It all started with six wedding dresses from four generations of her own family - grandmother, mother, her own and three of her four daughters. And by now bridal historian Carol Houde has a collection worthy of its own exhibit at the Springfield Museum. About half of her collection of more than 40 dresses are on display at the museum now, all but a handful worn by Oregon brides mostly from the Lane County area, and the oldest dating to the 1880s.
"I feel privileged to be the guardian of all these memories," Houde said. "Every dress has its story."
At the museum, walking from one to the next, Houde can tell the story of each of her dresses, and the owner who married while wearing it.
"In 1888, lace was very expensive," she said, fingering a beautifully tatted sleeve and then lifting it to show the underside. "See, the lace is on the outer arm but not under."
In 1946, just after the end of World War II, fabric was hard to come by because production of nearly everything had been curtailed for the war effort. One of her dresses came from scraps of thin white velvet from another gown a dressmaker had fashioned for a very wealthy family, "and she did (the second dress) without even using a pattern," Houde said.
"People have donated all these dresses to me, and I always want to know what they know about them," she said. "I just appreciate these people so much - all their memorabilia, all their history."
However, she doesn't take on these wedding dresses lightly.
"When someone offers me one, I make sure they've checked with everyone in the family to be sure no one wants to keep the dress," Houde said. "Once they are sure about that, I ask them to document the wedding as best they can - the date, the bride's and groom's names, where the ceremony was held - as well as any stories they have about the woman who wore it."
One that she can't identify came via her oldest daughter, who saw the exquisite garment in a far-distant Goodwill store.
"She asked about it and was told a person had brought it in, saying it had belonged to a friend of hers," Houde recalled. Her daughter e-mailed her a picture of the dress - a long skirt with a long crochet-lace overjacket - "and I immediately told her to buy it."
The only clue to its origins came from a tag in the back of the coat, which read "National Cloak and Suit Co," Houde said. A little sleuthing pinpointed the dates of the company at 1840 to the early 1900s, "so I went online and found a reproduction of their 1909 catalog at Powell's (in Portland), and I ordered it. I figured it might give me some clue about the date of the dress."
It yielded more than a clue - "That exact outfit was in it," she said - and it was shown with a blouse very similar to one she already had, "so I was able to date both of them and complete the wedding outfit the way it would have been originally."
She has two dresses donated by the Fitch family, residents of Springfield for nearly a century. In 1920, when jeweler Emory Fitch married - he reportedly did repair work for Eleanor Roosevelt in New York - his bride wore a simple satin gown trimmed in filmy georgette, with a straight-panel train that could be removed, making the dress usable also for day wear.
In 1948, when their son, insurance agent Bill Fitch, married his wife, Lou, her dress featured a net-covered skirt with a plain bodice, cap sleeves and a bow at the neck. Their son and daughter-in-law, Mike and Tammy Fitch, still carry on the family's insurance business in downtown Springfield.
Houde laughs as she describes the story of one 1950 gown as "a kick and a half."
"This woman bought a vintage dress and went off to Hawaii to plan her wedding," she said. "Then she came back to Oregon and decided she didn't want to get married after all, so she took the dress to an antique store in Oakland (Oregon), and that's where I found it. Of course, I don't know who wore it originally for her wedding, but I like the story."
One thing that's fascinating when you have a collection that spans every decade for the past 100 years is how wedding fashion evolves through time, Houde acknowledges.
Unlike today's wear-it-once gowns, early wedding dresses were designed to be altered afterward for regular wear.
In the "Roaring Twenties," flapper styles included straight, loose wedding dresses with short skirts, even above the knee, before the Great Depression hit and hems - like the stock market - came down. Wedding dresses once more became form-fitting.
During the 1940s, the image of Rosie the Riveter - symbolizing women in the work force during World War II - influenced wedding wear as well as daytime wear, with almost military-style broad shoulders, nipped waists and businesslike skirt lengths. That gave way in the 1950s to fuller skirts with higher waists, fitted bodices and sleeves and short veils over increasingly bouffant hair styles, a style that continued into the 1960s.
Wedding fashion took a simpler turn in the 1970s, with softer fabrics and styles, followed by a return to flounces, lace and trains in the 1980s, made popular by Princess Diana's dress for her 1981 marriage to Prince Charles. Since then, dresses have become generally simpler again, with a lot of strapless gowns and sheaths as well as an eclectic mix of traditional, classic and retro styles.
Although dresses are the backbone of her collection, Houde also displays bridal accoutrements such as hats, veils, even "cake toppers."
"I collect all those things separately, not as part of whole wedding outfits," she said as she picked up a tissue-shrouded bride-and-groom statuette destined for a pedestal at the show.
"Huh," she said as the paper fell away. "That's the one that was on my own wedding cake."
A JUNE BRIDE
What: Wedding dresses from the 1880s to recent years
Where: Springfield Museum, 590 Main St.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, through June 26