Little known about the bride, but her gown is still revered

Sixty years after her death, Emily Williams Kern is a mystery to most of her family. Yet there's no escaping her memory in their Charlotte homes, where the paintings she created over a lifetime hang behind couches and over beds. Her family believes Kern never had children, but she did leave a legacy:

One special piece of clothing that every woman in the family knows of, and treats as if it were woven of gold. They call it "the dress."

Made by Kern herself, it's the gown she wore at her wedding on Oct. 23, 1907. She kept it for decades to pass it along to a daughter.

That dream never came true, but something unexpected happened.

It's unclear exactly how many women have used Emily Kern's dress, but the initials of seven brides are stitched into the lining, including weddings in the 1940s, '50s, '70s and '80s.

An eighth bride, Emily's great-great niece Hayes Swinney, will be added to the list. She wore the dress for her July 7 wedding to Ryan Alger in an aspen grove in Teton Valley, Idaho.

"I really liked the idea of being part of a legacy," says Hayes Swinney, a Charlotte native working for the Cascade Land Conservancy in Seattle. "It's like an artifact, which is surreal. ... I can't help but notice that it looks different in every (bride's) photo, as if each person married in it has given it their own touch."

Changes were made over the decades. Sleeves were shortened. Sleeves were lengthened, puffed, pleated. Veils went from simple to elaborate to nonexistent. Shorter brides wore hoop skirts. Taller ones used layers of crinoline.

Rips, tears and some wicked stains happened along the way. But permanent damage was avoided, because each generation assigned a guardian, known as "the keeper of the dress."

It's a job currently held by Ruth Swinney Constine, who took over from her mother, Lillian Hayes Swinney, in 1991. When Hayes Swinney announced her engagement last year, it was Constine who reminded everyone that The Dress was ready and waiting in a blue trunk.

"I was thrilled when Hayes tried it on and it fit," says Constine, who got married in the dress in 1973. "I hated to see the tradition stopping at our generation. We're the kind of family where history is important. It seems I've been hearing about our family history since the minute I was born."

With one exception:

"There just weren't any stories about Emily," she says. "I can't tell you anything about her."

A fading tradition

In the early 1900s, it was customary for a woman to marry in her mother's dress.It became prevalent in America in the mid-1800s, pop culture experts say, and continued until the 1960s, when fashion took a less formal turn. The tradition has not died out, but is growing less popular, says Charles Mo, chief curator at the Mint Museum of Art, which has 500 wedding articles included in its historic costume and fashionable dress collection.

"Too often in today's society," he says, "young brides are not interested in wearing their mother's dress, mostly because they choose to be more fashionable with a style that reflects their generation. They want their personality imprinted on the day."

The Swinneys' tradition says as much about their values as it does about the dress.

"I think it says that the female members of this family honor a sense of legacy by treasuring this dress and electing to wear it, age after age," Mo says. "They apparently have great respect for the sanctity of marriage."

Because the dress has been altered repeatedly, Mo says it's tough to get a feel for the maker's sense of fashion. However, he can say that in 1907, the bride would have likely worn a corset, to create a full bosom, nipped waist, rounded hips and a long flowing silhouette.

That might also explain why Emily is the only bride not smiling in her wedding photo.

The mystery bride

So who was Emily Kern?

Even if the family doesn't know her story, details can still be found spread through family Bibles in three states.

Born in 1877 to a jewelry store owner in Macon, Ga., Emily's given name was Emma Lula Williams, says Ruth Williams Tolbert of Seneca, S.C., whose grandfather was one of Emily's seven siblings.

"She studied art, but I don't think she made money at it," says Tolbert. "In the early 1900s, it was one of those things women did as a pastime, a hobby. I think she gave away every painting she ever did. ... My mother has two paintings and my sister has a bunch of china she painted."

In 1907, Emily married Leroy Kern, a Methodist minister who later became a bishop in the church. The couple shows up as living in Washington, D.C., in the 1920 Census, but eventually moved back to Macon. They never had children, so when Emily Kern died in 1947, her wedding dress went to younger sister Ruth Williams Hayes (the grandmother of current keeper Ruth Constine).

From there, it found its way from bride to bride, including Tolbert in 1981. But it always returned to the home of "the keeper" for protection.

Tolbert says it's curious how the dress always seems unfamiliar.

"It changes its look with each woman," she says. "When I put it on, it fit perfectly, so I didn't change a thing. But I remember thinking: `I don't remember this dress looking like this.' And I've seen photos of it when Pat and Ruth got married, and it looked different with them, too."

Will it continue?

The dress has returned to Charlotte from Hayes Swinney's Idaho wedding, but it won't stay long.Her mother, Pam Swinney, has it, and she's having Hayes' initials embroidered alongside the other brides'.

After that, a rendezvous is planned in Philadelphia, where Pam will pass the dress to sister-in-law Pat Swinney Kaufman of New York, who has three daughters in college (ages 19, 21 and 26).

Maybe they will want to marry in the dress, partly for its legacy, but also because it has proven lucky. Every women married in it has stayed married, says Ruth Constine.

She can't help but imagine that Emily Kern's dreams for her dress came true after all.