Balenciaga dress for three generationsPosted by Vivian McInerny, The Oregonian December 03, 2008 15:37PMCategories: DesignerStephanie YaoPicture from the Christie's auction house catalog showing the Balenciaga dress.
Stephanie YaoAlberta "Bertie" Church, daughter Leslie Leland and granddaughter Hannah Leland, not pictured, all wore the Balenciaga dress Church bought at a thrift store in 1957.
November 29, 2008
By Vivian McInerny
It was a dress with a past, a mysterious, glamorous past. Already old but not yet vintage in 1957, it hung waiting to be rediscovered in a Portland thrift shop.
"My mother and my sister both worked at the courthouse downtown, and I would go and meet them for lunch," Alberta "Bertie" Church, 75, recalls. "Sometimes we'd go in the Junior League thrift shop,"
One day, a woman working in the store said the most beautiful dress had come in that very morning. It was made to measure by a fancy designer during a trip to Paris and worn only a few times before its owner donated it to the charity shop. It was tiny, but it might fit Church.
"I took one look and said, 'How much is it?' " Church recalls.
The deep green silk gown had a taupe bustle and train that reached to the floor. It was extraordinary. But the price, $25, was an extravagance at a time when a new Sears catalog party dress cost $10.98.
The other women persuaded Church to at least try on the dress. It fit perfectly --the waist, the hips, the bust --as if it had been made for her. She stepped out from the dressing room.
"They just oohed and aahed," Church recalls.
But Church, newly wed to a Navy man, had no money and no reason to buy such a garment. "Where would I wear it?" she recalls asking.
Besides, she had only $5 in her purse. Her mother and sister dug through their pocketbooks and between the three of them, they came up with $20. The saleswoman dropped the price, and Church walked out with what she thought was the most beautiful dress she'd never wear.
"They had a Navy ball, a real fancy event where the men wear their whites, their dress uniforms," Church says. She wore the dress. "It was very elegant and simple, very eye-catching. I wore it with gloves and black shoes and stockings and all the undergarments that went with it."
When her husband was stationed in Hawaii, the dress went with them. Years passed. The newlyweds became parents. Their three daughters grew. The family moved a few times.
In 1977, daughter Leslie Leland was invited to a cotillion --a coming-out ball --but the Willamette University student had nothing to wear.
"Why don't we just try on the dress," Church recalls urging her daughter.
It fit like a glove, as if it had been made just for her.
"It was exquisite --strapless, no rips, no tears," Leland, now 50, says.
It was the era of the Bee Gees in bell bottoms, and the feathered hair of the "Charlie's Angels" stars was setting a trend, but the dress transcended time.
"I wore long black gloves and really high heels and fabulous shoes and had my hair done up," Leland recalls. "We drank Champagne."
For a while, the dress hung in her Salem closet.
Leland married; had a baby girl, Hannah; divorced. Church, too, divorced. Soon Leland, her daughter and Church moved in with Church's aging parents.
"I took care of my mom and dad and Hannah," Church says, "four generations living under one roof in Laurelhurst." The dress moved with them, alternating between a trunk and a closet.
"It was my favorite dress to try on as a kid," Hannah Leland, now 20, says. "I always wanted to wear it out. It was so glamorous."
She wore vintage dresses to the annual father-daughter dances at St. Mary's Academy --accompanied by her grandfather --but waited until her senior year to wear the dress. Like the jeans in "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants," it fit her size-4 body perfectly.
"I felt like a million bucks," she says. "I mean, who gets to wear a vintage couture gown at age 17?"
Hannah Leland attends Willamette University, her mother and aunts' alma mater, and is spending a year at a conservatory in Shanghai studying violin. She'd played the same instrument since she was a child and needed a new one to suit her growing size and talents. Last year, she found the perfect violin. It cost $12,000.
Around the same time the family was shopping for violins, Leslie Leland noticed magazine articles about a Spanish designer whose vintage designs had become sought after by collectors. The name -- Balenciaga --sounded familiar. The women once again pulled out the dress.
Cristobal Balenciaga opened his first boutique in 1913 in Spain and moved to Paris in 1937, retiring in 1968. He dressed European royalty, international society women and even America's first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy. His fashion credits include the chemise dress, baby doll, balloon skirt, cocoon coat, the Empire line in the 1950s --and the dress Bertie Church bought in 1957.
"This gal at the Junior League thrift shop . . . knew something about the dress. Even though she said she thought it originally cost $2,000 to $3,000, we thought, yeah, right," Church recalls. "At that age, I liked to thumb through the fashion magazines, but it just didn't register."
The family considered selling the dress online but then learned of an upcoming auction of midcentury designer clothes at Christie's in London. An English friend offered to deliver the dress in person. Hannah Leland was reluctant to sell it at first, but her practical side won out.
"It made sense to part with one valuable and beautiful keepsake for another, the dress for the violin," she said by e-mail from Shanghai. "It went towards something that I use every day, that I love and cherish . . . and I hope to pass the violin down as well."
The dress sold at auction this fall for 1,000 pounds, or about $1,800, enough to help with the cost of the violin.
The buyer chose to remain anonymous.
No report how the gown fits.
Vivian McInerny: 503-294-4076; firstname.lastname@example.org