Should I Send My Wedding Dress to Kenya?

Nicholas Kristof recently made this plea for wedding and bridesmaid dresses, which are used by a woman in Nairobi to make new children’s clothing. If you can get them to New York, there’s an organization there that will pay for the shipping to Kenya. (Something tells me this woman is going to be inundated with more satin and tulle than she’ll be able to use in a lifetime.)

The minute I read Kristof’s piece I knew that I wanted to send my wedding dress there. When I got married seventeen years ago, a lot of people were heirlooming their dresses. I didn’t have strong opinions about keeping my dress but ultimately went that route. I took it to the cleaners, where they did whatever voodoo they do, and now it’s sitting in a nice box up in James’s closet. It’s a pretty dress, in a “22 year old bride in the mid-’90s” kind of way.


That is, there’s a lot of fabric to work with, and some nice details.

Robert asked, “Are you sure you want to part with it? Is there a possibility that one of our daughters will want to wear it?” Leaning that way, and I doubt it—although he reminds me that Caroline is very tuned in to tradition and family artifacts and hates to part with stuff. So who knows?

Many folks place great value on things simply because they have sentimental value. My threshold is different. I like having a keepsake for major events and people in my life, but I don’t necessarily need every keepsake. If the dress were the only tangible connection to our wedding day I would want to keep it. But we have wedding gifts and photographs and gold bands on our left ring fingers and flower shops where we can get lilies whenever we want, and that’s a gracious plenty for me.

Still, the discussion we’re having about the fate of the dress has me thinking about the value of stuff. I follow a few simplicity and anti-clutter blogs that provide tips for paring down stuff. I think many of these blogs go too far—for example, this article, by a man whose mother died. He was getting ready to move her stuff to a storage facility when he found several boxes of his elementary school work under her bed. The fact that theses boxes were sealed, unexamined by his mother all these years, led to an epiphany:

I could hold on to her memories without her stuff, just as she had always remembered me and my childhood and all of our memories without ever accesses [sic] those sealed boxes under her bed. She didn’t need papers from twenty-five years ago to remember me, just as I didn’t need a storage locker filled with her stuff to remember her.

…Memories are within us, not within our things.

And this is where he loses me.

Memories are within us… AND within our things. It’s why I keep artifacts on my desk when I write: I treasure those reminders of juicy times in my life. And it’s why some of the kid artwork is going into a Rubbermaid tub rather than being scanned into Evernote: it is a precious thing to feel the paper that my kids held on their laps, to trace the brushstrokes.

It goes the other way too. We are fumigating our church right now, and folks are taking home all the dishes, pots and pans to be washed thoroughly since the church doesn’t have a dishwasher. Some of these kitchen items have psychic energy that is, in my opinion, not all that positive. (Old stained trays? 200 coffee cups in a church that now worships 50?)

Our stuff isn’t neutral.

I said recently that I’m done with the word “spiritual.” My main objection is that it implies a separation from the physical world. (Thank you Platonic dualism.) The realm of the spiritual is what’s in our brains and in our (figurative) hearts, and it is given higher status. The body is just the Rubbermaid tub.

Of course we can become obsessed with stuff, hoarding and clutching, or constantly upgrading and discarding. But I agree with Michael Lindvall (subscription required, sorry) when he wrote that the problem isn’t that we value our stuff too much. Our problem is that we don’t value it enough. It’s all disposable anymore, cheap and devoid of meaning. After all, memories are in our minds, right?

But my goodness, God loved stuff. God made stuff, and called it good and very good. And Christians go so far as to make the outrageous claim that God became flesh and lived among our stuff. He ate stuff and drank stuff and blessed stuff and told stories about stuff and even mixed stuff with his own spit and made mud on one bizarre occasion.

So if I value stuff so much, why am I thinking about sending my wedding dress to Kenya rather than keeping it? Not because the dress isn’t meaningful to me, but because it is meaningful. The day I wore it was a day of great beauty and hope and joy. It has the potential to bring beauty and hope and joy to people I don’t even know. Doesn’t that seem like a good way of honoring the love that was expressed on October 22, 1994? To let it have a new life, rather than sitting in my closet for another couple of decades on the off chance that my daughters will want to wear it?

