Renewing a wedding dress

A gorgeous gown from 1952 finds new life in a special gift

Donna Boyum Johnson, seated next to a photo taken on her wedding day, poses with her wedding dress. Submitted photos.

Donna Boyum Johnson, seated next to a photo taken on her wedding day, poses with her wedding dress. Submitted photos.

We’ve all attended weddings as a guest or have been in one (our own or a friend’s). For most of us, the real highlight of the wedding is the moment we see the bride for the first time in her wedding gown. As a wedding photographer friend of mine has said, it’s all about the bride—the groom just shows up.

The modern-day white wedding dress originated with Queen Victoria in 1840, when she wore a white silk-spun gown at her wedding to Prince Albert. It wasn’t until the prosperity after World War II that the average woman could afford a wedding dress that would only be worn once to celebrate the day. Today’s brides can choose from millions of colors, styles and fabrics.

This is not only a love story but the story of one very special wedding dress and its renewal. The story starts in 1948 when my aunt Donna Boyum met my uncle Ken Johnson for the first time at her mother Sarah’s cafe in Hibbing. She was almost 16, and he was 19. They didn’t date for several years, but my uncle knew from the first time he met her he was going to marry her and made that very clear to another suitor (she found this out years later).

Mr. and Mrs. Ken Johnson and their wedding party at First Lutheran Church in Hibbing on Nov. 21, 1952.

Mr. and Mrs. Ken Johnson and their wedding party at First Lutheran Church in Hibbing on Nov. 21, 1952.

They became engaged in 1951, and the date Nov. 21, 1952, was chosen as their future wedding day because, as she laughingly told me, it did not interfere with deer hunting. When the time came to pick out a wedding dress, she and her mother Sarah went to Herberger’s in Hibbing. There were several there that appealed to her, but she just didn’t find The One. The clerk suggested she look through the catalog, which she did, and she found the dress of her dreams.

The dress is a cream-colored satin, with 65 satin-covered buttons. It weighs almost 10 pounds and has a seven-foot-long long train. The Juliet cap had a waist-length veil attached. The cost at the time was $300, which would be about $3,000 today. Her father Joe had no problem paying the $300 for his only child and daughter.

The wedding took place on November 21, 1952, at First Lutheran Church in Hibbing, two weeks after I was born. A small reception followed in the church basement, after which the dress was tucked away as all are, never to be worn again. Not so with this dress. Little did I know that someday I would become involved. It was meant to be.

Model Chiara Christ wears Donna’s 67-year-old wedding dress.

Model Chiara Christ wears Donna’s 67-year-old wedding dress.

My aunt and uncle had two children: a daughter Darcy, 11 months younger than me, and a son Steven (Stevie). Darcy acquired the dress from her mother and kept it in her cedar chest for years. When Darcy developed a rare cancer and died this past January, I asked my aunt if I could have the dress. She agreed, and I knew then and there what I wanted to do with it.

I have been a professional photographer for 12 years, and my subject matter has been equine (horses) and rodeo/ Western. A couple of years ago, I developed an interest in studio photography and became acquainted with P/K Images in Virginia and photographer Jerry Alt of Altimagery in Chicago. This led to styling and concept ideas for photographing models. When I acquired the wedding dress, the only thing I had to do was replace the veil on the Juliet cap, and I knew exactly who I wanted to bring it back to life: model Chiara Christ.

Chiara is a superstar, and she never disappoints when we work together. My intent was to photograph the dress on Chiara and then give the new images to my aunt and uncle on their 67th wedding anniversary, which was Nov. 21 of this year. My uncle turned 90 this past February and had been in failing health for quite some time. My aunt was with him every step of the way, caring for him up until his death on Sept. 27. Although he didn’t live long enough to see the results of the photoshoot, I know he would have been happy to see again the wedding dress the love of his life once wore.

I gave the new photos to my aunt, and we laughed and cried and exchanged wonderful stories for two days. I am so grateful for her being in my life all these years and for the unconditional love and support she has given me. The dress will now take a well-deserved break. Will it come back again? Something as beautiful as that needs to be seen, so…

Gerri Podrug lives in Hugo, MN. She is the owner of GR Photographic Creations.

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