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“A Bride Carries on a Tradition…” ~ The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine

The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine
Lifestyle & Entertainment
Thursday, September 10, 1998

“A bride carries on a tradition, wearing something historic, used anew” by Denise Cowie

When Charlotte Peterson swept down the aisle of the Church of the Redeemer for her wedding in Bryn Mawr on Saturday, the train stretching 91/2 feet behind her was as light as silk. But it carried quite a weight of family history.

For more than a hundred years, the six yards of exquisite duchess and rose point lace stitched in a horseshoe shape around the train has been handed down from grandmother to granddaughter to play a role on wedding days.

Charlotte’s great-great-grandmother Hannah Nicholson Biddle, first wore the lace when she married Charles Williams in Haverford in 1877.

Half a century later, it was in the spotlight again. The year was 1932, and Eleanor Biddle Williams Wilbur –Hannah’s granddaughter who would become Charlotte’s grandmother –wore the lace as a veil, falling in a teardrop shape from a tiny cap when she wed J. Stanley Reeve of Haverford.

Saturday, as Charlotte walked toward her groom, lawyer Ronald William Fenstermacher Jr., her grandmother was in a pew to see the lace adorn another bride. (It was a birthday gift of sorts –she turned 88 the next day.)

“I’m very close to my grandmother, and we’re very alike,” she says, “so I always wanted to wear it.”

But doing so turned out to be no mean feat.

The lace was given to Charlotte about 10 years ago. By then it was suffering from the brownish discolorations of age and the humidity of Florida, where it had been stored.

Late last years, when Charlotte started thinking about a wedding gown, she began casting about for someone who could handle the antique lace and incorporate it into the traditional style she wanted.

At the same time, her mother –Eleanor Reeve Peterson of Haverford –also began asking friends and museum personnel if they knew of anyone who’d fill the bill.

Independently, both women came up with the name of Janice Martin, a Manayunk designer of bridal and evening wear who has made a specialty of heirloom gowns. Martin took one look at the lace and consulted with restoration experts, including Sara Reiter, the assistant conservator of costume and textile at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with whom she had worked on the restoration of Princess Grace’s wedding veil for the museum’s “Best Dressed” exhibit last year.

The lace, it was clear, had to be washed –a time consuming task with some potential for disaster. Charlotte, studying for a master’s degree in criminal-justice administration at Villanova, decided to take it on herself.

Following instructions, she laid out her grandmother’s veil on the living room floor of her Paoli home and made a pattern of the unusual shape so she’d know how it was supposed to dry. Then she began washing the lace in her bathtub, using only water and, once, a little of the Orvis horse soap that needleworkers use to take out brown discolorations.

At least six times the lace did a slow soak in the tub; until it was rinsed for the last time in gallons of distilled water.

“The washing and drying took over my living room for about two months,” Charlotte said a couple of weeks before the wedding. But it was worth it. “I think when my grandmother sees it, it will mean a tremendous amount to her.”

For Janice Martin, of course, the now-butter-colored lace was just the beginning. Together, she and Charlotte had to decide how to use it without cutting it, in a classic dress that would show off the bride’s size 4 figure.

Months of work later, the gown Charlotte wore down the aisle seemed inevitable: 25 yards of imported silk satin (plus 50 yards of silk lining) in a full circle skirt and a bodice with a modified sweetheart neckline and a basque waist. Over the shoulders and above the train at the back were 37 handmade silk roses. And on the train itself, matching the creamy silk and looking as if it had been made for the role, was the antique lace that started it all.

The bride’s verdict?

“Janice was wonderful,” Charlotte said on her wedding day. “I just love what she did.” With the train drawn into a bustle behind her, she danced all night.

The lace wasn’t the wedding’s only link with family history, though.

Last week, Charlotte and herm other, both Colonial Dames headed to Fairmount Park for a pre-wedding shoot at historic Lemon Hill Mansion which is run by the Colonial Dames of America.

On Saturday, she was married in the same church in which generations of Reeves, Biddles and Wilburs have been married; her six bridesmaids wore gowns of the same mint green her mother’s bridesmaids had worn several decades ago; and in her shoe was a luck gold piece worn by two generations of family brides before her.

Her new husband, who is in the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry, provided another link to her past. Until she went away to college, horses had always been a big part of Charlotte’s life; she had ridden and competed on horseback since childhood.

Saturday, not only did the couple leave the church under the crossed sabers of a First Troop honor guard, but four troopers provided amounted escort as they drove to the reception in a horse-drawn carriage –a burgundy and black country phaeton.

And if tradition holds, half a century from now Charlotte’s granddaughter may be fingering the duchess lace and wondering how she can fit it into her wedding plans.

The lace stitched to the train of Charlotte Peterson’s wedding dress has been handed down in her family since 1877.



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