Life, death and the meaning of a wedding dress

Collage by Laura Snelgrove and Lauren Downing.

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This winter, I attended The Great Bridal Expo with three friends, primarily as an experiment. Not that we wouldn't have accepted the free trip to Jamaica if we'd won the raffle, but it would have been hard to claim the prize anyway, since we gave fake information to most of the eager booth attendants looking to lock us down for their mailing lists.

Looking up at the runway as models paraded the latest synthetic-and-bead confections, I realized that my own wearing of anything of that ilk would essentially amount to a drag show. That particular bridal version of 'femininity' has less than nothing to do with my own gender identity, and even less to do with committing my love to anyone. Nevertheless, I am technically a bride.

One year ago, I married a super cool and fun dude. Skipping the boring details, I will just say that after many other options were exhausted, we realized that a city hall marriage was necessary, now. We nailed down two witnesses, called our parents and grandparents ("Can we come?" "Naah don't bother"), and I bought an inexpensive navy sundress I knew I would wear all summer.

I won't pretend I didn't practice my full wedding-day look in the mirror a handful of times, but all things considered, the preparation was insanely low-key. The day itself (coinciding with New York State's ratification of marriage equality! Woohoo!) was equally no-fuss and, suddenly, we were married. We promised our families that we would follow it up with a ‘real' wedding at home this coming summer, and we now find ourselves preparing for this bizarre, emotionally-charged second event.

I need to back up a little and confess something. Although I no longer recognize that person, I grew up as obsessed with weddings as any child that ever existed. I had a 'wedding ideas' scrapbook (aka lo-fi Pinterest board) filled with pictures of dresses, cakes, invitations, shoes and decorating schemes from Martha Stewart Weddings and InStyle Weddings (barf).

From the time I was six or seven, I kept a binder of make-believe wedding plans for people I had invented, complete with seating plans, vendor information, menus and sketches of gowns. I admit to this only to convince you that my wholesale abandonment of and scorn for the wedding industry has been arrived at honestly. I have lived the other side of that breathless what-gown-will-I-wear-omg-it-has-to-be-the-best-one-so-I-look-beautiful-in-all-the-pictures experience, and it is all a load of bullshit.

Like many of you, most likely, I believed that the white wedding dress maintained its chokehold on the hearts and minds of brides and their families because of its cultural associations with purity until I read Molly Rottman's piece [published in Fashion Studies Journal, where this article was first published.] Though I do feel some relief to hear that it is not so simple, it seems as though the collective assumption of this symbolic link essentially performs the same function; that is to say, if everyone thinks that white symbolizes virginity, then it kind of does. Furthermore, if the historical connection is actually to the display of wealth and status, well then, fuck that noise too. I'm not sure that's any better, and it certainly has just as little to do with me and my state of mind upon marrying my best bud.

Though I do feel strongly that women are misled and cheated into wasting enormous sums of money by the bridal industry, I do not wish to focus on this for fear of offending anyone who has chosen to buy into the whole charade. That is your choice, though I wish you'd make another one, because I love you. Instead, this is meant to be a reflection on the process of creating a dress that can provide me the same satisfaction and comfort that those white satin whatzits seem to provide ladies on TV.

Dressing for any party is usually a process of trying to feel as good as you can under certain constraints including time, what's clean that day,] and how much you actually care. None of these constraints really apply on one's wedding day, but the desire to feel as good as possible about one's clothes is the same, only heightened. I don't care much about how I'll look in photographs (it's never good, so why try), but I get the sense that with more people than average paying attention to me on that day, I don't want to be distracted by feelings of discomfort, either physical or the mental kind that comes from wearing something not quite right. To me, the solution is obvious. I will of course wear red, because red is the best color in the world.

The look of the dress I will be wearing came to me in a vision. One day I didn't know what on earth I'd wear to my own wedding, the next day I knew exactly: it's got cap sleeves and a square neckline, a fitted bodice and a big, voluminous skirt to just above the knee. The veil is shoulder-length, stiff, and navy blue. The face underneath it is mine, though weirdly enough the hair is Kate Middleton's. I looked for this dress everywhere for months, but it never materialized in its ideal form.

