My Feminism, Dressed In Tulle

My feminist wedding dress was pink and fluffy. Surprise!

My Feminism, Dressed In Tulle | A Practical Weddingby Sara Downey Robinson

I’ve been engaged three times. I used to feel really embarrassed about that, but now I just sorta own it. That also means, I’ve been on three very serious wedding dress shopping missions. And I want to say early on, this is not a sad story. Just one of evolution.

One shopping mission came up empty, much like the engagement. It just wasn’t meant to be. Hugs to those dresses and that boy.

The next one was a hot mess. I bought a dress, then hated it and hired a seamstress to basically turn it into a completely different dress. Now, if wedding dress choices reflect the status of an engagement then I was two for two. The engagement was also a hot mess, and while I tried to transform it into something other than what it was, it just didn’t work. But y’all already know that story.

Then I met my husband. By this time in my life I was in love with bridal fashion. Say Yes to ALL THE DRESSES! But seriously, I get a bit misty just thinking of tulle, organza, petticoats, lace, and silk. I’m pretty sure I was bridal browsing just months after beginning to date my husband. Secretly of course. I didn’t want him or my girlfriends to think I was crazy.

I think bridal fashion was tied very closely to feminism for me (which I didn’t realize until thinking long and hard on it this month). In so many senses I deeply felt I needed a dress I could wear again. It symbolized the idea that a wedding wasn’t a waste to me. Men could wear their suits, tuxedos, ties, shoes, etc., again, but women were damned to buy a dress and wear it only once—and only for a handful of hours at that. Bullshit! How is that fair?

During my first two dress shopping missions, this had been an important factor. I needed a dress I could wear more than once. As I became engaged to my husband that idea shifted. Then it changed completely. I had been so practical, but goddamnit, now I just wanted to go all out and have a dress that was as special as my love for my husband. I wanted something that I would NEVER be able to wear again—because it marked that very special moment in my life.

Had I lost my only feminist ideal? Believe me, I pondered that fact as I poured over picture after picture of opulent gowns. Bigger! No, be practical. More tulle! Stop it, you’re just feeding into being dominated by male traditions. PINK!!!!! Oh lord, I figured I had my feminism in my wallet and was ready to exchange it for the biggest ball gown I could find.

The one thing I was adamant about: I would be a one-dress bride. None of this having one dress for the ceremony, then another for the reception. Nope. I would fully commit to one dress. It was my way of bargaining for the implicit vanity and laying down my feminist sword.

I had two very strong contenders. And they were so very different. I loved both dresses equally, but knew I could only have one as per my parameter. And I’m thirty-three. I can’t go prancing around in multiple dresses. I wasn’t willing to trade my dignity as well.

My two best girlfriends. My two extremely stylish nieces. My sister-in-law. I crowdsourced for opinions. It came back as mixed bag.

One day while comparing the dresses for the five-hundredth time, I realized that this dress meant everything to me. I was definitely in no way a feminist anymore. Right? Because I was way too focused on fabric and ruching. My sensible side was on vacation and all I cared about was getting the “right” dress.

If I could toss sound effects into posts there would be a record scratch right here.

Looking back I see that nothing was lost. I hadn’t traded away any values. I was just excited. And that is okay. More than okay actually. I wasn’t a bad feminist (and I use that term lightly with myself as I’m still defining what it means to me) because I drool over bridal fashion.

When it came down to it, I ended up as the biggest bridal fashion hypocrite. I had two dresses. Two dresses that I’ll never wear again. One I got in the magical thrift shop four hours before I got married. The other was a custom made, completely over-the-top, pink number that my sister called a unicorn dress (I think that’s good) that I wore to the party. I could have picked dresses or a dress that I would have gotten more mileage out of, but ohmygoshpinkruffles! All in, just like my engagement. Now I was three for three. Or three for four? Math is not my strong suit.

The one thing that I did learn is that I need to not judge bridal fashion choices. It’s not a statement on the person’s feminist beliefs if they wear a fluffy tulle ball gown. And on the flip-side a dress that can be worn again is great too. And who the fuck cares how old you are. You’re never too old to look fabulous. Not everyone gets three engagements to sort out their feelings on bridal fashion and how it intersects with their ideals. I’m really lucky I had that opportunity. And to pay it forward, I can simply support my sisterhood (which does not include interjecting my personal anecdotes) and hold back on the snark.

