When Joseph Roberts Jr., of New Orleans, proposed to Judith Lynn Blanchard, of Covington, in 1963, his mother, Ella Roberts, offered to make her wedding dress, as well as four bridesmaid dresses. Blanchard’s mother had passed away, so her future mother-in-law’s generous offer was very special.
“I would never have thought at the time that my daughter and granddaughter would wear my wedding dress,” Judith Blanchard Roberts said recently.
Once the couple’s engagement had been announced, she and her future mother-in-law searched for fabric at the Original Remnant Shop on Canal Street. They chose reams of eggshell peau de soie, which at that time cost $1.98 per yard — for a total of less than $40 — to make a princess-style dress with a chapel train.
Ella Roberts cut the wedding dress design from a Vogue pattern, and made all six dresses — including her own — on a sewing machine in her Holy Cross home. After the fitting, Judith Roberts said, she laid it across the backseat of her Buick convertible and drove across the Causeway. The St. Tammany Farmer newspaper announced the couple’s engagement, vividly describing the classic gown with fitted bodice adorned with hundreds of hand-sewn pearls.
After the ceremony, the dress was dry cleaned and stored in the closet for safekeeping.
Today, similar wedding dresses sold at Southern Bridal in Mandeville, for example, cost $1,800 or more. If a bride wants a unique dress, Jennifer Erceg, owner of Southern Bridal, works with designers to customize, bringing the overall cost even higher.
“Every once in a while, brides wear an heirloom dress, but it is very infrequent,” Erceg said.
Many vintage dresses were lost during Hurricane Katrina.
Judith Robert’s eldest daughter, Angelle LaBorde, wore the dress again in her 1996 wedding, and then her niece, Brittany Davis, walked down the aisle of St. Anthony of Padua Church on Nov. 6 in the very same gown.
St. Anthony is also the church where her great-grandparents, Ella and Joseph Roberts Sr., were married.
Davis and her grandmother are close. When it came time to look for a wedding dress, Davis never bothered to shop in stores. She said: “Me-maw, I want to see your dress. I am dying to see it and try it on.” She had seen the framed wedding photos all her life.
“The sentiment behind the dress means much more to me than buying it off the rack,” Davis said.
Most contemporary brides choose dresses with a lot of lace, but Davis feels honored to wear the traditional dress her great-grandmother made by hand. “It’s more special to me because it has such a story.”
“It is not terribly common these days for women to use heirloom dresses,” said Melanie Warner Spencer, editor of New Orleans Bride. “Most indeed buy new ones or — and this is a larger trend — buy a gently used one from a resale shop such as Bridal Revente.
“When they do go with heirloom gowns, they typically have to invest a lot of money in alternations and restoration,” she added.
Fortunately, LaBorde and her mother were almost the same size. Davis is petite, but the dress is the perfect length when she wears heels. She chose to make it sleeveless and added a corset-style in the back, which is popular.
“When I made the changes and put it on, it really was my dress.”