Thankfully, I have two wonderful friends whose sewing and pattern-making talents I am able to exploit. Jess and Maeve both volunteered their time and expertise to make this dress dream a reality from a foundation of vintage patterns found online, which brought to my mind a madcap montage of the three of us laughing, drinking cocktails, sewing and modeling the dress as it came together. Of course, nothing remotely like that has happened.

Soon after this plan was settled, I visited my family for Christmas, where I received a basement-smelling green plastic bag from my aunt. Within it sat that scourge of so many movie brides -- my grandmother's wedding dress, circa 1945. I know the dress well from photographs of the two lovebirds, younger than I am now, frozen in their pre-children, pre-grandchildren, pre-brain cancer innocence.

Our grandparents' wedding photos are visualizations of the eternity of evolution that resulted in ourselves. We see ourselves in the photos, yet no one smiling at the camera seems to realize we're there. To have this experience materialize in the form of a long-sleeved, shoulder-padded, narrow-hipped, satin-with-lace-trim-and-covered-buttons dress was surprisingly heavy.

My grandmother died 18 years ago, when I was nine years old. I loved her and I miss her, though I knew her for so little time. I have been told countless times that I have her shape, that she is responsible for my surprisingly large rib cage, that I should one day grow into her golf legacy.

Holding her wedding dress in my hands, I sense the weight of this supposed genetic connection. That wedding of 67 years ago was fixed in the past as soon as the dress was stored away in a trunk, but now it is back, re-animated, awoken from its sleep. And when I try this thing on, maybe I will realize all the dormant potential of the dress as a mystical good-luck charm for a long, happy marriage filled with laughter, children, roasts of beef and Yorkshire puddings, games of cribbage played late into the night, cross-country skiing followed by a Scotch on the rocks (or two or three), goofy gardening clothes and barbeque aprons, holidays in the mountains,] and the assurance that one of you is going to take care of the other while they slowly die, leaving behind a grey vinyl zippered pouch of ashes from the funeral home, which he'll keep in his desk drawer until he can bear to look at it long enough to empty it into an urn, which he'll then move to an old folks' home and place under the painting he made of you the year after you died when he took up oil painting because he suddenly needed to learn what hobbies were.

Or, maybe the dress won't fit and will just make me feel fat. Compared to a dead person.

Of all the clothing-related wedding conventions, the one that bothers me least is the one about wearing something old, new, borrowed and blue. According to the Internet, this tradition has its roots in Victorian England, and is driven by a kind of talismanic logic. You wear something new to symbolize your hope for the future, something borrowed in the hopes that a friend or relative's marital success will rub off on you, something blue to represent my personal bête noire -- bridal purity, in the style of the Virgin Mary -- and something old to signify continuity with the past and to respect the family heritage of the bride.

I doubt that anyone reading this needed further confirmation that clothing provides a bridge between the symbolic realm and the intimately personal, but if you did, there it is. On the 'most important day of our lives (yuck, more lies), we surround ourselves with these items of dress as protection against the harsher realities of life. If we do it right on that day, wear the right things, maybe we can ward off unhappiness, divorce and death.

In the course of my writing this piece, my other grandmother passed away at 90 years of age. Following her funeral, my uncle quietly presented me with her engagement ring from my grandfather. She had left it to me in her will, unbeknownst to anyone, after I had admired it last summer. I will of course wear it this summer when I pretend-re-marry my husband, who she loved, knowing that this late act of thoughtfulness and generosity allowed her to be there with us, granting her blessing, when she did not live to make it in person.

We are reassured throughout our lives that our elders are responsible for the physical way we appear in the world, but in truth we inherit so much more: traditions, clothing, our models for relationships, happiness and graceful passing when the time comes, among so many other things.

When we do not have these people present to assure us as we pass from one phase of life to another, it is no mystery why the garments they leave behind find such pride of place within our rites and rituals.

Weddings force a lot of people to make promises they cannot and will not keep. At the very least, incorporating the material of our past allows us to keep our promise to remember.

Laura Snelgrove is a recent graduate of the Masters program in Fashion Studies at Parsons The New School for Design in New York City and an editor of FSJ: Fashion Studies Journal, where this article first appeared. She will be pinning a red square to her wedding dress this summer in Montreal.

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