1 Wedding Dress, 3 Generations Of Brides

For many brides, picking out "the dress" can be the most daunting part of wedding planning, but for Ali Manson, her dress was never a question. Three generations of women in her family have shared one wedding dress. Host Michel Martin speaks with Manson and Washington Post staff writer Ellen McCarthy, who wrote about the family's tradition.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Switching gears now, now it's time to open up the pages of the Washington Post Magazine. That's something we do just about every week for interesting stories about the way we live now. And the story we want to focus on today is right on time as we head into the busiest time of year for hotels, churches and banquet centers.

That's right. It's wedding season, and for many anxious brides, it all boils down to one big decision - the dress. The search for the dress has become such a big deal that there's even a reality show just about that, but for the women in one family, that decision's an easy one. For seven brides spanning more than three generations, there was only one dress.

The gown was originally made in 1956 for Rita Zgorski. Since then, daughters, sisters, aunts and nieces have all donned the white gown on their wedding day. They say it's more than just a pretty dress. It's a symbol of their family's enduring love and bond over time.

Here to tell us more about the dress and the women who've worn it is Ellen McCarthy. She's a writer for the Washington Post. She profiled the women and the dress in a story called "The Wedding Dress" for this week's Washington Post Magazine.

Welcome. Thanks for coming back to see us.

ELLEN MCCARTHY: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Also with us, Ali Manson, the most recent bride to carry on the tradition. Congratulations and welcome to you.

ALI MANSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: I think you're supposed to say best wishes to the bride.

MANSON: I did hear that rumor. Yeah.

MARTIN: Yeah. But congratulations, anyway.

MANSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: And you look lovely in the dress. So, as we said, this was your grandmother's. Right?

MANSON: It was. It was my grandmother's and then it was my mother and all four of my - of her sisters, my aunts, who wore it first.

MARTIN: And ever tempted to pick another dress?

MANSON: No. I think that, you know, I grew up and I was in all of their weddings and I was there for all of them. I want to say, you know, by the time I was 12 years old, I probably believed that this was the only wedding dress that existed, that you got married and this is what you wore and it lived under Momsy's bed.

But I had the - you know, I was able to wear a different dress for the reception because is was - the dress itself is fragile and we didn't want to dance in it and eat in it, so I got to kind of pick something that represented me, but I didn't fantasize about the dress as something that I wanted to hunt for and, you know, show off on a TLC show.

MARTIN: Well, why do you think that this dress has been so central to your family's story? I mean, I know a lot of us - I know I preserved my wedding gown, but I have no expectation that my daughter is going to wear it. I just think that's not going to happen. So why do you think that this has persisted in your family?

MANSON: It snowballs. Right? I don't think that my grandmother expected that anyone else but her would wear and, when my mother wanted to, she kind of kicked off a chain of events that, you know, wasn't unavoidable. Certainly, they all could have chosen something different, but they didn't and we're lucky to have a beautiful, timeless dress to wear. Right? We're not talking about kind of a - oh, I don't know - something short or just different that wouldn't have been quite so classic.

MARTIN: But it's been actually quite modified over the years. That's one of the things that's exciting about it. It went through the poofy sleeve phase, Ellen McCarthy. It went through - it's been, as one would imagine, having to be kind of radically rebuilt over time because it has had that wear and tear. Ellen, what's your take on it, having reported this story and why this dress has persisted in this family over time? What do you think it's come to mean?

MCCARTHY: Well, I think it's really a reflection of the family. This is a family that's really steeped in traditions and they take their traditions so seriously and it's - the Zgorski ladies are a strong bunch and they really sort of love each other and they honor each other so much and they're so sort of enmeshed in each other's lives that - yes, of course, every one of them said to me, I had a choice. This was not foisted upon me. I could have chosen other, but I chose this. Because they want this. They want sort of to honor each other in that really special way.

MARTIN: Now, you cover weddings for the Washington Post Magazine. How often do you see family traditions like this carried on through so many generations and so many weddings?

MCCARTHY: Never. I mean, never like this. That's why it was such an interesting story for me because you just don't. People - you know, as you mentioned at the beginning, dresses have become this, you know, big thing in weddings. I often call them sort of the crown jewel because a bride, you know, will have her dress even before she has met her husband in some instances. And it sort of, you know, has become this, you know, big sort of shopaholic materialistic thing and so you don't see it. I think it's very rare.

MARTIN: But also, the opportunity to sort of design something of the moment and it is a beautiful and classic design. Could you just describe it? Ali, do you mind describing it in its current iteration? And so you moved past the poofy sleeve phase, thankfully.

MANSON: We did. We did take in - it's long, lace sleeves and, during the mid-'90s, someone had puffed them to make nice princess sleeves. Obviously, that was not as nice right now, so we took those in, but it is a silk and satin and lace, very long, very heavy skirt that I think is a - I don't remember what the appropriate word is for the length of the skirt, but it's got, you know, several feet out behind you and it's beautiful, I think.

MARTIN: It's been worn with hoop and without hoop.

