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Adele Larson Stoneberg tried on a white satin wedding gown at Marshall Field’s department store in downtown Chicago and decided the gown, which cost $100, was the one.
It was perfect for a bride in 1950, and as it turned out, most every decade after that.
First, Stoneberg loaned it to her two sisters for their weddings. Then, as the years went on, her daughter and three nieces asked if they could wear it as they walked down the aisle.
And this month — 72 years after Stoneberg tied the knot at Ebenezer Lutheran Church — her granddaughter Serena Stoneberg Lipari wore the same dress in the same Chicago church for her wedding on Aug. 5.
“There was no question that I would become the eighth bride to wear the dress,” Lipari, 27, said about the long-sleeved gown with a floor-length train, high collar and tiny elegant buttons down the back.
Lipari’s grandmother is now deceased, but relatives in the pews included an aunt, her great-aunts and several cousins who had taken their own turn wearing Adele’s classic gown.
“When I started to walk down the aisle and thought about my grandmother also wearing the dress, the emotion hit me,” Lipari said. “I felt a special connection to her on my wedding day.”
The tradition of the Stoneberg family wedding dress started when Adele Larson, then 21, became engaged to Roy Stoneberg in 1950 and made a trip with her mother, Anna Larson, to the eighth-floor bridal shop at Marshall Field’s to try on gowns.
“The dress she settled on was well made and timeless,” said Adele’s sister, Eleanor “Elly” Larson Milton, 90, who was the maid of honor at the wedding.
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“It’s a very classic dress, with a beautiful bodice, a Mandarin collar and lots of buttons,” she said. “When you touch that high quality satin, you realize it’s way above average.”
When it came time for Milton to get married in Chicago in 1953, she knew exactly what she wanted to wear.
“My mother had taken excellent care of the dress and stored it in an airtight box,” she said. “It never occurred to me not to wear it. It was perfect in every way.”
After Milton’s wedding, the dress was professionally cleaned and stored again — this time for 16 years.
Milton’s sister, Sharon Larson Frank, decided to unwrap it and carry on the family tradition in 1969 when she married John Frank.
“Our mother never told us we had to wear the dress — it just kind of evolved,” said Frank, 77.
Brides are wearing black. I did years ago and don’t regret a thing.
“It’s a traditional dress, and we could all make it fit with a few minor adjustments,” she said. “When my mom offered to take me shopping for another dress, I immediately told her, ‘No, I’d like to wear this one.’ ”
After the wedding, the dress was stored again until Adele Stoneberg’s daughter, Sue Stoneberg McCarthy, married Robert McCarthy in 1982.
McCarthy, now 66, said she added her own small touches to make the dress her own.
“We all had our own veils, bouquets and jewelry, and our individual personalities shined through when walked down the aisle on our wedding day,” she said.
“Wearing that beautiful dress on my special day made me feel close to my mother and aunts,” McCarthy said.
In 1990, the dress was carefully removed from its storage box for a fifth time so that Eleanor Milton’s daughter, Carole Milton Zmuda, could wear it at her wedding to Lawrence Zmuda.
She said she had long admired the dress ever since she was a flower girl at her aunt Sharon’s wedding.
She gave away her wedding gown on Facebook. Soon others did the same.
“I decided to unbutton the neckline, but it was otherwise perfect,” said Zmuda, 61, who now lives in Great Falls, Va.
“When I look back, there was always a sense growing up that I was going to wear that dress,” she said.
Her sister Jean Milton Ellis was the next to wear it, at her wedding in 1991 to Tom Ellis.
Ellis, 66, of Westford, Mass., said she has fond memories of meeting her grandmother, aunts and cousins for turkey sandwiches and Frango Mint pie in the Walnut Room at Marshall Field’s before the store was bought by Macy’s in 2006.
“I felt honored and privileged to wear [my aunt Adele’s] beautiful dress,” Ellis said, noting that her aunt died about three years before her wedding.
“I grew up seeing photos of my relatives in the dress, so I was proud to do the same,” she said. “It’s as classic now as it was in 1950.”
Her cousin, Julie Frank Mackey, became the seventh bride to don the satin gown, in 2013, for her wedding to Tom Mackey.
“I’m significantly taller than the other brides, so my mom [Sharon] added a wide ribbon to the hem and made my veil longer to hide adjustments made to the bodice,” said Mackey, 42, who lives in Manchester, Vt.
“We’ve all been lucky in that it’s fit each of us pretty well,” she added. “The dress deeply connects all of the women in our family.”
It was an emotional moment this month to watch her cousin Serena walk down the same aisle in the same church that her mother and aunts had been married in, she said.
“Everyone who has been married in the dress has had a long-lasting, healthy marriage, so we like to think it brings good luck,” Mackey said. “We hope to continue to preserve the dress — and the tradition — for many weddings to come.”
If the wedding gown is used for another 72 years, that may be partially due to the efforts of her mother, who has taken charge of cleaning and caring for the dress and storing it properly.
“I keep it in a sealed box and use a small [mannequin like] form on the top to help the bodice keep its shape,” Sharon Larson Frank said.
She said there are plenty of young female family members who could have a wedding in their future.
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“Of course, they won’t be required to wear the dress,” Larson Frank said with a laugh. “We don’t want them to feel pressure.”
But if they do wear the family wedding gown, they’ll probably be buying — or perhaps borrowing — a dress for their reception.
“We now have an unwritten rule that nobody wears the dress to their reception,” Larson Frank said. “To avoid stains.”
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