One look at the gorgeous wedding gowns and the stories start to flow.

And Debbie Littlefield loves to hear them. Those memories are part of the reason she started collecting old wedding dresses in the first place.

"I would bring the gowns to places, and the ladies love to look at these and then share their stories," she said. "They're beautiful stories."

Littlefield recalled how a woman spoke of being one of 10 children in a family that didn't have much. But, she said her mother had promised that when she got married, she would have a real wedding dress.

"And now, at age 93, she still had her wedding dress in a closet," Littlefield said. "It sparked memories for them and just gave them an opportunity to talk about things that they remembered and they loved."

Currently, Littlefield's collection is sparking memories at the Ascension Parish Library, 708 S. Irma Blvd., in Gonzales.

The exhibit, titled "Decades of Dresses," is sponsored by Notre Dame Hospice, where Littlefield is the community education representative. It will be on display through July 31.

The 12 dresses and one tuxedo span the decades from the 1920s through the early 2000s. It's the first time Littlefield has brought her collection to a venue outside a nursing home or assisted living facility.

Littlefield began showing the dresses in those venues after a career change.

She earned a degree in fashion merchandising and worked as a buyer for Goudchaux's department store in Baton Rouge. When the company was sold, she decided to reinvent herself.

A walk through the “Decades of Dresses” exhibit at the Ascension Parish Library. Staff video by Robin Miller

"I ended up in health care as a purchasing agent," Littlefield said. "That's how I got into health care and working with the elderly. I started working as the purchasing agent at Ollie Steele Burden Nursing Home. Then I started bringing these gowns to nursing homes and retirement communities, and we would do reminiscing activities."

Littlefield, however, didn't begin collecting the gowns until well after she started her new job.

It all started when a friend began downsizing, which included finding a new home for the wedding gowns that had belonged to her mother, Rose Messina Walker, who married in 1967, and her grandmother, Marie Hubert Messina, who was a bride in 1939. She asked if Littlefield wanted them.

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Though the dresses weren't a part of Littlefield's family history, she knew they were important and their stories might be lost.

So, she accepted the dresses, both of which are part of the exhibit, accompanied by photos of the happy couples on their wedding days.

Littlefield soon began buying gowns at estate sales.

Her sisters, Linda Roussel Upton and Pamela Roussel Fry, added their 1970-era dresses to the mix, and Littlefield pulled her own dress out of storage.

Looking at her own gown, Littlefield thinks back to her 1985 wedding. She was 26 and considered herself a mature bride. That meant she wasn't into the puffy sleeves and big ballgown made popular by Princess Diana, who married in 1981.

Through her job as a Goudchaux's buyer, she found the perfect dress — a tea-length gown with a long-sleeve lace bodice. 

While Diana's style was not her own, Littlefield has included a book about the creation of the princess' gown in the exhibit, along with other books documenting wedding dresses through the decades.

Then there's the lone tuxedo from the 1960s.

"I love the tuxedo," Littlefield said. "I call it my James Bond. And I especially love the shoes — they have bows on top."

While many have offered to share their stories and give Littlefield their gowns, she has pressed the pause button on donations for now.

She said she needs to find a better storage system before she can accept any more dresses.

She would, however, like to show off the dresses in more venues. It would just mean that many more stories for her to enjoy.


Email Robin Miller at romiller@theadvocate.com