SUPERIOR, Wis. — Piece by piece, a family heirloom from the 1950s is being rebuilt.
For Megan Alanen, owner of The Stitchery in Superior, Wis., the delicate gown of satin and lace has become a passion project.
“I want to respect the dress,” she said.
This is the busiest time of the year for the seamstress. She tailored dresses for 18 June weddings and has 22 brides getting married in July, 16 in August and 21 in September. Yet she’s poured hours into restyling the handmade gown.
“I just think it’s really special,” Alanen said. “I wish I had my grandma’s dress to wear.”
Three generations of Laura Bechard’s family have said yes to this dress. It has carried the wedding day hopes of three brides since it was first worn in 1956; Bechard will be the fourth.
“I thought it would be a neat concept if it worked out to try and wear the dress that both my mother and my grandmother had worn,” said Bechard, a Wisconsin native who now lives in Duluth.
The first bride to wear the dress was her great-aunt Linda, who married Leslie Hasart on Aug. 25, 1956. Bechard’s grandmother Ethel, Leslie’s younger sister, liked the gown so much that she asked to wear it for her wedding the next year.
Ethel Hasart and Harlan Nelson walked down the aisle at Plymouth Congregational Church in Eau Claire, Wis., on Sept. 7, 1957. The couple celebrated more than 50 years of marriage before their deaths in 2016.
An article in the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram about the Nelson wedding described the bride’s dress in detail: “Her floor length gown of French Rosepoint lace and pleated nylon tulle over bridal satin was styled with a lace Mandarin collar, trimmed with sequins and pearls, and long tapered sleeves. Panels of lace accented the skirt. She carried white carnations centered with an orchid.”
Decades later, Bechard’s mother, Ann, wore the same dress for her Sept. 6, 1980, marriage to Jerry Bechard at Lake Street United Methodist Church in Eau Claire. It returned to her great-aunt’s side of the family, but was given to Bechard as she was finishing high school.
“They were looking to get rid of the dress, but had called up my grandma to see if she wanted it back or if my mom wanted it back, and my grandma asked me and I said I’d take it at that point,” Bechard said.
It remained in her closet as she attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, earning a bachelor’s degree in community and environmental sociology and a master’s degree in international development.
When fiance Zachary Latimore proposed on her birthday in February, Bechard pulled out the dress. Initially white, it had yellowed with age. The bride-to-be spent a day washing it with OxiClean and drying it on their basement table to brighten it up. The resulting ivory color is beautiful, but the process disintegrated much of the lace, including three large skirt panels.
“As soon as it hit the water, the lace didn’t hold up,” Bechard said.
She sought help from The Stitchery. Alanen got her first glimpse of the dress March 22; it was wrapped in a towel in a laundry basket.
"When she first saw the dress, she marveled at the quality of the original fabric," Bechard said. Alanen offered a dizzying array of options for the gown.
Since then, Bechard has tried on a number of other wedding dresses and searched for inspiration online to create a blueprint for the refurbishing process. It includes salvaging as much of the lace as possible and adding it back as edging for the front skirt panels and decoration for the bodice, which will have a new underpinning of Swiss dot tulle. The long, tapered sleeves have been removed. Instead, the same high collar will grace a halter-style top that is better suited for Bechard and Latimore’s August wedding.
“This has been a joy to work on,” Alanen said. "I just can’t wait to see what it’s like when it’s done.”
Bechard said she has appreciated working with someone who's just as excited as she is about the project.
"I wish my grandma would have been able to see this process," she said. "I think she would be excited and have a very similar mentality as my mom, like 'Well, if it works, it works. If it doesn't, it doesn't,' but I think (she would) be excited in the end."
A number of Bechard's great aunts and uncles are expected to attend the wedding. Her grandmother was one of 13 siblings.
"I just hope that she can see me wear it from wherever she is," the Duluth woman said.
Alanen said the body oils that get on a dress during a wedding can stain and damage the fabric. Brides hoping to pass on their dresses may want to consider having them professionally cleaned and preserved by a company such as the Wedding Gown Preservation Company.
"My mom did that for her dress and after 23 years, their basement flooded and the corner of the box got wet. So she cracked it open and it looks good as new," Alanen said.