In Lyme, Wedding Gown Exhibit Stitches Together Stories of a Community of Women

Aug 28, 2018

The historical museum in Lyme is wrapping up a summer exhibit on wedding gowns. The exhibit offers insight into the evolution of women’s styles and it also shares some intimate stories of town residents.

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Walk into the parlor rooms of The Lyme History Museum and wedding gowns surround you. Some hang on mannequins. Others are so delicate, they’re draped on antique sofas.

And one of the first things you notice is that not all of the dresses are white.

“This dress here is from 1897 and is a dark blue with a gray pinstripe.”

Priscilla Power is a volunteer with the museum. She says that before the Victorian era, brides wanted sensible clothes they could wear again. She’s describing a dress that belonged to a grandmother of a Lyme resident and stands in the foyer.

“It has a very high neck with a velvet ribbon. I would not have thought it was a wedding dress.”

In the room next to it is Priscilla’s own wedding gown from 1966. It’s a church white with hand-sewn Alencon lace and slipper-satin bows gracing the front.

Mertie Balch and her daughter Priscilla Power with the dress Priscilla wore to her wedding
Credit Sheryl Rich-Kern for NHPR

”Mum made [it] without a pattern,” Priscilla says. “She made it first out of a sheet, to make sure it would work.”

Her mum is 95-year-old Mertie Balch, who sits quietly beside her on this humid August morning.

”I’d always made clothes for her,” she says.

Mertie has trouble walking and hearing. But she clearly remembers the months leading up to her daughter’s wedding.

“It’s hard to have them go away. That’s all.”

“She knew that once I wore this dress, that would change our relationship,” Priscilla says.

“She took it off after the wedding,” Mertie continues. “She sent it to the dry cleaners and put it in a box.”

Mertie hadn’t looked at the dress she’d made for her daughter for 52 years. But then Priscilla found it underneath a pile of quilts.

”She brought it downstairs. And she opened it up and we were looking at it. And I said, ‘That’s pretty.’ And I said, ‘What are you going to do with it?’

Her daughter suggested giving it to the bargain barn. Mertie didn’t like that idea.

“And I thought, ‘Oh no.’ And I said, ‘Why don’t you go down and see if the historians will take it” Because after 50 years, it’s an antique.’ Not that she is,” Mertie laughs, "But the dress is.”

And that’s how a wedding gown that hadn’t seen the light of day in five decades inspired the Lyme historians to ask other residents to bring in their old wedding dresses too.

And in they came – along with photo albums and newspaper clippings. There was a Gatsby-styled outfit from the jazzy 1920s. A bohemian buckskin dress and moccasins from the 70s with photos of the bride in a mountain top ceremony. A lacy dress from the 50s that three of Mertie’s nieces wore.

Mertie made that one, too.

“Well, they needed the dresses. I was the one that was to make it.”

Priscilla says that wasn’t unusual, because in her family, wearing hand-me-downs was tradition.

That hand-me-down dress is classic and sweet-looking. Nearby is another that’s not as easy to define.

”This dress was worn in 2009 by Liz Pippin,” Priscilla says. “She was married on Valentine’s Day.”

The dress is a dazzling white with a crimson sash around an empire waist. It has a sweeping red velvet train dotted with sequins and gold buttons. The silhouette says Tudor castle ball; the red velvet and glitter, an Elvis concert.

Liz Pippin wore her white and crimson dress in 2009. She shared this photo from her wedding album with NHPR.
Credit Courtesy

Liz Pippin works a stone’s throw from the history museum at the Lyme Country Store. She wore that dress with the red train at her wedding – and remembers when she found it.

”I typed in wedding gowns, online. And I found this dress for 200 bucks. It came with a shawl and a matching purse. And I love the train. I just thought that was so fun,” she says.

Liz says that at the store, she often sees the women who contributed dresses for the exhibit.

”And then you see the pictures of their weddings. This one lovely lady that I met. She was in the army. She golfs all the time. She didn’t look like the woman that would have worn a tiara and a gorgeous lace dress. But she did.”

Woven underneath the stitchings of these gowns are conversations like these….they connect the town’s history with the people who live and work here today.

The wedding at the historical museum in Lyme runs through Saturday. Click here for more information.