When we were pondering talking about the idea of “Change of Plans” this week and how changing plans is somehow the very core of wedding planning (both its hell and its unexpected joy), I decided that I had to revisit my wedding dress search. For the handful of you who were around reading back when I was getting married, this is a three-years-later reflection on a story you know. But for the rest of you, I hope this encourages you through whatever your particular wedding trial is. And I do mean trial.
For me, finding a wedding dress was fraught right from the start. The wedding dress search somehow boiled down every single aspect of the wedding industry that I disliked into one compact package. Plus, I’ve had a very defined personal style since I was three, (when I flat-out refused to wear anything that wasn’t a skirt out of the house. My poor feminist mother thought she’d failed, but she’d really just gotten a very tiny, very femme feminist). Add to the fact that, I shit you not, when I got my first piggy bank at five, I told my mom I did not want to save for college, I wanted to save for my wedding dress (again, cut to distressed feminist mother). So I cared about the wedding dress, from the get-go. Plus I hated every single modern wedding dress trend. And I really hate the feeling of being ripped off.
For those of you who didn’t see it, just the other week, NPR’s Planet Money team came out with a investigative research video (a must watch, there) that proves without a shadow of a doubt what I suspected with every fiber of my being during wedding dress shopping: the whole thing is a shake down. It’s not that I wasn’t ready to spend good money on a wedding dress (Hello! I’d saved a little yellow piggy bank full of quarters! This is not a joke!) it’s that I wasn’t willing to pay more than twice what a dress was worth, just because it was white and poofy.
And then, everything that could go wrong started to go wrong. A short sum up of things I never shared at the time: I found a short vintage-style dress that I loved (that, funny enough, was basically a slightly less cool copy of the actual vintage dress I would get married in) at a shopping trip with our best man’s wife. I was all set! Then a month later, said wife left said best man, in step one of what would prove to be the world’s most painful divorce. I couldn’t think of the wedding dress without bursting into tears. This seemed like a bad sign. I had another dress shopping trip with amazing Kate (now APW editor) and a brand new close friend… who a few months before the wedding announced her new boyfriend didn’t like us, so she was out of our lives. Amazing. It started to feel like my wedding dress search was cursed. In retrospect, perhaps the universe was delaying me, so I could learn something useful (which is a damn life lesson, if you ask me, and one I always find particularly unpleasant no matter how many times it happens).
Let’s do a quick review of my wedding dress shopping:
Most of the dresses I saw looked like they were designed by a four-year-old girl. The little tiny designer clearly kept stamping her foot and saying “More ruffles! Longer train! Add some bows! Poofy-er! And I want a BIG tiara!”
And then they sent in a 13-year-old girl to bedazzle the dresses (and the veils, and the shoes).
So I stopped by a wedding dress salon on my lunch break the other day, just to see if they had anything that fit the bill. You know: not strapless, not sparkly, not poofy. Since I’m not four, or going to prom, you’d think I’d be in luck. But nooo, of course not.
While I was in the store, I also saw the lovely new layered Vera Wang Dress that the bridal world has been buzzing about. And I can tell you, it’s really pretty, and clearly well crafted. The one problem is, it weighs about fifteen pounds, and it can stand up on its own. How on earth are you going to have fun and dance at your wedding reception while you are dragging around fifteen pounds of dress?
Oh, right. And it’s $11,000. Which is a good price. For a car.
So, I finally swallowed my pride, along with some past bad experiences, and waltzed in the door to a big box wedding store. I’m a bride trying to keep on a budget, after all, so pride is overrated. I was expecting everything in the store to be a sparkling, princess, A-line poof—and I was wrong. There were pretty things.
I put on the dress, and I can absolutely tell you, it was a nice dress. Full stop. There was not a thing in the world wrong with it. I looked lovely in it, the lace was nice, I looked like a bride.
And yet, somehow, it left me with an empty feeling in the pit of my stomach. I looked like A BRIDE, i.e., a dress-up doll of a bride. I looked like a bride, but I didn’t feel a thing like myself. My inner-sass, I’m afraid, was completely muffled.
So here is the crux of the issue. I don’t believe in wedding perfection. I don’t think that you need to have some life changing transcendental “oh mommy” moment when you put on a dress. I have a great life, thanks, I don’t need to find my moment of zen in a wedding dress store. But I do think that we each deserve to feel fabulous on our wedding day, and on my wedding day I would like to feel fully, absolutely, and radically like myself. And I’d rather wear an amazing cocktail dress than a beautiful wedding dress that doesn’t feel a thing like me.
