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Silk, Satin and Lace: An Era of Wedding Gown Design Comes to a Close in Mount Vernon

For the past few years, guests who pressed the doorbell at 5304 Remington Drive in Mount Vernon heard the familiar tune of "Here Comes the Bride." This is not surprising since many of the guests who rang the bell at this address were newly engaged, soon-to-be brides or excited wedding attendants.

They were coming to take advantage of Jane DiNunzio's remarkable talents as seamstress and wedding gown designer.

"I've always sewed for myself," said DiNunzio. In 1963, I left my job to be home with my three children. I started taking in alterations and within a year, it evolved into sewing wedding gowns."

She remembers the first gown she made. "It was white velvet for a winter wedding. I copied a prom gown and it worked out fine. The business spread by word of mouth and it just mushroomed."

Since then, DiNunzio has made hundreds of gowns. For almost 40 years, she designed, altered and created wedding gowns and trousseaus for models, for neighbors, for sisters, for Patty Roamer, whose husband was Senator Roamer from Louisiana at the time, and even for television talk show host Maury Povich's nieces, who came over from Georgetown. She's had two pregnant brides, altered a dress from a size 20 to an 8, and salvaged vintage gowns that most people wouldn't even touch.

THIS REMARKABLE ERA came to an end last month when DiNunzio sold the balance of her silks, satins, laces, ribbons and bows. Parkinsons Disease has gotten the better of her hands and she felt that it was too hard to her to continue with her sewing. She made her last wedding gown for Christina Frances in September, 2001.

But the stories remain in her head.

Surprisingly, DiNunzio doesn't remember too many crises. "I never had trouble fitting a bride," she said. One bride gained 10 pounds and she had to start all over, but she took that in stride. Fittings were done in the bride's room, an upstairs bedroom that DiNunzio used for the girls to try on their dresses. "There was always a gown hanging there," she said.

DiNunzio didn't feel that her job was done after she delivered the gown. She and her husband, Rudy, were invited to most of the weddings, everywhere from Generous George's to The Willard Hotel, from Williamsburg to Tennessee. And she was often there with needle in hand — just in case.

Shirley Prevost, family friend, said, "She's there with a piece of needle and thread as the girl is walking down the aisle. She's so dependable; you knew if she was going to make your gown, it was going to be good."

"SHE WAS THERE from beginning to end," said Anne Ridder, mother of Mary Carol Jarmucz. "She was part of the family."

Mary Carol wanted to wear her mother's gown, so DiNunzio stabilized the gown Ridder wore when she was married. Ridder said, "It was more beautiful than it was before. What was fun was that she had to let it out, because I was actually smaller [than Mary Carol] when I married."

Ridder and her family have known the DiNunzio family for years, and reaped the benefits of her sewing talents not only for her daughter, but her granddaughter as well. Shortly after Mary Kelly's daughter, Sally, was diagnosed with autism, she asked for a wedding gown for Christmas. They turned to DiNunzio, who designed a miniature gown complete with all the frills. They brought Sally over for a fitting.

"Sally just lit up when she saw it," said Ridder. "It was the first real breakthrough and it not only made Sally happy, but made my daughter smile as well."

Since this was a Christmas present, DiNunzio told Sally that she had to pack up the dress and send it back to the North Pole for Santa to deliver. She made a red gingham garment bag and Sally's parents put it under the tree.

Not quite understanding yet how the mind of autistic children worked, they couldn't understand why Sally wasn't excited when she saw the dress and wouldn't put it on again at home. After some digging, they realized that she would only wear it if she was at Jane's house at nighttime — it was all part of a pattern for her. DiNunzio, with her infinite patience and understanding, had Sally come over several times so that she could wear the dress and sometimes they even had tea parties.

Jane's husband, Rudy, was not an idle bystander in these celebrations. Not only did he accompany Jane to the celebrations, but after he retired, he started working as a florist and made several of the arrangements for his wife's clients. Many of the dried flowers he used in arrangements were also part of the huge yard sale that spanned a couple of weekends. The couple plans to move to Montebello and need to downsize. One thing that DiNunzio won't part with is her photographs — pictures of the many brides who have been part of her life.

BRIDES LIKE KATIE SAVAGE. Savage knew DiNunzio from Good Shepherd Catholic Church and asked her to make her wedding gown.

"I've known her for a long time and knew her attention to detail. She's very talented and I think she's a great lady," said Savage.

She said that she showed DiNunzio a picture from a magazine and they went to some stores to get an idea of what Savage liked. That was all that DiNunzio needed to get started. This was by far DiNunzio's greatest talent, the ability to just look at a gown and translate in her mind what she needed to do to make it come to life. She never sketched the gowns; it was all in her head.

For Savage, the end product was exactly what she wanted — at a significantly lower price. While DiNunzio could have charged thousands for some of her more elaborate dresses, she never charged more than $1,000 for any one gown.

Sometimes, DiNunzio had little more than a picture and an idea. Sonya Allwyn's husband-to-be, Ben Spriggs, took a picture of the back of a dress and told DiNunzio that they wanted it to look like an Iris. She did it.

Another bride, Maureen Higgins, was living in Turkey before her wedding. Her mother and DiNunzio picked out some pictures and sent them to her, and then DiNunzio picked out some fabric and sent Higgins some swatches. Higgins said that she came home less than two weeks before the wedding and the gown was in separate pieces. With just a couple of fittings, DiNunzio had the gown finished.

"She put it all together. The day of the wedding, she was in the back of the church orchestrating the wedding party. She was running the show," said Higgins. "She's a wonderful person. I'm glad that she's part of our lives."

Even more difficult than creating something new was working on some of the vintage gowns brought to DiNunzio. She somehow managed to resurrect, repair, restyle and re-fit them. She recalls working on Jennifer Pease's mother's gown.

"The fabric had yellowed and was dry-rotted. I had to dye it with tea to get the right shade," she said.

Marianne Walker Francone remembers how DiNunzio saved her mother's gown. "My mother's gown was Italian silk and stored in a trash bag. It was falling apart." DiNunzio was able to save the bottom of the dress and then used some of the lace to cover the Bible Francone carried. The gown is now stored the correct way.

The one that DiNunzio remembers as one of her finest accomplishments was the dress she made for Lyndsay Bowie.

DiNunzio said, "Lyndsay Bowie and her mother brought that wrinkled mass to me, hoping that I could re-invent it to look like the one shown on the magazine page. God is good and with the help of my silk organza, I managed to please her. Then I made her mom's and the attendants [dresses]."