One of the things I think about when making a decision is, where is the good story? And yes, Caroline or Margaret walking down the aisle wearing the dress I once wore is a good story. But it’s a story that I ultimately control and own. There’s something to be said for letting the story go, so it can take on a life of its own.

I’m still thinking. What do you say?

Photo: Jane Ngoiri of Nairobi.

28 thoughts on “Should I Send My Wedding Dress to Kenya?

  1. Jan E. Lorah

    I say sending a wedding dress to Kenya sounds really sweet; but, in reality, is very impractical. Most wedding gowns are made of materials that are not washable — and are white. Now, having been in Kenya, I can attest that an unwashable garment being worn in a country w/ dirt floors in many houses — not to mention the unpaved, dirt roads, does not sound very feasible. A carefully sealed wedding gown in a box to pass along to one’s children seems very loving and thoughtful, not an assault on simplicity. I watched my daughter try on my dress a couple of times, mostly just to parade around and feel “pretty” while imagining my wedding day. In the end, her wedding was much different from mine — and my gown would have never worked; but, it has provided pleasure to her in other ways. Keep it, MaryAnn; that’s my vote.

    1. MaryAnn

      Ah, interesting thought. I wonder why the woman requested wedding dresses, given the fussiness of done of them. She’s been doing this for a while and this must have come up.

      And just to clarify, I’m more interested in people’s thoughts, but it’s not up for a vote per se. 🙂

  2. susan

    I also thought it was a very funny request. Bridesmaids dresses and wedding dresses are so not conducive to children’s wear! I think it’s the appeal of the whole thing–take this thing that means something and give it away. I don’t know. I don’t have a wedding dress, so maybe I’d feel differently if I did. I’d be more inclined to give it to a charity and imagine some other bride walking down the aisle in it and give other fabric to Kenya, but that’s just me.

    FWIW, my mother’s wedding dress was stored in a fancy box in our basement and then we got a flood and it was ruined. They salvaged about a half yard of the fabric that my sister then used in her bouquet as a nod to history. When all was said and done and my mom had half a yard of fabric, all she had to say was that she wish she would have let us kids play with it when we were in dress-up mode.

    So I’m sort of on the side of let it go and be worn as dresses are meant to be, but again, I have no wedding dress. I have not spent hours upon hours choosing a dress, so I have no attachment to it. (And just so my hypocrisy can be fully disclosed, don’t even talk about me letting go of Selam’s outfit that she left the orphanage wearing.

  3. anne

    i’d say to talk w/ your daughters about this decision. if either of them vetoes sending it, then don’t send it. if they both are on board w/ sending it, then go for it if you’d like. and take a picture of you and the girls with the dress before you send it.

    i know the girls are years away from possibly wearing the dress, but from what you write here they seem to be so self-aware, so i think you can trust them to help you w/ the decision.

    also listen to the feelings behind robert’s thoughts on the topic.

  4. jenn wilson

    we actually just did the send the wedding dress to mexico with my mom when she went… i am a huge tradition oriented person and wanted to make sure daughter jordan had access to part of that physical memory but i was having a hard time justifying keeping something sealed for so long when i could pass on the joy… my compromise was to have a bit of the fabric removed… i had already kept the parts that were cut off when i had the dress altered to begin with.. i made a baptismal gown for my kiddos with that so they will still both be able to use the baptismal gown for their kids and then i kept a bit of it so jordan could incorporate it into a handkerchief or purse for her walk down the aisle… i just really liked picking out my own “perfect dress” for the big day and knowing my budding fashionista… i have a feeling she will be happy with a piece of history while still finding her own style…
    either way.. you wrote a lovely piece on “stuff” i enjoyed it! i am a believer in the power of tangible memories as well as experienced ones…
    i say that you are fine until you find a dead cat under a pile of magazines (an episode of hoarders that still haunts me) 🙂

  5. Marci

    Why is there no picture of you in your dress with this post?!

    I don’t expect anybody is going to ask to be married in my dress, but if I were to send anything to Kenya, it would be money or clothes. I agree with others above who wonder why Kenya needs satin.

    1. MaryAnn

      Because the small businesswoman in Kenya said that’s what she needed?