And then the economy fell apart. I was at an investment bank, so I was watching the Dow plummet 700 points a day while people around me were laid-off (and I was our sole breadwinner). I panicked. And in that ugly moment of panic, I hit a small ray of hope and decided to ask my sister to make my wedding dress. I said:
And for starters, I’m going to start asking for more help. So I talked to my sister, and we decided that we’re going to attempt a wedding dress together, with her in charge of the technical aspects and me in charge of the endless pleating. If nothing else, we won’t be bored over Christmas. And that’s a start. And we’re going to figure out the rest, somehow.
And at the very least, at the end, we’ll finally be married. Dealing with economic turmoil, like dealing with everything else, is so much better when there are two of you.
And then, finally we were three months out from the wedding. I had a dress that my sister made me, but something was wrong with it and I couldn’t figure out what (we call this willful blindness, kids). I was sending out increasingly frantic emails/ messages in a bottle to my friends that, “I have no idea what I am going to wear to the wedding! And no matter how laid-back other indie brides are, or how screwed up other people’s planning is, EVERYONE knows what they are going to wear to their wedding.” (I would later find out I was wrong, by the way. Maddie, for example, didn’t get her wedding dress until two weeks before the wedding, after she was informed that her BCBG dress showed her belly button clear as day.) But I was full-out, absolutely and completely panicked. And then in a flurry of tears and tulle, I made this decision:
After we worked on the dress over Christmas, my sister took it to Michigan to finish putting it together. It was a long arduous process, and at some points it looked like she might not be able to finish it in time. But, she worked hard on it, and in April, it arrived. But there were problems. Every time I put on the dress, I felt happy and loved, but I didn’t feel pretty. I would show David, he would say I looked great, and then I would hang up the dress feeling confused and wondering if I should even care how the dress looked.
So over the Fourth of July weekend, I tried on the dress for my mom and sister. I asked my mom to zip up the dress…. and she couldn’t. She asked me how I’d been zipping it up. I told her I’d been holding my breath as much as I could and then yanking. What I’d been in denial about is that the dress didn’t fit. And as my friend Kate said, “It’s hard to feel pretty in a dress that won’t zip up.” True. My options were limited. I could re-build the dress (something we didn’t have time or money to do), wear a girdle (I tried one on, couldn’t breathe, and realized this was not how I wanted to spend my wedding day), or wear a different dress. We were one month away from the wedding.
This should have been an unmitigated disaster, but it wasn’t. In the middle of the is-the-dress-going-to-be-finished-in-time?? period, I walked into a vintage store in the Haight to look at a red cocktail dress. And what I found was the wedding dress that I would have bought at the very beginning if I’d known about it, and it was only $250. I walked out of the store. I had a dress; I didn’t need this vintage dress. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Everyone told me to go try it on, there is no way it would fit, and then I could get it out of my head. So two weeks later I went back. The dress was still there, which was a strange miracle, and it fit like it had been made for me. So I bought it, just as a backup. I called it “understudy dress” and put it in the back of my closet.
After we realized the dress we made didn’t fit, I pulled the vintage dress out again, and everyone agreed it was just right. It’s a white party dress from the 1950s. My dad said that was perfect because what I really want is a great party. It’s lace. It’s tea length. It’s vintage. It took me a while to get my head around the fact that I couldn’t wear the dress we made, but when I did, I realized that this vintage dress that came into my life unbidden, that it insistently wouldn’t go away… it was the right dress.
My wedding dress experience was deeply imperfect, and it was at times painful. But on Sunday, I think it will seem just right. I know that all of the women in my family poured their love into my wedding dress, I know that sometimes big dreams don’t quite work out, and I know endings you would never expect are the best endings of all.
And my dress makes me feel like pure sass.
And the funny thing is? My wedding dress turned out to be one of the best things about the whole wedding. I mean, people gasped when I walked out (unexpected!). And I flipped it over my head to party. It was the dress I had imagined on day one of wedding planning, and it was perfect. When I think of my wedding day, the dress is the one object that sums the whole complex emotional roller-coaster of magic up.
That dress was the unexpected magic of learning to accept what the world has in store for you, instead of trying to gently cram your controlling ideas of what you’ve decided is obviously right, down the jaws of the world. That wedding dress was a life lesson. And a damn cute one.
And also, if you feel in your bones that the wedding industry is ripping you off, and everything about it feels wrong? Listen to yourself. And whatever disaster of wedding (or life) planning you’re currently having? Allow yourself to consider, if only for a second, the fact that this very disaster might be a tiny miracle in waiting.
Photo: Me on my wedding day, by One Love Photo