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Toronto wedding dresses get second trip down aisle for cancer charities

Tucked between the satin folds of a wedding dress hangs a letter from the bride who last wore the gown to the bride-to-be who will buy it.

The messages have become something of a tradition over ten years at the Brides’ Project, where donated wedding dresses are sold at steep markdowns and profits are donated to cancer charities.

Not every bride here has a personal connection to the disease, but they often do and write about it in their notes, while wishing the next bride luck on their big day.

“My dress had two notes in it,” said Alex Lee, 29. “Both girls had been affected by cancer and I just cried when I read them.”

Lee was rushing in to re-donate the dress she bought for her wedding in February 2013, having procrastinated until now because she wanted to add another meaningful note.

When a relative was diagnosed with cancer this year, Lee thought back to the other brides who wore her dress and decided it was time to pass the gown on again.

“It’s about women coming together and feeling like you’re part of something,” she said.

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Inside the creaking old house on Broadview Avenue is a Willy Wonka’s factory of bridal wear. Each room brims with bustles and lace. There are racks upon racks of satin, silk and organza. Crinoline fills the bathtub and veils hang in the shower.

More than 500 gowns are available at any one time, organized by sizes into separate rooms, where women are invited to help themselves and try anything on.

“It’s not just a garment, it’s all the hopes and dreams that come with the wedding day, and people want to share that,” said the project’s founder Helen Sweet.

Couples are getting smarter when it comes to wedding costs, Sweet says. Not only are they getting married later, they’re paying for their own weddings and would rather save for a down payment than a big ceremony.

“We don’t wear our mother’s wedding dress anymore. That tradition is gone,” she said. “Here we’re trying to make a new tradition, passing the dresses on in a more timely fashion.”

The project prefers dresses that are five years old or less — they’re the only ones that sell.

“Take a look at the dresses from 30 years ago — would you wear that?” Sweet asks.

Gowns are sold for 50 per cent of their original cost and all prices are capped at $1,250.

The formula has proven to be a success and Sweet estimates that she’s sold about 2,500 dresses over the last decade. By the end of the year, she figures she’ll have donated half a million dollars to cancer charities ranging from Camp Quality, for children with cancer, to Gilda’s Club, which provides emotional support to families, to plain old medical science.

Old dresses are relegated to the basement, where they wait to be shipped out to theatres, drama programs for kids and even designers who cut up and remake them into something new.

“We find homes for each dress,” Sweet says. “We want people to know there’s one thing that won’t happen: they’ll never be thrown away.”

Sweet started the project while preparing for her second wedding. She didn’t want to spend too much and she wanted to honour a childhood friend who died of cancer.

“There’s so much excess with weddings. There had to be a way to make a lasting contribution to the community that isn’t so self-indulgent,” she said. “My dress ended up going to a 14-year-old girl after she finished chemo along with a tiara and feather boa.”

At appointment time on a recent Wednesday evening, three brides-to-be arrive with their entourages: mothers, sisters and best friends. There’s a quick orientation in the front room before they’re let loose in the house, thumping up and down the wooden staircase loaded down with lace and sequins.

“You need to get a dress anyway, so why not a dress that gives back?” said Caroline Habib, 34, as she sat in the tiled bathroom in an elegant strapless gown.

The dress fits perfectly and she doesn’t think she’ll need to have any alterations done.

“Someone is walking around with the exact same body as me,” she laughs.

While her fiancé has not been allowed to see the dress, Habib told him about the Brides’ Project and he was enthusiastic.

“He thinks it’s awesome, both for the price and for the cause — it’s a win-win.”

Longtime volunteer Tori Whyte also admits to being attracted to both sides of the equation. She loves “being part of the feminine ritual” as much as she’s got a deeper emotional attachment to the project.

When Whyte donated her wedding dress, she left a very personal note about how her mom’s death from cancer affected her.

“I wrote it as if the person was in the same situation,” she said.

About a year later, Whyte got an email from the woman who bought the dress, explaining how her grandmother had also passed away from cancer and she purchased Whyte’s dress on the anniversary of the death.

“I never cried so much after receiving an email,” Whyte said.

The Brides’ Project is more than a charity wedding boutique; it brings together both weddings and funerals, joy and sorrow, marking the cycles of life.

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Weddings & Celebrations It’s gotta be the shoes

To avoid a wedding footwear fiasco, not only should you select shoes that are comfortable and easy to maneuver in, you’ll want to settle on a pair that suits both your dress and the tone of your wedding. Here the experts weigh in on how to ensure your Big Day kicks are the best fit for you.

Always consider comfort

Whether you’re a 2-inch-heel girl or a 4-inch-heel girl, know your limits, said Marek Hartwig, a Chicago-based bridal stylist. You can easily spend five-plus hours standing in your shoes, so pick a height that you have experience with (if you typically only wear flip-flops, now is not the time to try out those sexy 6-inch stilettos) and consider changing into low heels or flats for dancing.

wedding shoes
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Regardless of the heel height, break in your shoes by standing and walking around in them in your house well before the wedding, advised Rachel Leonard, fashion director for Brides magazine. You want to make sure the shoes aren’t too tight or too loose, any straps aren’t pinching or cutting you, and the soles aren’t slippery. You may need a different size or style, but, for minor problems, there are simple solutions, such as attaching grips to the shoe bottoms for added traction, or using inserts or Blister Block to prevent rubbing.

