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A Dress in the Attic


March 24, 2011
For all ages

Many things changed as the years slipped by from one century to the next and successive generations occupied the family home, but the wedding dress never lost its power to enchant

In November 1882 Emeline Cornell Hopkins donned a beautiful wedding dress sewn for her by a New York City dressmaker known for her fashionable clientele.   Emeline was to marry Herman Livingston in a ceremony in St. Luke’s church, Catskill NY and then take up residence with her husband across the Hudson River at Oak Hill, the Livingston ancestral estate.  Once the bride and groom were settled, the dress was carefully boxed and taken up to the attic to join company with the trunks and relics of generations of Livingstons who had inhabited the house at one time or another since it was built in 1793.  As years went by and the stewardship of Oak Hill passed down the male line, the dress lay waiting to once again take up its part in the family history.  That time came first in the 1960’s when, despite the fact change was everywhere and traditions being challenged and discarded, the dress was worn in three family weddings. The real test of the significance of the dress, however, came at the dawn of the 21st century when the Oak Hill attic had to be emptied and hard decisions made about what would be kept and what let go. 

The wedding dress was created by Catherine Donovan, “the pioneer dressmaker of the 400”, who served "at least three generations of fashionable New Yorkers."  Mme Donovan counted the Goelets, Astors and Vanderbilts among her customers, and "the wedding gown worn by the Duchess of Marlborough was made under her supervision." (New York Times, April 18, 1906)

In this talk author Elizabeth Livingston will describe the how social contexts changed during the life span of the dress and how generations of a signature New York family responded to those changes.  She will then go on to explore the power of this -- and all wedding dresses – to transcend particular historical circumstances and come from the past to connect with the future.  

Elizabeth Livingston was for many years a nonfiction book editor with Reader’s Digest.  She has co-authored two childrens’ books, and is currently a free lance editor and writer.  Her short story Drop Dead Fred was adapted for a feature film by the same title and released in 1993.  She is currently a writer in residence in the Library’s Wertheim Study.