When Serena Stoneberg walked down the aisle of a North side church on Friday, her wedding continued a family tradition that spanned seven previous brides across three generations and multiple Chicago neighborhoods and suburbs.
Stoneberg became the eighth bride to say her vows in the satin gown that was previously worn by her grandmother, great aunt, aunt and cousins on their wedding days. Her late grandmother purchased it for $100.75 at the Brides’ Room at the former Marshall Field’s on State Street and was the first bride to wear it in 1950.
The family heirloom has made seven more brides look good since then, with all but one of the weddings taking place in and around Chicago. Many of those brides gathered in Serena Stoneberg’s River North Hotel room Thursday afternoon, the day before the wedding, to socialize.
The third bride to wear the dress, Sharon Larson Frank, 77, who was the youngest of the first generation of brides to wear the dress, said it didn’t start out as a significant tradition to be married in the same gown.
“We never talked about it and said ‘well, you’ll wear the dress,’” Larson said. “It just sort of evolved.”
But over time, they said, the garment has taken on deep meaning as a connection to one another and to Chicago.
Larson’s daughter and the seventh bride, Julie Frank Mackey, 42, who got married in 2013 and was the last person to wear the dress before this week, said she never considered being married in anything else.
“You were going to make it work,” Mackey said. “Even when it didn’t fit me. It was really important just to be a part of that tradition. I just always knew from when I was a little girl that I would wear that dress.”
The dress is long-sleeved, with a high collar and floor-length train.
Serena Stoneberg, 27, added a few of her own flourishes for her ceremony. She wore her own shoes, her own jewelry and a new veil from her great aunt, the third woman to be married in the dress.
“But other than that, I’m really excited to fit into the tradition as it is,” Stoneberg said.
The family has made some slight modifications to the dress over the last 72 years.
Mackey, who is taller than average, had her mother add an eight-inch wide ribbon to the hem and a back panel to make the bodice fit.
Jean Milton Ellis, the sixth woman to wear it, added a crinoline to “give it a little boost” and avoid modifying the hem.
But they’ve done their best to stay true to the original design of the dress, which the oldest living bride, Eleanor “Elly” Larson Milton of Northbrook — who is the middle sister in the first generation — described as a classic.
“I think that’s why eight brides are willing to wear it, because it doesn’t scream 1950 or 1970,” she said.
Milton credited her older sister and the first bride, Adele Larson Stoneberg, with the smart buy. Adele Larson Stoneberg, who died in 1988, is the only one of the women who will not be at the dress’ eighth matrimonial occasion. .
Adele Larson Stoneberg’s choice to purchase the dress at Marshall Field’s was an obvious one, her sisters said. Their mother, Anna Larson, was a devoted patron of the massive Chicago department store on State Street, and when the time came in 1950 to pick out a wedding dress, they doubted Adele would have gone anywhere else.
“My mother (Anna) loved Marshall Field’s,” Sharon Larson Frank said. “So I don’t think she could have gone to any other store. And [Adele] went to the bridal shop because they would have wanted it to be a beautiful dress.
Sharon Larson Frank said her mother, Anna Larson, would travel on the “L” train to do her shopping downtown “and then the Marshall Field’s truck would deliver it the next day to the house,” in Lincolnwood.
Every year at Christmas, the family would gather in Marshall Field’s Walnut Room to see the giant Christmas tree and celebrate with a meal together.
“None of these women drove, so we would take public transportation,” Sharon Larson Frank remembered, adding that their Aunt Lil would come in from the West Side of Chicago and she and her mother would head in from the North Side, with everyone meeting up at Marshall Field’s.
The store played an important role in the family’s everyday life as well as its celebrations.
When Elly Larson Milton had daughters, Marshall Field’s became a place where they could meet Anna Larson, their grandmother, for tea.
Jean Milton Ellis grew up in Glenview and would often meet her grandmother.
“Grandma would often say, ‘hey, tomorrow, let’s meet at Marshall Field’s on State Street,’” she said. “And I would enjoy taking a bus down and I’d meet her on the old third floor waiting room and have a Field’s sandwich and Frango Mint pie for lunch.”
When Jean Milton Ellis left the region for school, she would get “packages of Frango Mints because of the withdrawal from those little green boxes,” she said.
On Saturday mornings, Elly Larson Milton’s father, Elmer, would drive his wife Anna down to Clark Street to shop.
“That was still her neighborhood, even though she lived out in Lincolnwood,” Elly Larson Milton said. “She wanted to pick up the coffee cake. We always had coffee cake and limpa” – a dark Swedish rye bread – and lutefisk, a traditional Swedish dish made from dried fish.
The family’s Swedish heritage didn’t just dictate their Saturday morning shopping, but also where their marriages took place.
The first three weddings that included the dress from Marshall Field’s were at Ebenezer Lutheran Church on Foster Avenue in Andersonville, where Serena Stoneberg’s ceremony will also take place.
Anna and Elmer Larson, Serena Stoneberg’s grandparents, were committed members of the church and friends with the ministers. They had their daughters Adele, Elly and Sharon baptized and confirmed there.
“Being married in the church was a very familiar place,” Elly Larson Milton said. “We had all gone to Sunday school there. We worshipped there on a regular basis. So Ebenezer Lutheran Church was our second home.”
After Adele Larson Stoneberg’s wedding, they had three urns of coffee and a cake from a bakery on nearby Foster Avenue or Clark Street – the women couldn’t remember which.
The oldest brides said it was markedly different from the way many people celebrate weddings today.
“We got married and then we went across the hall to the Sunday school room and had cookies and coffee,” Sharon Larson Frank said. “But there was no band or dancing.”
“Or booze,” Elly interjected.
The next generation of weddings were scattered throughout the northern suburbs.
Adele Larson Stoneberg’s daughter Sue Stoneberg McCarthy was the first to wear the dress in a church that wasn’t Ebenezer Lutheran. She got married in Park Ridge at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church.
Later, Sue Stoneberg McCarthy’s house on Park Ridge’s Delphia Avenue was a frequent gathering place for the whole family. Jean Milton Ellis said one of her strongest memories of visiting there was how the house, like much of Park Ridge, was directly in airplanes’ flight path to O’Hare International Airport.
And when it was her turn to wear the dress – after her sister Carol Milton Zmuda and cousin Sue Stoneberg McCarthy – Jean Milton Ellis married at the Westmoreland Country Club in Wilmette.
The dress has spent the last decade in Pittsburgh since Mackey’s 2013 marriage, on a dress form after a specialized cleaning.
In the 72 years since the dress has appeared at the Larson-Stoneberg-Milton-Frank family weddings, no one who wore it has gotten divorced.
“All the marriages, they’ve all lasted long,” Elly Larson Milton added. “Truly long, healthy, happy marriages.”
Julie Frank Mackey said it’s a lucky object.
“I think about the dress, and all of the happy marriages that started after that dress walked down the aisle, and I only wish the best to Serena and Chris because it’s a lucky dress,” she said.
Serena Stoneberg said wearing the dress for her own wedding would connect her to all the brides while she’s at the altar, as well as to the one bride not at the wedding: Adele, Serena’s late Mormor (grandmother in Swedish).
“It’s super special [to be] wearing her original dress,” Serena Stoneberg said the day before the wedding. “It’ll probably feel like she’s there a little bit.”