Lynne Rickert got married in a hurry.
“My dad had gotten a job in California, and he gave my sister and me an ultimatum: We were either moving with the family or getting married,” she said. “There was no way he was going to leave two single girls here in Minnesota.”
That was in 1970, when Rickert was 19. Neither she, nor her sister, who was a year older, cared to move west. Within a month, both daughters tied the knot in hastily planned weddings five days apart.
“I had $100 for a wedding dress, and I found one at a bridal shop at Brookdale for $95,” said Rickert, who is now 64 and has been married to her hurry-up husband, Terry, for 45 years.
Rickert’s Empire-waisted, high-necked polyester gown isn’t stashed in a closet in her East Bethel home. For the next year, it’ll be on display at the Anoka County Historical Society. It’s part of “Wedding Belles and Beaus,” an exhibit of more than 50 wedding gowns and garments at the society’s gallery in downtown Anoka.
The exhibit includes dresses that span the centuries, from an 1884 gown with crocheted buttons and flowing train to a silk flapper dress from the Roaring ’20s to a metallic silver pantsuit from the disco era. But it reveals more than just the fashions of the day. These garments reflect not only the people who wore them and the circumstances they lived in, but also the spirit of the times.
“The dress is embedded with personal history but always very tied to mainstream fashion,” said Jean McElvain, associate curator at the Goldstein Museum of Design at the University of Minnesota and a scholar of the social aspects of dress. “When we look back, it’s easy to see the relationship between runway fashion and wedding dresses. They [wedding styles] are always representative of their era.”
In fact, wedding attire can be more effective at pegging the date of a wedding than memories, in part because newspapers often published detailed accounts of what the couple — and sometimes the guests — wore for the event.
“A bride gown is a personal and a permanent statement,” said Rebecca Ebnet-Mavencamp, executive director of the Anoka County Historical Society.
“All brides know it’s the one picture they’ll always keep. In the past, it might be the only picture of them ever taken. A bride knows how she looks on that day will be passed along.”
One of the dresses in the Anoka exhibit was worn by Bessie Jackson in 1903. Her husband’s black wool trousers and tailcoat are also on display. Their wedding, held at home in the front parlor, warranted a write-up in the Anoka Union that read: “The bride was attired in a dress of cream albatross, trimmed with satin ribbon and white net.”
The exhibit also includes a newspaper story from 1953, when the Jacksons celebrated their golden anniversary. For their anniversary, both of them wore what they were wearing when they spoke their vows a half-century earlier.
Imperfect but real
One of the most striking features of the exhibit is the size of the garments.
Some of the older dresses are astonishingly tiny, although not because early brides dieted before the big day.
“Anoka County was rural, mostly farmers until the suburbs were built after World War II,” said Vickie Wendel, program manager for the society and curator of the exhibit. “They did physical work, morning to night, and probably didn’t have much sugar or meat in their diet. They were lean — the men’s pants are teeny, too.”
To accommodate the petite dimensions, Wendel meticulously sculpted custom dress forms for displaying them.
“Two of the dresses have 19-inch waists,” she said. “I thought a waist that small was fiction, but the gauge I measured with doesn’t lie.”
The exhibit also includes garments proudly worn by members of wedding parties — an aqua double-knit, sheer-sleeved minidress chosen by a mother-of-the-bride in the 1970s and a flower girl dress made in 1952 that was passed along and worn by five little girls to celebrate five weddings in the same family. There’s even a prim wedding nightgown, saved by a bride who married in 1910. Ankle-length with long sleeves, it reflects the modesty of the era.
Glass cases also hold accessories, some fragile and faded: crumbling bouquets and boutonnieres, old wedding invitations, personalized reception napkins and congratulatory cards.
There’s a cake topper from a wartime wedding, complete with a pair of miniature U.S. flags with 48 stars. It celebrated the 1944 marriage of Evadena Ricketts and Helge Seaberg. A portrait from the day shows a dashing uniform-clad groom arm-in-arm with his bride, who glowed in a floor-length dress replete with beading at the throat and an elegant train.
“It’s not silk, it’s not satin. It’s an early synthetic, probably made by a seamstress, so no label,” Wendel said. “It would harm the fabric to test it, so we won’t find out any more than that.”
After spending seven decades in storage, the gown is a bit rumpled, but Wendel isn’t concerned.
“Visitors will have to overlook the wrinkles. I won’t put any of these dresses at risk by ironing or steaming them,” she said.
Some of the dresses are damaged by water spots or moths; one has tarnished silver beads, and a few have yellowed unevenly. But some were never a pure white; a number of the gowns are some shade of ivory, eggshell or cream, hues that were the height of fashion for brides in some eras.
The very idea of a bridal gown dates to the turn of the previous century.
“The idea that you buy this expensive dress to wear once is a modern concept,” said McElvain. “People of means have always worn fancier clothes, but before the 20th century even those brides would have kept wearing the dress they got married in, sometimes for years.”
Pioneer brides said “I do” in what they would have called their “best dress.” In an era when people had far fewer garments, the dress also would have been pressed into duty for attending church or receiving company.
Mary Ann Grant’s dress is such an outfit; when she married Anoka County farmer Douglas Ruffcorn in 1893, she chose a floor-length two-piece wool suit, pale green with a white woven stripe and trimmed with blue silk velvet.
“This spending a year or two planning a wedding started in the 1940s and ’50s,” Wendel said. “Before that, most couples put on a dress and a suit and went to church or City Hall. Maybe they had flowers from the garden or made sandwiches and cake or had a dance. They just got married without a lot of buildup.”
The curators of the exhibit hope that viewing garb from the weddings represented in the display will give visitors a chance to think about the unions that created their own heritage.
“Weddings prompt us to re-evaluate our place in our family line, to think about how two families merged to create kinship,” said Ebnet-Mavencamp. “A wedding day is always a happy day, an optimistic day. We want people to start telling the stories of their own family weddings and think about those connections. That’s what makes history relevant.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and newscaster at BringMeTheNews.com.