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Behind the Veil

To enter Vows at 764 S. Fourth St. on Fabric Row is to pass into a fairy-tale world of princesses and happily-ever-afters.

Dark pink walls with floral trim cast a romantic glow on the dozens of custom-made veils and headpieces that adorn the shelves. Vintage wedding portraits, lace table runners, flowers and soothing classical music only up the romance factor.

South Philly native Patricia A. Grooms’ love affair with romance started at a young age. As early as sixth grade, the veil-maker says she knew she wanted to be a fashion designer.

There was just one problem.

The little girl who grew up on 20th Street near Federal couldn’t draw — and to this day still can’t.

Grooms, 51, just happens to be one of those lucky people who can replicate a picture by sight.

"It’s a gift from God. I do know that. I can copy anything from a picture. There are no patterns for anything I’ve ever made," she maintains.

With no formal training or drawing skills, Grooms turned to making doll clothes.

In 1981, she made a doll for Princess Diana and sent it to her as a wedding gift. Equipped with nothing but a picture of the royal bride’s gown, Grooms created an exact reproduction of the wedding dress, and shipped the doll across the Atlantic.

A thank-you letter on Buckingham Palace stationery from one of Her Royal Highness’ ladies-in-waiting is among Grooms’ most cherished possessions, safely tucked away in a scrapbook.

The royal doll and her designer made big news, as the Philadelphia Inquirer featured Grooms in a full-page spread. As a result of the publicity, Grooms’ doll career boomed from 1984-87.

Around the same time, the designer became a familiar face at the John Wanamaker department store doll shows of the day.

"Wanamaker had the most prestigious doll shows," she says. Sadly, the shows ended when the legendary department store closed its toy section in the late ’80s, she adds.

Grooms got into the veil business almost by accident.

In 1987, she planned to open a doll shop across the street from Vows’ current location. Her sister Lois, who today owns a hair salon at 40th and Market streets, would use the second floor for her beauty shop.

Since all the expenses for the business were out-of-pocket, Grooms says the sisters needed to recoup the money immediately.

At that time, South and Fourth streets were home to many high-profile bridal shops. So Grooms got the idea to open a veil shop, figuring she could make more money in the bridal business.

Having made only four veils to that point, and with just two weeks to change the store over from a doll shop, Grooms put her sewing fingers to work. Customers began to file in because Vows was the only shop in the area where brides could order custom-made veils.

Grooms’ creations have appeared in national magazines such as Modern Bride and Elegant Bride.

The designer says veils average around $200, but the most expensive headpiece she ever made cost $2,500.

Foreign brides also favor Grooms’ designs, as she’s created headpieces for women all over the world — Trinidad, Scotland, Spain, Africa and Puerto Rico.

"So here I am and it’s so exciting. I love brides. I spent my childhood dreaming about getting married, finding a husband, having children and raising a family," she coos.

While some feminists might take offense at Grooms’ admission, this was after all the 1950s, when society viewed marriage as the cornerstone of wholesome family values.

The designer’s face lights up when she’s asked to recall her own wedding in 1970 to Michael Grooms, a South Philly boy who was born and raised at 19th and Catharine streets. Naturally, Grooms made her own veil, but her mother made the wedding dress.

The ceremony and reception, with 400 guests in attendance, took place at Pentecostal Bridegroom Church, located for 50 years at Ninth and Lombard streets. The church since has moved to Germantown.

The irony of her church and husband’s names was not lost on the blushing bride. "I’m in the bridal business, I married a man with the last name of Grooms and I got married at a church named Bridegroom," she says with a laugh.

Both of Grooms’ daughters, Dionne M. Fields, 30, and Andrea James, 28, had big weddings, too. No need to guess who made their veils.

Today, Fields is the manager of Vows, while James lives in Michigan with her husband and two daughters. Grooms believes elaborate weddings are a South Philly way of life.

"South Philly people have big weddings. You know, with the serenades and all that. They decorate their houses, and the women still get dressed at home, just like in the olden days," she says.

Grooms’ South Philly roots run three generations deep. Her maternal great-grandparents lived at 20th and Reed streets. Her late father was famous South Philly boxer Jetson Arnold, to whom the Inquirer paid tribute when he died.

Her mother, Mae Arnold, is a Native American and an accomplished ceramist and potter. She still lives in the same house in which she grew up on 20th Street near Federal. Her first home was on nearby Beechwood Street.

"That was when Beechwood still had outhouses," says Grooms.

Today, her mother, along with Grooms’ sister Carol, a fashion and drapery designer, co-own a shop called Mae’s Potters House on Point Breeze Avenue between Dickinson and Reed streets.

Aunts and uncles still live in the old neighborhood. Grooms’ aunt Rosetta Powell and uncle Sylvester live in the same house in which her grandmother resided. The rose garden there dates back 60 years.

Grooms even recalls buying ice from the icehouse that used to stand at 21st Street and Point Breeze Avenue.

The designer admits she left her beloved South Philly two years ago for Clementon, N.J., but claims it wasn’t her decision.

"That’s my husband’s doing," she says. "But when it came time to reopen my store, I came back to South Philly. I’m a South Philadelphian, born and bred."

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