A Remarkable Set of Vestments

One of the greatest pleasures of working for a firm of vestment makers is that from time to time we are asked to take a look at antique sets of vestments of the most extraordinary quality, often with a view to restoration. One such set was recently reunited with its parish and I was able to take some photos of it to show to the world. This one, as well as being quite beautiful, has something of a story behind it.

Picture the scene if you will: A "Society" wedding in the 1920's. Morning dress, top hats, smart dresses; fashionable cloche hats on ladies. Nuptial Mass, confetti; all very lovely. Honeymoon in the south of France. Off the couple went in their Bentley (or similar) the following day. Then, disaster: a car accident and the bride was tragically killed.

In her memory her wedding dress was used to make a set of vestments for the parish in which she was married; it also used her jewelry as decoration. It was then embroidered by persons unknown.

Detail of the silk, as seen on the chalice veil

As you can see from the photos, it is made for a parish dedicated to St. Stephen the Protomartyr (why else would you depict a martyr on white vestments?). It was, in later years, only used for the Mass of the Aurora on Christmas morning -- that most quiet and peaceful of Masses; the shepherds on their way back to the hills, praising God, and Mary keeping all those things and pondering them in her heart -- and also the commemoration of St. Anastasia.

The symbolism in the embroidery is deep as well. Obviously you have St. Stephen, a monogram of his name, and also that of the Holy Name. It is further set with pomegranates, symbolic of the Resurrection, and also lilies, symbolic of purity (why they are blue is a little bit of a mystery, however).

As well as this most beautiful story, it also presents an academic exercise for those interested in the conservation of vestments. What do you do to a set like this? One could lift the embroidery and remount it on new fabric: it is of a quality which would justify the effort and cost; but then one would lose the most important thing about the set: the wedding dress silk.

It is hoped that conservation will be a way forward.

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