In her grandmother’s bedroom, Francesanne Willis has often admired three photos displayed on a chest of drawers. Each silver frame shows a lovely lady—her mother, her aunt, and her cousin—wearing the same candlelight ivory wedding gown her grandmother, who Francesanne calls Grams, hand-sewed more than 30 years ago.
By today’s standards, the dress is considered exquisite bridal apparel. Intricate floral Alençon lace lavishes the six-foot-long train, the skirt flows with double-sided satin, ivory metallic beading adorns the sweetheart neckline, and silk buttons embellish the back.
Yet, for all its refined appeal, the gown derives its timeless value from its sentimental essence. When Francesanne tied the knot on May 14, 2016, with Andrew Menezes, she became the fourth bride to don the dress.
“Ever since I was a little girl, I always thought I would wear it,” Francesanne says. “It’s a pretty dress, and I look like a princess in it. What started as a simple pattern my Grams used to save my parents money has evolved into this very meaningful family symbol.”
A Stitch in Time
The legacy of the dress began in July 1985 when Grams (who some might know better as Frances Coale) designed it for the nuptials of her daughter Reneé—Francesanne’s mother—with the puffy sleeves popular in the 1980s. The dress was then used a second time when Reneé’s sister Angie wore it for her wedding in December 1985. Grams added long lace sleeves to the gown for that occasion.
After that momentous day, the dress was packed in an airtight box with a clear plastic window where it stayed for 25 years in Reneé’s closet. Then in 2010, the dress was revitalized for the wedding of Francesanne’s cousin Debbe, Aunt Angie’s daughter. For a modern touch, Debbe had a seamstress remove the puffy sleeves to make the gown strapless.
“My cousin and I used to look at the dress and dream about being brides someday. We were typical little girls,” Francesanne recalls.
Not long after Francesanne became engaged to Andrew on New Year’s Eve 2014, he asked her if she would wear the storied dress for their big day.
“I told him that if Grams was up for it, we were going to make it happen,” she says.
Taking lace scraps she saved from the original dress, her now 77-year-old Grams added a halter neckline. “She did everything patiently by hand—it was really special to watch her redesign it for me,” says the bride.
For Reneé, the dress is “a gift that never tires of giving” because it was made with love. “I am filled with awe that Francesanne pursued this dress with her own heart and mind,” the mother-of-the-bride says. “And I am so grateful my mother, who knows every stitch by heart, so lovingly gave her time, devotion, and energy to customize the bodice to mirror Francesanne’s ideas and personality.”
Cut From the Same Cloth
When Francesanne walked down the aisle in the beloved dress, both grandfathers accompanied her since her father passed away in 2008. “I felt my dad’s presence when I wore the gown because I remember him always talking about how beautiful my mom looked on her wedding day,” she says.
The bridal garment is held together by something more sacred than satin and lace, says Grams. “Prayers for Francesanne were woven in, but the fabric is not the same as it was 31 years ago. Now it encompasses the threads of the lives of the beautiful and strong women who wore it before her.”
Following the church ceremony, Francesanne two-stepped in her dress and cowboy boots at the reception at La Fontana Springs Event Center. And though she’ll never wear the heirloom again, she knows it will be in good hands—her mother will take care of it until the next bride in the family chooses to wear it. Francesanne has two sisters as well as cousins who may someday don the gown, and she imagines having a daughter who might embrace the tradition.
“I was never pressured into wearing the dress, and I’ll be mindful of that if I have a daughter,” says the bride. “But even if just a piece of it is placed in my daughter’s wedding gown, that would be very special, especially to honor Grams.”
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