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Churches: Wedding gowns make another trip down the aisle

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

The delicate fabric of Olivette Smith’s wedding dress has developed a few rips and tears since she walked down the aisle in it with her husband, Charles, in 1947. But it still fits her willowy form perfectly.

Smith, 84, a River Club resident, donned the dress again last week at Pawleys Island Presbyterian Church. The church women had a wedding show case for their annual Girls Night Out event, having members loan wedding dresses and accessories, photo albums and other souvenirs from their big day to put on display.

The highlight of the evening was seeing the dresses make another trip down the aisle as they were modeled for the audience. There were more than a dozen dresses, but only a few were modeled by the women who were married in them.

Smith said she chose to model the dress for the same reason she was married in it.

“It’s a tribute to my mother,” she said.

It was the fifth time the dress was worn.

Smith’s mother, Ann Matilda Etheredge, originally wore the dress 97 years ago when she married Smith’s father, Maurice Andris Garr, in Quitman, Ga. He saw her in church and immediately proclaimed she was the prettiest girl he’d ever seen and he was going to marry her, Smith said.

For their honeymoon, they took a train to Valdosta, “just a few miles down the road,” she added with a laugh. Their union lasted 52 years and “they were sweethearts all their married life.”

The dress was worn next by Smith’s sister, Annelle Pridgen, at her wedding in Myrtle Beach in 1939. It was also her parents’ 25th wedding anniversary.

Smith was the third and tallest bride to wear it when she married at First Baptist Church in Hardeeville, just north of Savannah. A new panel had to be added to the bottom of the dress each time it was worn to accommodate the height of succeeding brides.

Smith offered the dress to her daughters and a granddaughter when they married, but they turned it down, not favoring its golden color. However, one of Smith’s daughters, Maureen Hamilton of Litchfield, wore the dress for a portrait by Alicia Rhett, a painter and actress best remembered for her role as India Wilkes in the 1939 film “Gone with the Wind.”

In between wearings, the dress was stored in a cedar box.

“I wish I had preserved it better,” Smith said.

Smith’s dress missed being the oldest in the show by eight years. That honor went to a dress worn in 1906 in Philadelphia by Emily Sophia Patterson, the grandmother of Jean Wise, the church member who organized the bridal showcase.

Patterson died the year Wise was born, but Wise’s mother handed down the dress, along with stories about the woman who wore it.

When her mother first pulled out the dress — handmade by a cousin of Patterson’s from cream-colored cotton lawn and lace — Wise was amazed it was still in such good condition.

The dress has been folded up in a department store box at the bottom of a cedar chest for more than a century, but “aside from one little rust spot, it’s in perfect condition,” Wise said.

However, the delicate fabric tore while it was being donned for the show. And it was itchy, said the model who wore it, Sidney Stuckey, a sixth-grader at Waccamaw Intermediate School.

Wise’s grandmother was only about 4 feet, 8 inches tall and weighed less than 90 pounds. The church had to get a preteen to model the dress, because none of the teens or adults could fit into it. Teens were recruited to model most of the dresses.

“Kids are so much bigger now,” Wise said.

The inspiration for the showcase was a similar event Wise went to at the church she attended when she lived in Chicago in the 1970s.

“It stuck in my mind,” she said.

When she pitched the idea, the church members embraced it and dresses and other wedding items started pouring in.

“Once we got a couple of dresses, the rest just fell into place,” Wise said.

Gail Holsclaw modeled the dress she wore when she married Pawleys Island Presbyterian’s minister, the Rev. Frank Holsclaw, in 1969 in Newark, Del.

“I just thought it would be a fun thing to do,” Gail said.

Frank wanted to see her in the dress again, she added, but it was a ladies-only event.

“Some people took pictures for him,” she said. “I think he was sort of pleased I was wearing it.”

Doris Shelly, married in 1975 in Saluda, also wore her own dress, eliciting laughter and cheers when she tossed her bouquet on her way back down the aisle. It was promptly stolen by Lee Brockington, drawing more laughs. Brockington’s wedding dress, worn in 1990 at Pawleys Island chapel, was also in the show, modeled by Maddy Middleton.

Hilda Simon modeled a white skirt suit she wore to her wedding in 1992.

The newest dress in the show was modeled by Janet Branham, who wore it for her wedding in 2006.

Another treat for guests at the showcase were dresses loaned by Jill Fletcher, who married in 1989 in Greenville, and Renee Middleton, who married in 1991 in Gaffney. The ladies were surprised to find they had worn identical bridal gowns. The dresses were modeled by twins, Ora Parker Eddy and Lora Gahagan Eddy, whose mother, Leigh Eddy was married in a double wedding with her sister in 1993.

It was a fabulous event, models and spectators agreed, and a great chance for the women in attendance to learn more about each other.

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