The brides wore plum-colored silk.
One of them, Anna Murray, was married on Sept. 15, 1838, to Frederick Johnson, who had recently escaped from slavery. Born Frederick Bailey, he had used the surnames Stanley and Johnson to evade slave catchers, and would later rename himself again, as Frederick Douglass, before becoming a prominent abolitionist, statesman and author.
The wedding took place at 39 Lispenard Street, in what is now the TriBeCa neighborhood of Manhattan, at the home of the abolitionist David Ruggles. After the hastily arranged ceremony, the newlyweds departed that same day for New Bedford, Mass., a safe haven for fugitive slaves.
On Sept. 15, 2022, 184 years to the day of that wedding, the second bride, Cassandra Bromfield, arrived at the same site, which is now an outpost of La Colombe Coffee Roasters, in a gown designed to evoke the one worn by Ms. Murray.
But Ms. Bromfield, a 65-year-old fashion designer, was a bride only in spirit. She had made and worn her dress at the request of Lana Turner, the chair of the Harlem Literary Society book club, who had organized a small event to honor Ms. Murray and Mr. Douglass on the anniversary of their wedding. (Ms. Turner shares her name — and birthday — with the actress Lana Turner, who died in 1995.)
The afternoon gathering, attended by some 50 people, featured readings about the couple’s history and performances by the West Village String Quartet and the vocalist C. Anthony Bryant. Ms. Turner, 72, billed it as a wedding reception and organized it to highlight Ms. Murray’s pivotal but often behind-the-scenes role in her husband’s public life.
“Anna Murray Douglass is a figure that gets lost in the sauce,” said Ms. Turner, who lives in Harlem. There is little mention of Ms. Murray in her husband’s writing, and though Mr. Douglass was the most photographed man of the 19th century, there are no pictures of the couple together despite their 44 years of marriage.
Ms. Turner was inspired to stage the wedding reception after reading “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography by David Blight, and Mr. Douglass’s autobiography, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.” The descriptions of Lower Manhattan in the 1830s in both books spurred her to visit the site of the couple’s wedding on Lispenard Street, she said. While doing so last summer, she got the idea for the event.
Ms. Murray and Mr. Douglass were born in Maryland. A free woman, she was working as a housekeeper and laundress when they met in Baltimore, and she later financed his escape to New York with money she had saved from working and from selling one of two feather beds she had owned, which were a luxury good at the time.
“She couldn’t read or write herself, but she knew how to save,” Ms. Turner said of Ms. Murray, who was believed to be around 25 when she married Mr. Douglass, then 20.
Few details of their wedding were recorded, but a 1923 article in The Journal of Negro History by the couple’s daughter Rosetta Douglass Sprague, one of five children Ms. Murray and Mr. Douglass had together, noted that “a new plum colored silk dress was her wedding gown.”
With this colorful fact in mind, Ms. Turner called Ms. Bromfield in late July with a question: Would she create a plum silk wedding dress for an event on Ms. Murray’s and Mr. Douglass’s wedding anniversary in September?
Though Ms. Turner and Ms. Bromfield were only social acquaintances, “there was no hesitation,” Ms. Turner said of Ms. Bromfield’s reaction, even when Ms. Turner suggested that the designer would also model the dress.
Ms. Bromfield quickly got to work in her studio in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, where she also lives. She began with online research about silhouettes and dressmaking techniques, finding certain YouTube channels that specialize in historical fashion, namely American Duchess, especially helpful. Having no description of the garment beyond its color and fabric, she set out to create a dress that hewed closely to the style of the period, with a full skirt over petticoats, a corseted waist and an exaggerated gigot sleeve, which puffs out at the top of the arm but is narrower at the wrist.
Women of Ms. Murray’s status, she noted, would have simply worn the nicest dress they owned for their wedding, regardless of the color. The couple’s 1838 wedding also took place before it became common for brides to wear white, a tradition that began after Queen Victoria of England wore a white satin gown at her 1840 wedding to Prince Albert.
For the plum silk fabric, Ms. Bromfield went with Ms. Turner to Preview Textile Group in Manhattan’s garment district. Before Ms. Bromfield could begin constructing the dress, “first I had to pad the mannequin to be me,” she said, noting that the original gown was worn by a woman some 40 years younger than she is. “After I got the right fit for the pattern I made, I began cutting it out of the fabric,” she said.
To serve as a barrier between her body and the dress’s stay — a corset-like piece that laces at the back — Ms. Bromfield made an under layer known as a chemise. “Whenever you see those period shows and they have corsets next to skin, they’re just trying to be sexy,” she said. “It wouldn’t be worn next to the skin because it would get too dirty.”
The gown’s gigot, or leg of mutton, sleeves were particularly challenging for the designer. “They were the thing that stumped me the most,” Ms. Bromfield said. To maintain the sleeves’ shape, she attached dense, pillowlike pads to their insides.
Ms. Bromfield added unique touches to her version of the dress, which included quilting and beading the bodice, and embroidering Ms. Murray’s name inside the hem of the skirt. She also embroidered the word “American” inside the dress using red, white, blue, black and green threads in homage to the American and Pan-African flags. Fabrics in those five colors were used for the skirt as well.
“I did all of these things that would make it me,” Ms. Bromfield said, adding that as she remade the wedding gown, she felt a kinship with Ms. Murray, who was also a dressmaker and seamstress. “I wanted to feel like her and I think she felt glamorous, even though they had to get up and go.”
Though the brides wore plum, the reception featured several outfits in shades of white, including that of its organizer, Ms. Turner, a frequent subject of the New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham. She wore a custom dress made with a white harlequin pattern upholstery fabric by the seamstress Eleni Rodas and a parasol hat by the milliner Heidi Lee. (Beyoncé wears a larger version of Ms. Turner’s hat in the teaser video for “I’m That Girl,” a song on her latest album, “Renaissance.”)
After the event, Ms. Bromfield’s dress was returned to her studio. She and Ms. Turner hope to find a permanent home for it at a museum or an academic institution.
Ms. Turner also plans to stage another wedding reception next year, with more music and readings that honor the life and legacy of Ms. Murray.
“I do this because Anna came and got me,” she said.