On November 23, 1957, Margaret Garrison married her Mississippi sweetheart, Harold Garrison, in San Francisco, Calif., at Mission Dolores. Garrison’s mother, Anna O’Connell, saved money for years for her only child’s wedding, and specifically, for the perfect dress. Little did she know, that dress would become a family heirloom, worn by three generations of brides thus far.
“My grandfather was a baker and grandmother saved every nickel and penny,” said Paula Childs, Garrison’s daughter and the second bride to wear the dress.
The floor-length gown features a fitted silk bodice and flowing tulle skirt with delicate lace details and button closures on the back. Age has given the once-white dress a pearl hue. Over 59 years, the dress has seen many alterations and renovations. The train was removed when Wanda Jackson, Garrison’s oldest daughter wore it in 1984, and the sleeves were removed for granddaughter Chloe Noe in 2014. Garrison has kept every scrap and piece that has been removed.
“The funny thing is that none of the seven of us have the same body types or body shapes or you would even think are the same size to fit into it,” said Jackson.
For the Garrison women, the wedding gown was an accidental tradition.
“It was beautiful to me,” said Childs. “I had no desire for another dress.”
Her two sisters followed suit; Nancy Bailey wore it two years later in 1981 and Jackson in 1984.
“Every time someone wore it, it became more special,” she said.
Even after the dress had been worn by their grandmother, mother and three aunts, granddaughters Chloe Noe and Anna Hardin felt no pressure to wear the dress on their wedding days.
“Our grandmother always said we didn’t have to wear it,” Noe said. “It was just something we wanted to do.”
Hardin agreed that she wore the dress because she wanted to follow in the steps of her mother, grandmother and aunts. She is now expecting a daughter of her own.
“I remember always thinking that was the dress I wanted to wear,” she said.
The most recently married granddaughter, Autumn Stone, had already ordered a dress when Garrison offered the family heirloom to her. She immediately accepted and sent her dress back for an opportunity to wear the storied gown.
“To me, the dress symbolizes enduring love, a godly example and forgiveness. You see me tear up, but it’s more than that to me, it’s an example that our parents gave us,” Childs said.
Each bride knew that the dress came with an unspoken responsibility. It represented years of marital commitment between their parents and grandparents, as well as those that followed after. Bailey calls it her mother’s true legacy.
“It has been my prayer that my girls would have good, solid marriages. It makes me proud to see their homes, their lives. It’s a good feeling,” Garrison, the matriarch, said. “The person you’re drawn to, there’s all those attractions, but after the honeymoon wears off, marriage is work,” said Garrison. “It requires that mindset that you’re going to make it work.”
Childs wonders how O’Connell would feel, knowing that the dress that she saved so fervently for has become a cherished treasure that binds the Garrison women together.
“The dress, this legacy, that was her investment in our family,” Jackson said.