Photo by Tim Davids

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  • KC

    That is a glorious dress.

    Reading old books, I do kind of miss the days when the wedding dress was then your “best” dress for sometimes a kind of long time, so you might tell your kids, for instance, as you’re getting dressed up for an event, that this was the dress you got married to their father in. (isn’t that mushy and sweet?)

    But on the other hand, having that “this is such an incredibly special day and commitment that I’m going all-in” sort of dress is awesome, too. (and also, how many of us have frequent natural opportunities to wear even semi-fancy dresses? “Dressy casual” is more common at the parties I go to…) And even more awesome when it’s a Dress Unicorn (or, um, where they’re both fabulous dresses).

    I also totally agree that increased age should not mean increased-conforming-to-more-utilitarian-and-less-frilly-weddings. If there’s anything age/experience gives us, it’s having a better sense of what we want, so there’s an even better reason to go with what you do want, whether it’s “sensible” or not.

    • Laura C

      I have two dreams for my (silver lace) dress: 1) That I fit into it on my wedding day in August and 2) that I also fit into it in January 2017 and there’s a Democratic president-elect for me to wear it to inauguration parties for.

      • KC

        I think I want to get invited to your inauguration parties. :-)

        • Ditto! My mom still has the black, velvet gown she wore to Clinton’s first inauguration, and you just reminded me to see if it’ll fit me when I go home for the holidays!

        • Laura C

          This last one, my fiance’s aunt got all the political people in the family tickets to an Asian-American gala kind of deal the night before the inauguration and I actually wore the dress I’d gotten for the night-before parties in 2009. I think I’m retiring that dress now, though. It might be a little young for me. So having my wedding dress take its place if possible seems nice, especially since the 2009 inauguration was when we were just starting to come out as a couple.

    • I have that “best dress from the wedding” thing going on w/my elopement dress. And eating my cake too, I suppose, in wearing the big white number I borrowed from a friend for the celebration. :)

      • My plan for my elopement dress is to wear it on fancy anniversary dates. I mean, why not?

  • lady brett

    i feel that it is totally appropriate for this article that generally speaking i am not fond of pink, tulle, ruffles, strapless dresses or major fanciness…and i had a total “oooh, that dress is *so pretty*!” moment looking at that picture. =)

  • Stephanie

    When I (eventually) get married, my hope is that whatever dress I get custom made will be able to be shortened and worn again, maybe on anniversaries or something!

  • Kait

    “Had I lost my only feminist ideal? Believe me, I pondered that fact as I poured over picture after picture of opulent gowns.”

    Sara – thanks for this. I’ve also struggled with sentiments like this as it relates to engagement rings.

    My partner picked out a ring that suited me and my style perfectly but I spent the begining of our engagement questioning whether I was losing my feminist ideals by both wearing a ring and on top of it one that has a halo around the center stone (which has been critized often in the comments here and elsewhere).

    It took me a while to come to similar conlusion as you. It met my only real condition that it was ethically sourced and made of Canadian diamonds.

    It’s discussions like the ones that have being going on this month that have really made me think about Meg’s origionally question – where am I fighting and where I’m not. Defending a ring my partner chose very carefully is not where I’m choosing to fight.

    • I didn’t know halos around the center stone were out of vogue. My engagement ring was a champagne diamond center stone with a blue diamond halo and then a white diamond halo. :)

      I love that you brought it back to Meg’s original question!

    • KC

      I think a lot of things that often get criticized in comments here are styles that are so predominant that people are getting annoyed by having them pushed on them by vendors or having to dig through tons of examples of them to get to their preferred thing-that-is-not-that-style. So, not exactly a reaction against the style itself on other people (although it often comes across that way), but an “argh, I personally want a non-white wedding dress and these stupid ubiquitous white dresses are getting in the way of me finding my dream dress!”. (ditto for not-strapless dresses, or engagement rings without diamonds, etc.)

      Although there’s also a bit of a parallel to an aspect of feminism there; if 98% of brides go for strapless dresses, then it’s going to be harder for the 2% who really, really hate strapless dresses to find something not-strapless. So sometimes there can be anger against those who support the style itself, whether that’s reasonable or unreasonable. (is it a sort-of duty of brides who don’t care enormously, and who have the option, to buy dresses with straps so as to support the market so that options remain for those who really don’t want strapless dresses? Um…?)

