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Written by Mitch Maersch   
Wednesday, 03 May 2017 20:30


Port Washington High School junior Kate Lemkuil picked out her prom dress two years ago.

It wasn’t at a store. It wasn’t online. And it wasn’t in a magazine.

It was at her grandmother’s house in Port Washington. And it’s one of the most special dresses Kate will ever wear.

Her decision was made on June 24, 2015, when she tried on the dress. Her 84-year-old grandmother Carol Nordengren confirmed the date by remembering to check the info icon of the photo she took on her iPad.

Nordengren wore the dress to a ball more than 60 years ago. Kate instantly knew she would bring the garment out of retirement.

“I’ve been planning on this for a while,” Kate said.

A couple of years ago, she discussed with her grandmother how excited she was about prom, and Nordengren told her she had saved some old dresses in her attic.

Kate went to take a look. A pink dress with hand-stitched sequins caught her eye.

Nordengren thought nothing of it.

“Young girls love to do this. I just thought she was having fun trying it on,” she said.

But Lemkuil already knew.

“‘Oh my gosh, this fits me. The possibilities are endless,’” she thought.

“When it fit me, that’s when I decided.”

Nordengren figured her granddaughter was just kidding and would go dress shopping later.

She never did.

“I really didn’t think she was serious,” Nordengren said. “And she didn’t waiver. I remember her saying ‘Can I look at it once in a while?’”

Kate’s mother Patti Lemkuil didn’t initially know of her daughter’s plans. She didn’t see Kate in the dress until last month. Patti said she was surprised her mom was so tiny, and then she comprehended that her daughter was going to wear her mother’s dress.

“I thought, wow, this is really special,” she said.

Nordengren bought the dress 64 years ago at Schuster’s, a now-defunct department store in Milwaukee. The tags are gone so she isn’t sure of the designer, but that kind of thing wasn’t big back then, she said. She doesn’t remember what she paid but said “it was expensive.”

Nordengren said she wore the dress at the Harvest Ball on Nov. 20, 1953, at St. Norbert College in De Pere. Her companion for the evening happened to be Jack Nordengren, her future husband.

“I thought the dress was the prettiest one there,” she said.

Nordengren said she wore the dress to a few other dances as well, and then packed it away.

Saving treasured items was a lesson she learned early.

On rainy days as a child, Nordengren said she would go to her mother’s attic and hold up her mom’s wedding dress. She never put it on, but she thought it was gorgeous.

One day, Nordengren couldn’t find the dress. She asked her mother and was told she gave it to Goodwill since she had no use for it.

Nordengren said she was “devastated.

“That made such an impression on me,” she said.

At that moment, Nordengren determined she would keep anything beautiful.

That explains her selection of dresses that Nordengren has since moved from her attic to a spare bedroom to preserve the material.

The dress is made of taffeta and tulle. It fit Kate so well that the only alteration needed was to shorten it from floor to ankle length, cutting off eight inches.

Jane Guetchidjian of Jane’s Handy Sewing handled the alterations of the vintage dress. She said she doesn’t see too many garments that old.

“I personally appreciate it for the fact that the grandmother had worn it and kept it in very good shape,” she said.

“We think this would pay homage to 1953, being ankle length,” Patti said.

Patti, too, has dipped into Nordengren’s collection, wearing a black velvet cocktail dress to a Christmas party a couple of years ago.

Kate selecting her grandmother’s garment also means Kate gets to avoid what she considers an undesirable task.

“I never wanted to go prom dress shopping or anything. That’s awesome,” she said.

Shoe shopping wasn’t difficult either. Kate is wearing a pair of her mom’s shoes.

Back in 1953, Nordengren had her linen shoes dyed to match the color of the dress at Baker’s in Milwaukee.

Kate is going back to her grandmother’s house to accessorize. Nordengren also has a selection of purses from which Kate may choose.

Wearing a vintage dress to prom does come with some concern. Kate doesn’t want to spill on it.

“I am very nervous. I’m thinking about eating before I go,” she said.

“Don’t let that spoil your good time,” Nordengren said, “but be careful.”

Plenty of people will see Kate in her dress. Her class selected her to be the prom emcee. She will announce the names of all the couples and the court.

For Kate, it’s as much about her relationship with her grandmother as it is wearing a unique vintage dress to prom.

“I just feel like we have a connection and I think that’s really cool,” she said.


Image Information: The elegant pink dress Kate Lemkuil will wear to the Port High prom comes with a special cachet—it was worn by her grandmother at a college ball 64 years ago

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