      God knows that Westerners like to cook up half-baked solutions for the developing world. This isn’t that. At least in Jane’s case, if you read the article, her greatest expressed need is material. I have tons of it. I’m a little uncomfortable with what amounts to “You think you know what you need but I know better.”

      I’m also confident she knows how to dye white material a more practical color.

      Still thinking…

  6. Songbird

    MaryAnn, if you don’t mind, I would love to use this post at RevGals’ Wednesday Festival.
    I’m at a different stage of the family-raising arc, beginning to get serious about the downsizing/relocating of some source that will take place when my 11th grader, the last at home, goes to college. I’m assessing items this way: “How is this dress/painting/china part of my identity?” Most things, of course, are not. They’re part of my heritage, yes, but only a few cross over into being part of my identity. The painting my dad bought in his early married years is part of my identity as his daughter, because of the way he told the story, because looking at it hanging over various fireplaces over the years made it part of my landscape and because hanging it in my own house made it feel like he was part of the new life I made with my children, a sign that I *could* make that new life. So I hope to take it with me wherever I go.
    On the other hand, my dad was a prolific collector of prints, and enjoyed arranging them in elaborate patterns on the walls of his high-ceilinged house. I don’t need to recreate that, or carry them along. Too much heritage chokes out the possibility of new life. (It’s true at church, too, yes?)

  7. Rachel Heslin

    I have to admit that I’m holding onto my wedding dress not so much out of sentimentality as it’s a truly beautiful gown and I love costume parties and am looking forward to wearing it again someday. 😀

  8. Jan E. Lorah

    Pardon me for a second response; I’ve thought about this so much… After reading the article, I can see why a person would be immediately packing up the wedding gown to send to Nairobi. However, I am a little bothered, after having been to Kenya to work w/ the students at a poly-tech sewing class: The need is for practical fabrics, but the desire is for beautiful ones. The students w/ whom I worked used heavy paper from cement bags to make sample garments, by hand, because to practice w/ real fabric would be too costly. We took over suitcases full of fabrics, donated from friends and fabric stores; included in that were some satins and laces — but mostly cottons and polyesters. As parents we don’t give children the things they “want” until their “needs” have been met (I’d not have bought my daughter a pair of much-adored red patent leather shoes when her sneakers were too small). I think I would feel better about this project if we were able to send 10 yards of everyday fabric along w/ every wedding gown. (There is also a critical need for sewing notions; that, too, could be included.) This reminds me of the question about whether to send used computers to Africa, where there is not available tech-support — it has nearly become a dumping ground of cast-off stuff from those of us w/ expendable income. I do, however, like your idea of simplifying, MaryAnn; nobody ever said living simply was simple! Good luck w/ the decision. I hope we will hear the final decision.

    1. MaryAnn

      Jan, you make some good points, and having been there, you certainly know what you’re talking about. The person in the article is not starting out learning to sew, however. She is in an urban area, making items that are apparently selling well enough to put her kids through school and stop prostituting herself. I wish I knew more than that, but that much is clear from the article.

      I have to ask though: did you just use the analogy of parents and children to describe our relationship with people in Kenya?
      Frankly, my jaw is on the floor.

  9. sherry

    I read that article and tried to find out even more information about the origin of using the wedding dresses, to no avail.

    But, as a seamstress who often makes do with what I have…I wonder (and I have nothing to back this up in this situation), if this is an example of something that happened by chance.

    Again as a make-do seamstress; I can easily imagine a day in which I needed material, I found a discarded wedding dress for a “low” cost, I sewed something, that something marketed well in part because it was/is made from out of the ordinary material, and then I continued to do this with financial success.

    I have been unable to give up my wedding dress. I will never fit back into it, my daughter will never wear it, but it stays in my closet.

  10. susan

    Huh. I just read the article again (beyond the first few paragraphs). So clearly she does not want other fabric, and for good cause. And I do know that just about anything holds up better to the strong sunlight than cotton, which is what most of our kids clothes is made of.

  11. susan

    Hit return too quickly—this is my way of saying that I retract my earlier statement about thinking the fabric choice is odd. In the US it would be odd.

