Left Hanging

What's the story behind a 'never worn, never altered' wedding dress? We vowed to find out.

November 23, 1999|By LAURA LIPPMAN | LAURA LIPPMAN,SUN STAFF

You can find the ads on almost any given day at the back of the classified section in this newspaper, somewhere between vending machines and wheelchairs. Wedding gowns. Size 2 to size 22. Some with veils, some without.

Some used, some not.

"Never worn, never altered." That's the code, the lines we read between. Stood up? Bolted from the church like a runaway bride? Tragic accident, unexpected consequences? "Never worn, never altered."

You know there's a story embedded in those four words, if only you dared to ask.

We dared. Our rude inquiry brought us to the cozy Dundalk rowhouse of Karen Cosentino, who decided she had nothing to lose by telling her story and perhaps something to gain -- including, but not limited to, finally selling that darn dress, a sparkling ghost that took up residence in her basement closet almost six years ago.

It is not the first wedding dress Karen has sold. The first dress, white lace, was from her first marriage. "That's a story in itself." She was at the back of the church, she was 27, her husband-to-be was a merchant marine, and she had this sudden urge to rip the dress from her body and run away. Instead, she headed down the aisle. The marriage didn't work, but she has a son, now 13, so how can she regret it? She sold the dress at a flea market for $30 and never looked back.

Making plans

The second dress is different, however, and not because it cost more, and not because it has never been worn. The second dress was the dress she bought to marry her soulmate, the man she was meant to be with.

"Did you ever look at somebody and know you were supposed to spend the rest of your life with him?" Their first date was Oct. 3, 1989. He was six years younger, but it never mattered. They shot pool, talked, drank, talked, drove around, talked. He proposed officially on Nov. 17, 1993; they were to be married Jan. 8, 1994 -- Elvis's birthday.

But, because she had known they were destined to be married, she began shopping for the dress in September. She went everywhere, from Eastern Avenue to Towson, back to Eastern Avenue. Finally, at Niko, she found The Dress. Words fail her, trying to describe its perfection.

"I just -- I just liked the beads. Because they were iridescent."

The wedding became an end to itself, as weddings often do. Flowers. Napkins. Bridesmaid dresses. (Emerald green.) Invitations. A $1,000 deposit at Martin's East. A Hawaii honeymoon. The days were rushing by, propelled by errands.

On Dec. 3, she went to work and suddenly had the strangest feeling. Something was missing. Someone was missing. She called her father, who went to her house and let himself in. Her fiance's things were gone, and there was a note on the television set.

"It says, `I can't marry you. Not only because of family, but because' -- she stops, needing a moment to decipher the handwriting -- "because of the doubts I have."

You see, she still has the note. She has the napkins. She has the matchbooks. She has the menu list. And she has the dress, but not the veil, because when the dress arrived a few days before what was to have been her wedding day and what was still Elvis' birthday, she stared the bridal salespeople down with tears in her eyes and made it clear she wasn't going to pay $700 for the veil that went with the $1,500 dress she would never put on.

Moving on

But Karen did not become Miss Havisham, frozen in time on the eve of her nuptials. She went on with her life, which is a good life, filled with friends and family and work.

Yes, she was hurt. Yes, she was angry. Yet she managed to find empathy for her fiance. "He was scared; I felt sorry for him."

Eventually, the phone rang, and it was him. They began to talk again. They began to see each other now and then. He saw her through her convalescence after back surgery.

"Time went on," she says, "and we were supposed to be together from the beginning of time."

A year ago, they surrendered to fate, became a couple again. She showed him the dress -- "See what you missed?" -- but never tried it on. Never worn, never altered, after all these years. Sometimes, for a joke, she takes out one of their wedding napkins and tucks it next to his dinner plate.

They talk about marriage, but now the skittish feeling flows from one to the other, and back again. No one's in a rush. One thing is for sure: She's going to wear black if they do get married. She wanted to wear black in the first place.

A constant reminder

And still, she tries to sell the dress. Classified ads, notes up at the Giant and the bakery, the Pennysaver. "I just want it out, I want it gone. Not because it's bad luck. I can't wear it now. If I wear it now, I'll be thinking of that day."

So far, four women have looked at the dress. It is never quite right. It was too large for one, too white-white for another and too -- well, Karen isn't sure. The woman never came back with the check she promised.

But another call came just the other day. "You might think this is weird," the woman told Karen, "but I was looking at the Pennysaver from June." Karen said, "Honey, with this dress, nothing is weird." How right she was. Turns out the woman wanted a veil.

It's downright eerie, how beautiful the dress still is. Not a hint of yellow -- if anything, it seems whiter than the day she bought it. If you think about it, Karen says, it's a really good buy. For one thing, it comes with a story. And the gown's longevity should bode well for the woman who is married in it. "It's a dress that withstands everything."

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