Something borrowed: Handmade wedding gown passes from mother to daughter

Lauren Coakley Weatherford walked down the aisle Saturday in a wedding gown representing more than three decades of memories.

Her mother made the dress 35 years ago for her own wedding, eight years before Weatherford was born.

“It’s the most amazing piece of art I’ve ever seen, and I get to wear it,” said Weatherford, who married Eric Weatherford in ceremonies at Tennessee RiverPlace, fitted in her mother’s dress.

Weatherford, 27, said she’s known since age 6 that she wanted to wear that dress on her wedding day. She remembers studying the framed picture hanging in the hallway of her home during her youth.

“If I look half as good as she did in her dress,” said Weatherford, recalling her thoughts about the dress.

Mom Melanie Coakley and her mother, Ruby Watts, drove from Chattanooga to Philadelphia almost four decades ago to buy the fabric, a luxurious mix of silk, satin and lace. Coakley, owner of Ready, Set, Sew on Ringgold Road, majored in clothing and textile in college and knew she could find excess fabric from New York fashion designers in Philadelphia.

Coakley designed the dress to be a composite of all the wedding gowns she liked when flipping through bridal books, complete with a 12-foot-long train and 3,000 hand-sewn Austrian crystals and beads.

It took a year to finish.

“It’s even prettier now,” said Coakley, watching her daughter in the dress a few days before the ceremony. In a nod to the dress’s beginnings, Weatherford posed for her pre-wedding bridal photos at First Baptist Church, Golden Gateway, where her parents were married.

While they looked on, she stood on the same steps where her mother posed for the portrait Weatherford had studied and admired throughout her childhood.

The dress was white when Coakley wore it. The color aged to champagne over the years.

Weatherford believes the design is timeless. Unlike many modern gowns, which are strapless, her mother’s dress has long sleeves and a modest sweetheart neckline with a high band of lace that framed her face.

Coakley said they modified the sleeves because when she got married “everything was influenced by Lady Diana.”

“I removed the big, puffy sleeves and added lace appliques and more beading. I even found my original container of beads and crystals — even the extra lace for appliques.”

Neither woman was nostalgic for the poofs. “We laughed about making her a purse from them,” said Coakley.

Weatherford said she and her mom shopped stores for wedding dresses, but every dress she tried on ended up being not quite right.

“She was looking for my wedding dress,” said Coakley.

Instead of buying a dress, Weatherford eventually told her mom she wanted to wear hers. When Coakley said she didn’t know where the dress was, Weatherford said she did.

Days later, she got the box that held the dress, set it on the bed and waited with her best friend for her mom to come home so they could all open it together.

“Basically this is my little child fantasy come true. We got to take it out of the box and everything,” said Weatherford.

Coakley had the dress cleaned and heirloomed after her wedding and it had remained in the box, unopened, all these years. Weatherford had spotted the dress several times as a child rummaging through her mother’s closet to play dress-up. She never put the dress on because she thought her mother wouldn’t allow it, but she always wanted to, she said.

Finally, that dream came true. The experience has been emotionally moving for all of the family.

“Overwhelmed,” said Steve Coakley, to describe his feelings the first time he saw his bride-to-be in the dress 35 years ago.

“Because I knew how much work she put into,” he said. “Even when we would travel up North to see my family, she would have parts of her dress with her where she was sewing those beads and those crystals by hand while we were driving.”

“Overwhelmed” was his feeling again when he saw his daughter in the same dress.

“Probably even more so, because tears flowed at that point, because of all the connection from when we got married to her getting married in her mother’s dress,” he said. “Just tears started rolling.”