By Jennifer Lam
In November 1882, Emeline Hopkins Cornell wore a stunning custom-made wedding dress to marry Herman Livingston in Catskill, NY. The white satin gown trimmed with point lace was largely copied from European designs and featured orange blossoms, a bustle and a fitted waist. After the wedding, the young bride moved across the Hudson River to the Livingston ancestral home at Oak Hill where the dress was packed away in the attic to join the generations of Livingston family paraphernalia. There the dress resided until the early 21st Century, when the house had to be sold and tough decisions about its contents – what to keep and what to sell – had to be made.
Well over a hundred years after Emeline Livingston boxed the gown away, it still continues to ignite the imagination. Writer and editor Elizabeth Livingston, whose husband is a descendent of Emeline and her husband Herman Livingston, is currently in the New York Public Library’s Wertheim Study researching a book about the gown, its storied place in the Livingston family (it was recently sold at auction and then bought back), and how the tradition it represents ties to sociological studies concerning marriage. The Wertheim Study, which requires an application for use, is reserved for independent researchers in need of rigorous use of the general research collections for a prescribed period of time.
“Emeline’s dress really propelled me into thinking about the idea of one singular transformative day in a woman’s life,” said Livingston, who – being a child of the Sixties and having been raised in a family decidedly unsentimental about these sorts of matters – wore a simple, short white dress to her own wedding. “I am fascinated by how much people really care about the idea of a white wedding dress despite modernization. And in the cases of women who pass on their dresses, the sense of connection and tradition these dresses embody.”
While always stored in New York, Emeline’s dress had in fact been worn four times. By Emeline herself and then by her three great-granddaughters (Isabel Church Livingston in 1965; Catharine VanBrugh Livingston in 1975; and Laura Mae Livingston in 1983). Why did these young ladies choose their great-grandmother’s extravagant and outdated dress?
“I think a wedding dress is a visible symbol of a vibrant crossroad when actual transformations take place, creating a new present and future out of bits of the past,” says Livingston. “Separate individuals become a couple with the freedom to create a unique future. The dress draws on the imaginative and magical aspect of stepping into this identity – the dreamy part.
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