Monday, January 11, 2010

Something White

I got married in 2001. A researcher by nature, I became obsessively interested in the bridal industry, and considered writing a book about my experience. I didn't get very far, but here is a piece from a chapter on wedding dresses. Since you've probably been panting for a new post all week, and I'm still preparing the birthday party report, here you go...enjoy.

I had already been looking at dresses for some time. The bridal magazines were crammed with them, and that was just the ads! I’d even drawn a few prototypes, which got raised eyebrows from David, who hadn’t even proposed. In my drawings, I included some kooky details like bustles of satin roses, and miles of covered buttons. None of those ended up on the actual dress. But in the end, my dress wasn't far off those pictures.

I knew I wanted a ballgown skirt. It’s so cliched, the idea of being the bridal princess, but I didn’t care! It was my one chance to do it. My mother was annoyed; she wanted me to “show off my figure” in a slim-fitting sheath, something simple and elegant. That just wasn’t me. Simple nor elegant I’ll never be. I even went so far as to consider a hoop skirt, a big wire-ringed slip ala Scarlett O'Hara that would ensure no one could get within five feet of me the entire night, even my new husband. I loved sitting down in the hoop, which would then sproing the rest of the dress around me, leaving my head looking like the topper to a very large wedding cake. Fun, but impractical.

Can we talk about that concept for a minute? Practicality? That really doesn’t come into bridal gown shopping, unless you get one of those nightgown styles that looked like I ought to be sitting in front of a vanity mirror with a monogrammed silver brush doing my hundred nightly strokes. We’re talking about a dress that you can’t just purchase, but have to cultivate a very long relationship with a lot of annoying people to obtain. We’re talking about the most expensive piece of clothing you’ll probably ever buy, but will then wear only ONCE. We're talking about a dress you're later supposed to pay someone to vacuum seal into a decorative box, where it will remain trapped for eternity, or at least until your daughter can turn her nose up at it.

And yet very few people are cynical about the purchase of wedding dresses. There is a lot of lore of mothers and sisters weeping in the salons, so overcome by the vision of the lady in white and all its implications. I didn’t shop with relatives, but I still experienced that magical feeling of prancing in front of several walls of mirrors on a carpeted dais with a stupid smile on my face. Even the ugly dresses are a perfect thrill to put on. I remember at one place I was kitted out in elbow-length satin gloves, a tall paste crown, 10-foot veil, and glass slippers, I kid you not. Then the saleswoman placed a massive fake bouquet in my hand, and I was ready to waltz out the door and through the next several months in this outfit, so wonderful did I feel.

There are the girls that go to their local salon, try on a couple of dresses, and then step into “the one.” This is supposed to be a moment where angels sing, and some sort of white light surrounds you. It didn’t quite happen for me that way. I kept having that feeling wherever I went. I lost five pounds during the month I was shopping for gowns, because I couldn’t stop shopping, and hauling oneself in and out of a 50-pound dress, not to mention squeezing into bustiers and slips so big I couldn’t find my feet, takes a toll on the body. Each day I found myself back in the car hurtling down strange boulevards, looking for bridal salons I had read about in magazines or on the internet. Sometimes they had closed down, and had ominous hand-written signs taped on the windows about who to call if you’ve already bought a dress. It would seem that bridal finery is a difficult business for attracting repeat customers, if you know what I mean. If they can’t make it on referrals and markups, they're not going to survive.

One salon I visited made me instantly nervous. It was a sort of cavernous hallway, with a row of dresses on each side. At the far end of the room I could see a tiny person behind a large desk. There was a hushed feeling to the place, as if any talking would be unseemly, and the place was empty except for me and the woman at the desk. I approached her, and she took an inordinately long time dragging her eyes from her magazine. “Yes?”

“Hi, uh, I thought I might look at some wedding gowns.”

“Okay.” She returned her attention to the magazine.

“Um, is there anything I should be aware of? For instance, how are the dresses arranged?”

“Everything on my right is under a thousand dollars; everything on my left is over a thousand.”

I was stunned. So was she going to judge me depending on which side of the room I approached? Why, yes she was. I was flipping through some dresses on the “under a thousand” side when “See anything you like?” had me prying my finger nails out of the popcorn ceiling. Having approached me with great stealth, there was now another woman standing very close to me, severe in a black suit and dark lipstick.

“Um, well I’m looking for a tulle gown.”

