find a new way to store my treasures. I took a room in my home and converted it into gown storage and decided to keep the dresses as flat as possible to reduce stress and breakage on the fabrics. It was also during this time that I received my first request to exhibit my “collection.” I remember asking what it was, exactly, that they wanted me to do. They said I should just display the gowns and talk about them. I asked, “What do you want me to say?” They replied they didn’t care; I should just talk about them. So I agreed and my program, “Portrait of a Bride, an Evolving Silhouette” was born.
Every time after that, whenever I showed the gowns, more people would come up to me afterward to share their wedding memories and wedding treasures with me. As people shared, my collection began to grow, and the nature of the presentation evolved. It started out as a vintage fashion show, with emphasis on the fabrics and styles, but it quickly became much more involved as I started sharing the history of the decades in which the gowns were worn. I talked about the changes women were undergoing during the infancy of the women’s movement as women began to evolve, due to the social, economic and educational advantages they were exposed to. It was not too long into the program’s evolution that I also started to share some of the personal wedding memories for the specific gowns that I was displaying. Each gown, it seemed, had a story and each woman had a different take on her part in history. The show grew to the place where it is now – a full presentation of 20-30 gowns at a time from the American Civil War to present. I chronicle the progress women have made, “We’ve come a LONG way, Baby!”
Each gown in the show has its own uniqueness, and I relish the chance to share those stories with others. I love the fact that I have the opportunity to travel and meet so many different people from all over the world. My collection now has dresses from all over North America, Europe, and Asia. They range in style and color, as well as condition and formality. I have gowns that were for weddings both grand, and simple. The ladies that originally wore them come from all walks of life and economic circumstance. Their story is what inspires me to continue with the program. I connect my listeners with the previous generations of their mothers, grandmothers, and greats as well as the future generations of their children and grandchildren. My audience finds the point that connects us all in this world that we live in. They see that while we may have vastly different ages and experiences, in the end, most women still really just want someone to love and to love them and to have someone who embraces all they are striving to be. Whether the dress is old, new, borrowed or blue, I highlight that love story and talk about her to others, so that they can also share in her history. I love the privilege of what I am doing now in my career, as I travel full-time presenting this passion to others; and I love that I get to share my story with you.
Leigh Anne Brown is a pastor’s wife (Rev. Aaron Brown-Lead Pastor, Free Rider Fellowship/Plant City FL) and mother to two teenagers. Over the last 20 years she has been a varsity cheerleading coach, media specialist, high school theater director, wedding coordinator, active member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and a motorcyclist. She is a life-long lover of vintage and antique clothing and a 20+ year collector of vintage wedding dresses. She currently has more than 200 gowns in her collection. Her program is called “Portrait of a Bride, an Evolving Silhouette” and will look at the last 150+ years of history seen through the eyes of each “modern bride.” The program celebrates the growth and advancement of women during the years.
Leigh Anne’s collection has been showcased all over the State of Florida and the Southeastern US to thousands of women in the last 15 years. For more information on the program or to contact Leigh Anne please visit her Facebook page at: Portrait of a Bride, an Evolving Silhouette or via email LeLu22@juno.com