    • This reminds me of on Sex and the City when Carrie is distraught about the ring that Aidan is planning to give her. She describes it to her friends with disgust and they are all nodding in agreement about how hideous it sounds.

      As though there is only one kind of correct ring and any girl would know what it was.

      I hated that they were so dismissive of people who might have found that ring beautiful!

  • Alison O

    It’s interesting to untangle the feelings you had about getting a re-wearable wedding dress in relation to feminism.

    On the one hand, my understanding is that you associated feminism with being “practical”. It seems like you may have unknowingly bought into the stereotype of feminism as not FUN; it is serious, austere, (f)rigid, even angry. The dilemma you experienced is ironic in that case, for in going for the poofy dress you actually would have been more refuting the wider culture’s negative view of feminism rather than giving up an actual feminist ideal.

    On the other hand, I could also read into it that what you didn’t like about women’s dresses being impractical was that it bolstered the view and treatment of women as objects, to be pretty, not serious or sensible creatures, being ‘given away’ to a man as a nicely wrapped gift. The groom’s more “serious” attire reflects that he’s more competent, able to enter the marriage with real agency, and taken seriously. (That said, I think a lot of men who buy tuxes don’t wear them again. That’s why many choose to rent. But I guess renting something you’re not going to wear is more “practical” than buying it.)

    On the whole, I don’t link feminism with style or practicality. I mean, if you saw a bride in a mohawk and simple suit, would you think she’s more of a feminist than one in a pink ball gown? Assumptions about which bride is more of a feminist would likely just play into feminist stereotypes again. And, to boot, mohawks are not practical. So I think your conclusion about reserving judgment is apt.

    Anndddd “Blurred Lines” is on the radio right now.

  • Oh that dress!

    *that comment does not negate my feminism or yours!

  • MC

    Is that Cheesman Park in Denver?? My future sister-in-law got married there last fall!

    • It is! One of my favorite places.

      • MC

        Yay! I grew up in Colorado and I agree, Cheesman Park is up there on the list of wonderful places.

  • C

    I’m soooooooo glad to read this. I’m a second-time bride and a feminist and wanted to purchase a dress that represented those two things about me. I wanted something simple, something elegant, something classy, something I could wear again. I needed to be demure; after all, I’m a second-time bride. I needed to be practical, after all, I’m a feminist and I don’t care about poofy white dresses.

    Aaaand then I blew my budget on a gorgeous, off-white, a-line dress that can definitely be described in some circles as a) poofy, b) white, and c) something I’ll never wear again. (Okay, the third of those is definitely true.) But you know, when I put on that damn dress, I felt amazing. I felt the way I want to feel on my wedding day. I realized that I was trying to shoe-horn myself into what I thought people *expected* me to look like on my wedding day – someone who isn’t trying too hard to be a bride because she’s done it before and because she’s an egalitarian feminist who doesn’t care about pretty dresses. And you know, maybe I have done it before, and maybe I am a feminist, but that doesn’t mean I don’t deserve to look amazing *on my own terms, on my own wedding day.*

    So yay for poofy, impractical dresses and for the feminists who wear them!

  • I think this is a great article – we get such a variety of brides and love stories and so forth, nothing is common in the industry anymore. I feel like a wedding day is what you want it to be today, not what your mom wants it to be or grandma thinks it should. No secret that brides and grooms for that matter have more say than ever, and are contributing to the budget more than ever. In any event – we see all kinds of dresses and I suppose they do say something about the person. Cheers.

  • Valerie S

    Wait, you bought a dress four hours before your wedding in a thrift store? Have you already written that story? I would like to hear it!

  • It’s interesting how dress choices can be reflective of relationships sometimes. I was engaged twice and what I was looking for in a dress was, indeed, extremely different the second time.

  • cpk

    I appreciate this article so much, and absolutely love this website! Thanks for the great work!!

  • Liz

    “And who the fuck cares how old you are. You’re never too old to look fabulous. Not everyone gets three engagements to sort out their feelings on bridal fashion and how it intersects with their ideals. I’m really lucky I had that opportunity.” This. As a second-time bride I feel like I have to tone it down this time around, that somehow I have to fit into what is expected of do-over brides, but the thing is that the first marriage went wrong BECAUSE I was trying to fit into what was expected. It took that (rather expensive) experience to learn how to be myself and that lesson should apply to the wedding too. I was lucky enough to have the experience so I know what kind of bride I am not and what kind of big-tulle-skirt bride I am. Thank you. :-)