Dress just fits family history

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Sarah Nagem
When Corie Jones tried on the dress she planned to wear on her first day of kindergarten at Bostian Elementary last week, she and her mother heard a terrifying sound of cloth starting to rip.
This isn’t just any dress. Five-year-old Corie couldn’t simply choose something else to wear for the big day.
So her mom, Rhonda, had to improvise.
This dress ó a cream-colored little number with tiny green and orange flowers and a silk ribbon at the waist ó has quite a history.
Corie’s great-aunt, Mary Frances Jones, wore the dress on her first day of school in 1937.
A family tradition began. In the 71 years since then, 10 other Jones girls, including Corie, have donned the dress on their first days of school.
“It’s so sweet,” Rhonda says. “They mailed this to us. They mailed this special family heirloom to us so Corie could wear it.”
Mary Frances, who lives near Raleigh, has served as the keeper of the dress all these decades.
She grew up in Greene County, where her mother, Ethel Jones, made most of the clothes for her and her siblings.
After Mary Frances wore the dress for her first day of school, it was handed down to her three sisters, who wore it in 1941, 1944 and 1956.
In the 1960s, Mary Frances sent her two daughters to their first days of school in the dress.
After that, it had a 24-year hiatus. But in 1983, Mary Frances’ granddaughter wore the dress. Another granddaughter wore it in 1995.
Up until then, the dress didn’t have to do much traveling. Most of the family lived near Mary Frances.
But around 1996 ó Mary Frances gets fuzzy on some of the details ó she sent it all the way to California for her niece’s first day of school.
She shipped it to Maryland last year for her sister’s granddaughter.
Then she mailed it Corie for the start of her education in Rowan County.
“It’s everybody’s dress that’s interested in it,” Mary Frances says.
The cloth has gotten thin over the years. Family members have sewn on patches, but time has taken its toll.
The colors underneath the Peter Pan collar are more vibrant than the rest of the dress.
Old pictures show a dark-colored ribbon around the waist and a bow near the neckline. Someone has replaced the ribbon with a cream-colored one. Corie didn’t wear a bow near the neckline.
But besides some minor changes, the dress remains the same.
Rhonda desperately wanted to keep the Jones tradition alive, but she had trouble getting the dress on her daughter.
“It’s so fragile, we couldn’t pull it over her head, so we pinned it on a tutu,” Rhonda said.
Corie ó short for Coralie ó spent part of her first day of kindergarten walking around in a purple leotard with the dress pinned on to its front.
Rhonda tied the dress’s ribbon around Corie’s waist.
So Corie, a bright-faced little girl with long brown hair, didn’t technically wear the dress on her first day. But the tradition conditions.
Corie didn’t seem to have any complaints about her unusual attire ó considering the leotard and all.
“She knows it’s an honor, and it’s very special,” Rhonda says of the dress. “That’s why we’re taking very good care of it.”
Corie considered her thoughts on the dress.
She finally decides on a simple, “It’s old.”
Corie didn’t wear the leotard/dress all day. She changed back into a more modern getup.
The story of the traveling dress has attracted quite a bit of attention. Newspapers throughout the years have documented the girls’ first days of school in the special outfit.
In the mid-1990s, the Wall Street Journal even printed a blurb about the family tradition.
The Jones family is a tight-knit group, Mary Frances says. About 80 people gather each year for a family reunion.
“We try to carry on the tradition that families are special,” she says.
Rhonda says if Corie ever has a daughter someday, she hopes she can wear the dress, too.
“If it’s still around, yes,” Rhonda says. “Oh, I’d be here for that.”
Mary Frances isn’t sure yet who is next in line for the dress.
“I’ll just save it ’til the next one comes along,” she says.