“Tulle?” she snapped. “We’ve got plenty of tulle.” She strode across the Great Divide and started pulling armloads of dresses from the rack. “How about this one? And this? What about strapless?”

A word about strapless. In the season I was searching, it was all the rage. Suddenly every gown was completely bare above the bodice. The problem was, every time I tried one, it gave me a condition I named Shelf Bosom. My bustline was suddenly so shiny and white and high and well, prominent, I was concerned that guests might get confused and use it to stash their drinks and purses during the reception.

I demurred. “Well, strapless just doesn’t seem to fit me right…” A well-manicured hand flew into the air, silencing my foolishness.

“Our seamstress…” she said slowly but loudly, as if I had proved myself a bit dim, “is from EUROPE. I have no concerns on the subject of fit. Now, how about this one? Shall I put it in a room for you?” I hesitated, apparently, a little too long. “You know, don’t try these on just to please me. Frankly it’s a lot of work for me. Do you like them or not?”

“I think I’m just going to look for a few minutes first,” I managed to squeak.

“Fine,” she said, and marched away.

Suddenly, I realized that I didn’t feel safe standing in my underwear with this woman. I just wanted to be very far away from this salon. I turned and fled at full speed, down the stairs and into my car, careening out of the parking lot to safety. I was free! Less than three months later I read in the paper that this salon had gone out of business. I also heard that brides who had already purchased dresses were having to meet people in dark glasses in parking lots to get their dresses out of the trunks of cars. I felt I had perhaps narrowly avoided a world of wedding hurt I could only imagine.

Another condition I urgently wanted to avoid was the one where you have yards of fabric hanging from the back of the dress. In the bridal industry, I believe it’s called a "train.” Whatever it's called, it means there’s a heavy, white dust cloth trailing you, quickly to be coated with black filth, and later, pinned to your rump in elaborate folds and twists by some frantic women you're probably related to like some birthday game gone wrong. Then, you spend the rest of the night with a yardage sale enhancing your (in my case already ample) ass. Yet when I tried on dresses with trains (all of them) and cheerfully mentioned to the salespeople that I was planning to cut them off (after all, is this really that much harder than hemming it?) they would moan and grab their throats and flutter their eyelids in a manner suggesting I'd just announced I was planning to carry a bloody severed head down the aisle instead of a bouquet.


Stephanie said...

Now that's a visual! You must revisit the idea of a book! The wedding industry could stand a little more humor, particularly bloody, severed head humor!!

Anonymous said...

More! (please)

I went to umpteen thousand and twenty salons. I was hundreds of miles from relatives, so I recruited no-doubt-befuddled acquaintances to accompany me. Former boss? Sure! Come in this tiny room and see me just about naked!

But I loved every minute of it, like you.

Love your stories.


Myrnie said...

Heh :) Wedding and dating are two things I NEVER want to do again. (My aunt made my very, very simple dress. No fitting room angels for me, either :)

DrSpouse said...

We thought about writing the Rough Guide to Weddings after spending so much time planning ours...

miss. chief said...

WOW, I think you should still write this book. Even if it's not all about weddings. Because that? Was super interesting.

erin said...

Their seamstress is from Europe! As if it's a small militia at the bottom of a mountain that trains it's young children in the art of sewing from age 3 months.

Anonymous said...

You had me up until the train... I loved my train and I didn't think the bustle was at all ass-enhancing, after all it is pinned down near your calves and mine just seemed like some extra fabric down there. But reading this made me so nostalgic for wedding dress shopping, I feel like taking off my wedding ring and prancing into a salon to try on dresses! :) Lix

Samantha said...

@Steph: Thanks, dear!
@Caroline: LOL about the boss. I did that, too. Everybody passed through that dressing room. ;)
@Myrnie: I so wanted someone to sew my dress! But I don't know any sew-y people...except you and your sister! :)
@Dr.: So, did you inquire about that?
@Miss: Thank you!
@Erin: That's awesome. I wouldn't be surprised. ;)
@Lix: Your dress was stunning, and you in it. But you didn't have a super-dancey wedding. I think my fear of trains had to do with the amount of vogue-ing I knew I wanted to do. ;) And not so much about the boo-tay enhancement. ;)

The Wades said...

I would buy the book today! I love anything you write. How random to come here today and find a post about wedding dresses. Love that. I sure wish you'd post a pic of your dress. :)

Mary said...

Love it!



p.s. After arguing with my mom about the price of a very costly dress, I found mine for $250!