    1. MaryAnn

      Something I’ve wondered skeptically for years is whether “dry clean only” fabrics really cannot be cleaned conventionally. I understand when there are beads and other details. But I look at some of the materials that my clothes are made out of and think, “Really?” I’ve been tempted to try it and see what happens…

  12. susan

    Some can. Google it. I only rarely dry clean anymore. I hand wash stuff with detailing, and machine wash a lot of other stuff. Silks, taffetas and some rayons seem to be the worst in terms of washing. The silks just wrinkle like crazy and are hard to iron out. However, I’ve also found that I kind of dig the really wrinkled silk look. I have never been to Kenya and can’t begin to guess what the total story is. However, in Ethiopia, clothes were not washed nearly as often as we wash clothes in the US, so perhaps the lack of washability is not as big of a problem as it seems. Perhaps, also, the desire for wedding dresses is a desire for huge quantities of fabric from which one can make several pretty dresses–probably for church or something that—as opposed to most adult clothes which would probably only yield one child’s dress. And in ET (again, can’t speak for Kenya) everyone wears white to church–even in the muddy season.

  13. Jan E. Lorah

    MaryAnn, you asked, “did you just use the analogy of parents and children to describe our relationship with people in Kenya?” Certainly I did for some situations, but definitely not for all. The illustration was more intended to highlight need vs. want.
    BUT, after reading more posts and hearing another story (and a good bit of pondering), I can now more easily understand the request for wedding gowns. There are great needs in more rural communities, but this particular one is for a specific project. I’m now considering sending my own wedding gown to this initiative. 🙂 It is time for me to shut up and do something for this woman who is finding a way to make it in a very tough city. (And for clarification, Susan, the Kenyans do not wear white to church exclusively. They do dress in the nicest clothes they own, and seem to be very colorful.)

  14. Erin Sikes

    I cannot leave an informed comment until I have seen a photo of you in the dress. It’s part of my process 😉

  15. sherry

    If someone found why she wants the wedding dresses vs other kinds of material, could you post the link or source….That part of the story has me really curious.

  16. Jan E. Lorah

    Okay, one last thought on the wedding gown issue. I sent the original article along to my daughter, who has been to Kenya three times working at the Polytech, and told her I was considering sending my gown over… but wanted her input. This is her reply: “It doesn’t have to be YOUR dress – but you could go to Goodwills and Salvation Army stores and buy a few nice gowns of all varieties to donate.” Since she just got married a couple of months ago and did not wear my gown… I figured she’d not care if I kept mine; maybe I was wrong. Anyway, I think her idea is good, MaryAnn. If you are still pondering what to do about your own gown, at least go to a second-hand store and pick one up for nearly nothing and send that one along. That way you would still have yours as an option for your girls later, and could support the cause at the same time.

  17. debra mckune

    When I got married, I wore a borrowed wedding dress. I had very little money. My mother had no wedding dress for me to borrow. My mother’s best friend had a wedding dress but none of her three sons (or their brides) were interested in wearing it.

    When I was a child, I saw a wedding photo of my mom’s friend in the dress and said something about wanting to wear a dress like that when I got married. She said I could wear hers if I wanted. Many years later, I did.

    It was meaningful on a variety of levels, not the least of which was welcoming me into the “now you’re all grown up and one of us” club. It also deepened an already strong bond between my mom, her friend, and me.

  18. anne

    rarely do i come back to read the whole thread. i think this is my third time back to follow this thread. somehow this piece has really caught many of us in a deep and meaningful place.

    just this week i went with our youngest daughter for her final fitting for her wedding gown. (her wedding is in 2 1/2 weeks.) maybe the season of my life is why this piece struck a deep place.

    hope you’ll share your final decision w/ us when the time comes.

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  20. Robert Braxton

    Marion Roach Smith regarding “story” asks first “what is this story about?” and points out that what people usually give as the answer is the picture when what she is asking for is the frame, they give the losenge but what she is asking is the wrapper (I am more accustomed to my grandfather’s Smith Brothers cough drops – a Robert born in 1887 January 6. So, two points: what IS the story about? and, secondly, what does owning the story have to do with the action (send the dress or keep the dress). To send rather than keep the wedding dress material – does that “to be or not to be” question make the story be “about” something different? The story is already here – or is it?


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