Priscilla Kidder, at 86; her style adorned famous brides

By Tom Long
Globe Staff / December 4, 2003

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Priscilla Comins Kidder, the Boston designer whose name became synonymous with bridal fashion, died Sunday in her home in Winchester. She was 86.

Mrs. Kidder was the founder of Priscilla of Boston, a fashion house that defined elegance in bridal fashion.

"She designed a classic dress, the dress that became the icon of the American wedding," Millie Martini Bratten, the editor-in-chief of Bride's magazine, said yesterday.

According to Bratten, buying a bridal gown is an "emotionally charged purchase that symbolizes an enormous change in your life," particularly for those who were getting married early in Mrs. Kidder's career. Then, young women "went right from the care of their parents to the care of their husband."

Mrs. Kidder first gained international attention when she designed gowns for the 1956 wedding of movie actress Grace Kelly and Monaco's Prince Rainier. Technicolor newsreels of the event showcased her work around the world.

Her reputation was enhanced when she designed the wedding gowns for presidential daughters Luci Baines Johnson, and Julie and Tricia Nixon.

"After Tricia Nixon got married in the White House everyone wanted to have a gown like hers," said Bratten.

Mrs. Kidder was born in Quincy. After graduating from New England School of Design, she was a buyer in the bridal section of R.H. White department store in Boston. She once said she was not impressed by the store's bridal fashions, so she opened her own shop on Newbury Street in 1948.

"When I first went to Newbury Street there were chauffeured cars and women in hats and white gloves," she said in a story published in the Globe in 1993.

"As her business grew, she grew with it," Waltham fashion designer Yolanda Cellucci said yesterday. "She became the leading bridal entrepreneur in the Boston area."

It became a rite of passage for some young women to visit the Priscilla of Boston showroom on Newbury Street, where the marble floors, antique furniture, and dried flower arrangements were as elegant as the gowns.

But it was best not to dawdle. In an article published in the June 1991 issue of Boston magazine, Mrs. Kidder estimated that it cost about $120 for every hour a bride spent being fitted in her gallery. "Time is money," she said. "If I wait on her four times, I don't make a bit of profit on the dress."

Mrs. Kidder and her staff once made a $22,000 dress with inlaid diamonds for a European wedding. The majority of her gowns sold for about $1,800 and were made in a Charlestown facility where she employed about 70 people.

And why is the traditional wedding dress always white?

"White doesn't stand for purity," Mrs. Kidder said in the Globe interview in 1993, the year she sold the store. "I think it began with Queen Victoria, she wore white to shock everybody. I always say that it stands for security."

And the color was not the only security a bride got when she purchased a gown at Priscilla of Boston. "All our dresses have extra seams," she said.

Mrs. Kidder leaves two sons, Robert T. of Ipswich and Richard S. of Boston; a daughter, Betsy of Ipswich; a sister, Natalie Cahill of Reading; and five grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Dec. 15 in Winchester Unitarian Church.