MANSON: With hoop and without and we got really excited last year for the royal wedding when Kate Middleton came out in long lace sleeves and we were like, this is perfect. We're coming back into style.

MARTIN: But I do want to clarify. The dress existed in the Zgorski family before the Middleton dress, so for those who think that she's biting off royal style, it's not the case.

MANSON: It's the other way around.

MARTIN: It's the other - thank you. It's the other way around. Ali, a sensitive subject. I hope you don't mind my raising it. Most of the marriages of the family - the women who've worn the dress have lasted. OK.

MANSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: With one exception - painful exception. I did wonder whether, in part, that's partly what the dress represents, is the longevity in a time when many marriages do end. I mean, the statistics, I think, are well-known in this country. Your family has - as a family, has escaped that. But not everybody, and I wonder if that's part of what it represents.

MANSON: I think those values are passed down, not just with the dress, but, you know, with your genes, with every meal that you eat together. I mean, it's - we're a family that I think very much values the commitment and the hard work that goes into supporting each other and loving each other. You know, it's not always easy. It's not always easy to love your spouse. It's not always easy to love your children or your parents. You do it because it's important and because that's what family's for.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about one very special wedding dress that has become a family tradition for three generations of women.

My guests are Ali Manson, the most recent of seven brides to wear the dress. Also with us, writer Ellen McCarthy, who discovered this jewel in Ali's family in an article for this week's Washington Post Magazine.

Ellen, a little bit more about the dress since you see many dresses in the course of your work. Tell us just a little bit more about it.

MCCARTHY: Yeah. I mean, to me, it is - it's very reminiscent of the dress that Kate Middleton wore. You know, these sort of - kind of a cut neckline. Right? With a sweetheart - is that right? And then these beautiful long, lace sleeves, but a very sort of, you know, tight cinched waist that gives you that, you know, lovely tight bodice look and then the full skirt. I mean, it's just breathtaking. It's really beautiful.

MARTIN: Well, do any of the grooms have any opinions about this or are we not asking about them? Do we not care what they think? Do we ever? Ali, any - do you ever hear any opinions about this? As you said, you saw this dress being worn many, many times down - many trips down the aisle for your other family members, so...

MANSON: I cannot speak for all of them. I was just too young, but my husband actually shot an email to my mom the other day just, you know, telling her he had seen the article and how much he loved the dress and what it stood for and I think, as he put it, what it stands for is this loud, loving, warm family, that he wouldn't want to be a part of any other.

MARTIN: How - nice man. Showing the good sense for which he will justifiably become famous within the family.

MANSON: Exactly.

MARTIN: Good choice. How have you all managed to keep the dress in condition to be worn by so many brides over so many years? And it's been taken up, it's been taken down. I do want to mention, you are not all of the same height and body shape at all. Not just the sleeves, which I was making fun of. Sorry for whoever wore the puffy sleeves. I wasn't being - I shouldn't have said that.

But how have you maintained it? How has it managed to have been maintained so well over these years?

MANSON: Not necessarily all that well. When it came out this most recent time, they had put it away. It hadn't been cleaned. A lot of the lace was torn. I put it on the first time and my grandmother's crying because she's so excited and I'm crying because it looked so awful. It was yellow and, you know, it didn't fit me. So obviously, there was that.

But we worked with different seamstresses over the years. Most recently, we've found a remarkably talented woman who was able to hunt for a couple of months to find the right lace that would fit into the holes and to kind of match the puzzle pieces of what had been torn to try and put it all back together and it was very, very challenging and it took a long time, but she did an amazing job to get it back into wearable shape.

MARTIN: Well, a beautiful metaphor for marriage. Right? And what it takes. You know, hunting, piecing and putting in the work and the time. So, Ali Manson, congratulations to you. Our very best wishes as you start this next chapter of your life and you look beautiful in the dress.

Thank you for joining us.

MANSON: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Ali Manson is a manager at the National Coalition on Health Care. She's the latest bride to wear a wedding dress that's been in her family for more than 60 years. Ellen McCarthy is a writer for the Washington Post. Her article, "The Wedding Dress," was featured in this week's Washington Post Magazine. They were both kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

MANSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, we'll remember Rodney King. He was found dead at his California home yesterday. His brutal beating by Los Angeles police captured on videotape became the face of police brutality. The riots set off when those officers were acquitted became a tragic symbol of urban unrest.

We spoke with him just a few months ago on the 20th anniversary of the L.A. riots when he told what he's hoped to accomplish after the tragic events.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

RODNEY KING: In my heart and soul, you know, I'll always try to say something or do something to make it a lot more pleasant for the next generation behind us.

MARTIN: We remember Rodney King. That's in just a few minutes on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Televangelist Creflo Dollar is probably best known for his exuberant preaching and lavish lifestyle, but now he's made headlines for something else, allegedly beating and choking his teenage daughter for disobeying his orders not to go to a party. Now, others are asking, is spare the rod, spoil the child still right? We'll talk about this with two prominent clergy members next time on TELL ME MORE.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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