Don’t mess with the dress

Choosing the right shoe is all about coordinating with your gown’s proportion, fabrication and color tone, Leonard said. In general, a more ornate dress calls for a simple shoe, whereas a less-embellished gown with a simple silhouette or a shorter length may benefit from flashier footwear. If the dress is floor-length, your top priority should be a shoe with a gorgeous toe, noted Hartwig. And if your dress exposes your calves, skip anything with ankle straps, as they can make legs look shorter and thicker.

When it comes to color, white, ivory and other delicate neutrals or even metallics such as silver and gold tend to be a safe bet. But these days, more and more brides are interested in wearing shoes with accents, patterns or a splash of color – your “something blue,” perhaps. These choices are perfectly acceptable as long as they enhance your gown and overall look and suit your personality, said Hartwig. But, Leonard added, make sure this statement shoe is formal enough to match the style of dress, as you don’t want the combination to be garish.

Respect the main event

Leonard also advised taking a style cue from the formality of the event itself. Pumps and strappy high heels are appropriate for more formal, inside and evening nuptials; more casual garden and farm parties call for chunkier heels or wedges so that you don’t sink into the ground; and for the beach, it’s flats, sandals or even barefoot.

Something more personal such as cowboy boots is fabulous if you’re having a western-themed wedding, but outside those margins they’re out of place, said Hartwig. And even if you’re an avid runner, it’s best to wait to slip into your favorite sneakers until after the ceremony.

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I was forced to marry a stranger - child bride

“Things moved faster than I expected - when a stranger paid a bride price to my parents. I had no say in the matter,” she says, tears welling in her eyes.

“I didn’t choose this life and I’m not happy here.”

Agnes agreed to speak on condition that we do not identify her. The BBC was also able to speak to her because her husband was away.

Wearing a striped T-shirt and a colourful sarong, Agness has a nervous and sad manner about her.

When we met her, she was going about her daily chores, washing dishes, cleaning and then starting a fire to prepare the evening meal.

It is not difficult to see how desperate her life is, her heels are cracked, and her nail polish is wearing off.


Early and forced marriages are common in Zambia. But this traditional practice doesn’t just happen in Africa, it’s a problem globally.

I was forced to marry a stranger - child bride
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It is estimated that 14 million girls are forced into marriage before their 18th birthday every year - causing their childhoods to come to a sudden and unexpected end.

Agnes is desperate to escape her new wretched life but fears that her parents would disown her for the disgrace that comes with being a run-away bride.

Poverty and tradition are said to be behind this practice, which is most common in rural areas.

Parents see their daughters as a source of income and even wealth, those opposed to the practice say.

Fortunately, some are beginning to speak out against the practice.

Chief Chamuka VI of Zambia’ Lenje people wants young girls to be kept in school.

He has summoned his subjects to a meeting under a giant tree. The villagers sing, shout his clan name and clap as they see their chief approaching.

He commands respect. Community members who attended the meeting didn’t disagree with anything he says.

Chief Chamuka, dressed in his traditional regalia - a black and red robe with a matching hat with feathers on it - addresses them about the dangers of child marriages.

“In my chiefdom, the stance which I have taken is that no parent shall force a girl below the age of 18 to be married. A parent who does that will be severely punished,” he says.

Traditional leaders who denounce early marriage are usually frowned upon by those who believe they are defying old customs and norms that have been passed on from generation to generation.

But the chief’s conviction seems unrelenting.

“I feel that in our communities there are certain customs and cultural practices that are good and some are bad - this has to stop,” he says.

Lasting effects

Those forced into child marriage feel the effects for the rest of their lives.

Beatrice Chikwekwe got married when she was 15, she is now 32.

“I was terrified and confused on my wedding day, I didn’t even know what I was doing,” she says.

“I fell pregnant the same year and had complications while giving birth. I nearly died.”

Ms Chikwekwe is doing her final year at the local college of agriculture, trying to make up for the time she lost.

For many though, there is no fairytale ending.

Campaign group Girls Not Brides says child marriage traps girls and their families in a “cycle of poverty”.

“Girls who marry young do not receive the educational and economic opportunities that help lift them and their families out of poverty,” it says in a statement.

Graca Machel, widow of Nelson Mandela and one of the group’s patrons, told the BBC that traditions are not set in stone.

“Traditions are manmade and harmful traditions must be changed. As parents we don’t have the right to dictate the choices that our children make,” she says.

“We need to change the way families and communities view a girl. The girl-child needs to be seen as a full human being with dreams, aspirations and with the ability to thrive to the highest potential just like a boy-child.”

It is estimated that girls who become pregnant before their 14th birthday are five times more likely to die while giving birth.

Back in Chibombo, aid agency Plan International Zambia is working with traditional leaders, government and other groups to rescue girls like Agnes from forced marriages.

“Where there is poverty, children are prone to abuse. We are working on educating communities about children’s rights which need to be respected,” says Plan spokesman Lazarus Mwale.

With her voice trembling, Agnes sums up her dilemma.

“Sometimes it is hard to defy our parents because it is disrespectful, but we can’t continue to allow them to make choices that are bad for us,” she says.

“It was my wish to finish school and become a nurse but I guess that will never happen because my husband won’t allow me to further my studies.”

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