Tess Newall: ‘This was not only my wedding dress, but my family’s dress. It wasn’t mine to lose and I felt guilty.’ Photograph: Sophia Evans for the Guardian
Alfred and I got engaged in August 2015, a year after we’d met. We planned the wedding for midsummer’s day the following year, at my parent’s house in Scotland. They live in the middle of the countryside in an old manse, with a small 12th-century kirk, or church, next to it. I’m a set designer, and am used to decorating events such as weddings. We wanted to use wild flowers from the surrounding pastures, and have a maypole to dance round. Trestle tables would be piled with homemade food and we’d finish by dancing to a ceilidh band.
Alfred was going to wear the suit his grandfather had worn on his wedding day, but I hadn’t given my dress much thought. My granny Jo-Jo suggested I look in her attic, where I’d find my great-great-grandmother Dora’s dress, which was 147 years old. Inside a hatbox covered in cobwebs was a dress of the most beautiful handmade lace. I couldn’t have imagined anything more perfect.
I tried it on and it fitted, but the bone of the top panel had warped. I wanted to alter it as sensitively as possible, so I went to a lace specialist in London, where we live.
The wedding day was perfect. The Scottish sun shone all day and everybody said I looked beautiful in my dress. Wearing it was such an honour, as though Dora was there with me.
I’d been running around barefoot in the fields and dancing in the garden, and the bottom of the dress got quite muddy. So in September, after we set off on our honeymoon, my father took the dress to be dry-cleaned in Edinburgh by a company that specialised in antique wedding dresses. It was due for collection at the end of December.
After hearing nothing, my dad visited the shop in early January and, to his horror, found it boarded up with a sign saying it had gone into liquidation. He contacted the administrators, who told him they’d searched the premises and that our dress wasn’t there; they said it must have been disposed of or auctioned off. We were not allowed to go into the shop to check.
When my parents called me in February last year to tell me what had happened, they’d lost all hope and said we needed to file an insurance claim. I was beside myself. The emotional significance of the dress far outweighed its monetary value. This was not only my wedding dress, but my family’s dress. It wasn’t mine to lose and I felt guilty: if I hadn’t worn it, it would have been safe. After a sleepless night, I went for an early morning swim. Friends encouraged me to put a message on Facebook, asking people to look out for the dress, in the hope that someone might come across it at a vintage wedding fair.
I posted the message and a picture of me in the dress on my page – publicly, so friends could share it – while I was in the changing room. By the time I’d got out of the water, it had been shared 3,000 times. Soon, it had been shared more than 300,000 times. I was overwhelmed.