Donated wedding gowns are used to make burial outfits for babies through the Mary Madeline Project of Omaha, Neb. (Photo by Kent Sievers)
I Do, Then I Donate

c.2005 Newhouse News Service

More Stories by Dru Sefton


Here come the brides, and there go their gowns -- whisked off to charities after the nuptials.

"It's a really expensive item to just have tucked into a closet," said one donor bride, Susan Cunningham. "I wore it at such a happy time; it's nice to know it can provide more happiness."

Once upon a time, new wives saved dresses for their daughters-to-be. But those now-engaged daughters are realizing that the gowns, stored for decades, often are hopelessly out of style, don't fit or just aren't to their liking.

So more of today's brides are opting to donate their new gowns to nonprofit groups -- for less fortunate women, to be sold for fundraising or to create other items.

Organizations such as the I Do Foundation, which promotes charitable wedding giving; the Mitzvah Messenger Project that transports dresses to needy brides in Israel; the Mary Madeline Project, sewing infant burial outfits; and Brides Against Breast Cancer, which has raised around $400,000 with its sale of donated gowns and quilts sewn from older dresses. There are even groups that forward bridesmaids' dresses to high-school girls for their prom night.

Dress donation is becoming wildly popular.

"We always collect more gowns during an event than we sell," said Fran Hansen, co-founder of the Making Memories Breast Cancer Foundation Inc. "Recently in Atlanta we sold over 100 donated gowns, but collected over 500 more."

The main fundraiser for Making Memories, which grants wishes to terminally ill breast-cancer patients, is the Brides Against Breast Cancer Nationwide Tour of Gowns ( Dresses provided by women and bridal shops are sold for a fraction of their cost.

"Most of the gowns retail pretty much in the range of $1,200 to $3,200; we sell them for $49.99 to $599, depending on condition," Hansen said. She and her daughter, Anna Nelson, began the group in 1997 in Portland, Ore., after Hansen received a false positive breast cancer test result and discovered how women battling the disease often needed assistance.

Since January 2000, Making Memories has collected more than 10,000 gowns. Those too old or damaged are sewn into ornate quilts that bring $2,000 or more.

The I Do Foundation uses donated dresses in a different way. That nonprofit, based in Washington, D.C., encourages engaged couples to incorporate charitable giving into their weddings, said Bethany Robertson, executive director. It suggests creative ways to raise donations at weddings and provides an online charitable registry at

Donated gowns are sold through a consignment shop. The bride selects a charity to receive 20 percent of the sale price; another percentage goes to support the foundation's work.

A wedding gown is "a very personal item, with a lot of emotion attached to it," Robertson said, "but these women are still choosing to donate."

Since its launch in February 2002, the group has worked with 20,000 couples and raised money for some 300 charities worldwide.

One of those donors is Cunningham, of Arlington, Va. She's what Robertson calls "a twofer": Cunningham purchased her gown at Bridal Garden in New York City, which sells donated gowns to raise money for disadvantaged youth there.

After Cunningham's wedding to Philip Eliot in June 2004, she gave the gown to the I Do Foundation and specified that proceeds go to the Seed Foundation in Washington, which creates public boarding schools to prepare urban children for college.

Those who benefit from the Mary Madeline Project are grieving parents.

Carlin Kammerer of Omaha, Neb., noticed an unfilled need after her own newborn granddaughter died nine years ago.

"We had to buy a burial outfit," Kammerer said. "It was so hard to go into the newborn department in a department store, such a happy place."

Now she heads a group of volunteers who use wedding dresses to sew outfits for stillborn babies and those who die soon after birth. "We've gotten gowns from all over -- California, New Jersey, New Hampshire," Kammerer said. (Information at

The group has delivered more than 450 gowns to hospitals around Nebraska and Iowa.

Needy brides in Israel are the recipients of dresses donated to the Mitzvah Messenger Project, said George Greene, co-coordinator of the effort with Ella Badin. The group, part of the Five Synagogues Israel Action Committee in White Plains, N.Y., works with the Ziv Tzedakah Fund in Israel to ensure delivery.

Over the last two years some 200 dresses have arrived, with around 20 more ready to go, Greene said.

"One of the first dresses donated was my wife's," said Greene, of Chappaqua, N.Y. "It was worn by an elderly French woman whose Jewish father fled the Nazis. She moved to Israel and wanted a religious ceremony. She remarked how beautiful the dress was."

Bridesmaids are contributing gowns as well. One group collecting those is the Fairy Godmothers of Flagstaff, Ariz., sponsored by the Elks Ladies of Lodge No. 499.

"They are gorgeous gowns," organizer Janice Trumpp said. "We also have evening bags, shawls, shoes and jewelry."

On April 23 more than 80 high-school students arrived at the lodge to browse through hundreds of potential dresses for this year's prom. "All we ask is they bring a student ID and a nonperishable canned good," Trumpp said. More than 150 cans of food were collected for needy families.

After the prom "some of them even redonate the dress," she added. "It just keeps going and going."

May 12, 2005

(Dru Sefton can be contacted at