Wedding gown delights brides for generations

When Allison Shellito walks down the aisle this June, she will be wearing the wedding dress her great-great-grandmother, grandmother, aunt and mother wore on their wedding day — a Victorian creation that the modern bride is relishing this Valentine's Day.

"I always thought I would wear it," said Shellito, 23, a graphic artist at Sullivan Higdon & Sink.

"My mom and grandma would always talk about it, and I would look at their pictures. I even tried it on when I was little and thought, 'Someday I'll wear it.' "

That someday will be June 11 in St. Louis, when Shellito will wed Chris Rinaldi, a Louisiana native and a graduate student at Stanford University studying operations research. The two met while undergrads at Washington University in St. Louis.

Allison said her fiance is jealous that everyone seems to have seen her in the dress but him.

"I said, 'That's kind of the point,' " she said.

The dress, of tone-on-tone ecru silk brocade patterned with mums, was made in 1884, probably in Chicago. Allison's paternal great-great-grandmother, Nellie Campbell, wore it when she married A.G. Shellito in 1884 in Iowa.

The dress then skipped a generation, until Jean Lawman prepared to marry Nellie's grandson, John Shellito.

"It was beautiful, it was offered, and it fit!" Jean Shellito said in describing how she came to wear the dress for her wedding in 1941. She now lives at Larksfield Place in Wichita.

"I was trying it on the night Pearl Harbor struck," she said. Her fiance, then training to be a doctor, had to enlist. They were married a few weeks later, Dec. 26, 1941.

It was during the war that John Shellito got an offer to work at the then-new Wichita Clinic, and that is how the dress came to Wichita. Jean Shellito brought it with her to her new home, and eventually, as Nellie had done for her, she offered it to the women who would be marrying her sons.

"When Jack and I got engaged, Jean said, 'We have a family dress,' " said Mimi Balazs Shellito, Allison's mother. "I just couldn't imagine finding anything more beautiful. Or meaningful."

She is the last bride to have worn the dress, in 1982. Barbara Shellito of Boston also wore it, when she wed Jean's son Paul in 1975.

The dress is in beautiful shape for being 127 years old. It was made to last.

"It was given to me wrapped in linen sheets," Jean Shellito said, and it's been stored in linen since. Mimi Shellito had it "restabilized" with some patching before her wedding, and she pointed out how it glows. "It just throws light."

Grandmother, mother and daughter all revel in the dress, for all kinds of reasons.

"I just love gowns that are covered up," Mimi Shellito said, contrasting it to the strapless wedding dresses of today. A lover of history, she did some research at the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum into the style and fabric of the dress.

It comes in three pieces — a short basque jacket with three-quarter-length sleeves that laces up over a pleated underblouse adorned with Belgian lace; a full-length skirt with an asymmetrically draped apron across the lap; and a 6-foot-long train lined with a triple layer of fine hemline lace.

Allison Shellito is going to be the first bride since 1884 to wear a bustle under the dress. (They hadn't been available on the Internet for the intervening weddings.)

"I've always thought it was beautiful," she said. "It was so unique. You never see anything like that except like at the Smithsonian. I feel so lucky to wear something like that. And I'm a big family person, so it has a sentimental meaning."

As a graphic artist, she loves the mums that are patterned on the dress and has scanned a swatch of the fabric so she can use the mums as a theme throughout the wedding, including on the invitations and program that she has designed. And the hemline is of deep pointed scallops that float over puffy plain silk.

"It reminds me of architecture," Allison Shellito said.

That may be why, when she recently tried the dress on as a bride-to-be, she decided she would have to change for the reception — into a dress that would actually allow her to lift her elbows to dance. That dress will be retro rather than vintage: a short cocktail wedding dress from the 1960s.

But the main reason Allison Shellito will change into a party dress after the wedding ceremony is for the sake of a new generation appreciating the Victorian wedding dress:

"I wanted to preserve it for future wearing."