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The author, on her wedding day.
The author, on her wedding day.
Gabriel Ryan

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How My Sister Found (and Lost) My Wedding Dress

“If there’s ever a good reason to buy a wedding dress, it’s because your little sister told you that you wouldn’t.”

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Update: My sister recently transitioned and is now named Danny. We still refer to him as my sister, which he initiated and which is why I continue to do so throughout the piece.

The dress was beautiful. It was maybe the seventh or eighth wedding dress I had tried on at the second store, the Bridal Galleria — more like a showroom than any store I had ever seen. The dressing rooms were enormous, arranged along one long hallway, each with a short silk robe hanging from a hook near the entrance so the bride-to-be could remain modest in between tryings-on. My mom and sister Danny were with me, and all the dresses I had picked out were the same — strapless columns in varying fabrics. I bought my dress on a dare, sort of. I had tried on another one of those strapless gowns when my sister pointed to a tulle and silk halter dress that hung on the wall next to me. "I don’t think you’ll get that one," he said. "I think you’ll get one more like the one you’re wearing now. That one isn’t as traditional."

If there’s ever a good reason to buy a wedding dress, it’s because your little sister told you that you wouldn’t. My self-conception was that I wasn’t someone who would just wear the same dress as everyone else, but I hadn’t realized that until Danny pointed the other dress out. I hadn’t thought about not buying a traditional dress, or not wearing a dress, or any of a number of other options that, in hindsight, seem eminently reasonable. This was the Bridal Galleria; a gallery for brides! I wasn’t going to go home with the Mona Lisa! I needed something new.

The author in her wedding dress. Photo: Gabriel Ryan

The dress was beautiful. Danny handed it to me and I slipped it on easily, no corset or pinching required. The top was a halter made of ivory tulle netting, connected at the back of the neck by three velvet rosettes. The back was the same tulle fabric in a dramatic bell shape, and lengths of tulle wrapped around the waist and tied into a soft, long bow in the back. The skirt was silk, unforgiving of flaws but it draped across the lower half of my body like a waterfall. The hem fell just at my toes in a pair of borrowed heels. There was a train about two feet long. It looked like something Marlene Dietrich would have worn in Shanghai Express. I felt self-conscious and otherworldly. The dress cost 10% of our wedding budget, which is what all the wedding budget websites say you should pay. I bought it.

You generally don’t take a wedding dress home with you when you buy it, and you certainly don’t take it home when you’ve ordered it with only four months to go until your wedding. It requires tailoring to fit you perfectly, and tailoring is expensive and time-consuming. I filled out paperwork for the dress. I took a picture of the dress. We went home.

After you get married, you have someone take your dress to the dry cleaners. You can’t just store wedding dresses in your closet on a hanger, lest they get moth-eaten or dingy or touch a common piece of clothing and shrivel up like a sea anemone. Our mother had carried her wedding dress with her in a cardboard box from house to house for 26 years, until I got married and she took it out. I had always wanted to see it in real life, but it was always hidden and forbidden, because who wants to get their wedding dress cleaned and preserved all over again? ("Preserved" is the actual word these places use.) "It could be someone else’s wedding dress for all I know," Mom said every time I asked her about it.

It was strange to see my mother in her wedding dress, but also touching.

When Zack and I got engaged, she decided to do something different. She took her wedding dress out of the box. She tried it on for me — it still fit her — and we laughed at the enthusiasm of this woman, married 26 years, back in her wedding dress. It was strange to see my mother in her wedding dress, but also touching. This was a relic of her world before I knew her, but her wedding dress was also intimately tied up in my life. She took the dress to her tailor and asked the tailor to take a square of fabric from the lining and stitch a row of lace from the hem around it, to make a handkerchief. My something old.

My mom picked her dress up and found a large rectangle cut from the front, from the lap of the dress. Her tailor had misunderstood what she asked and taken a great big beautiful piece of white silk from the most obvious part of the dress to make my handkerchief. There was nothing else to do but preserve the dress, hole and all. My mom laughed when she told us about it but I could tell she was sad. 26 years this great big cardboard box had gone with her, perfectly intact wedding dress perfectly preserved inside, and now it couldn’t be fixed and it couldn’t be worn again. Never mind that she wasn’t planning on wearing it again. It was sad to have something so meaningful made imperfect. It was a mistake.

Perhaps I was fated to make a mistake with my wedding dress.

I had two maids of honor: My sister and my best friend from high school. It felt right to have them both in the position of honor, not only because they were both important relationships but also because they could balance each other well. Where Danny was not what anyone would call a "planner," Kaitlin could organize a group of 10 bridesmaids from Chicago with ease and efficiency, and she did.

"Don’t forget the dress!" I yelled at the departing car. "I won’t!" He smiled out the window.

There was an evening of toasts and well wishes in our new home; there were cards written out with touching tributes to the individual friendships around the room; there were extra bobby pins and tampons and hairspray. My mom worked all the hook-and-eye clasps on the dress and tied the tulle bow around my waist. I felt elegant and comfortable. The day of the wedding, I gave both Danny and Kaitlin vintage bracelets I had picked out for them. They gave beautiful toasts. The wedding was fun and poignant and beautiful, and the dance party still gets rave reviews almost seven years later.

We left the day after our wedding for a honeymoon in Hawaii. Before our flight, we met our friends and family for brunch at a café downtown Menlo Park, a little indoor-outdoor space where venture capitalists and church employees and startup owners can meet for egg scrambles and French toast. I brought a garment bag with my wedding dress and handed it over to Danny to take to the dry cleaners to have it preserved. He drove us to the airport and wished us well. "Don’t forget the dress!" I yelled at the departing car. "I won’t!" He smiled out the window.

Three years later, my husband and I were moving from Palo Alto to San Francisco. Our new apartment was small but the view was expansive and there was a shared storage closet in the hallway. We had everything packed up into a small u-Haul when I went through some of the pieces we had stored at my parents’ house. The whole family was at their house for Sunday dinner when I went into their laundry room to grab a few small boxes. I looked for my wedding dress box.

"Danny!" I yelled into the living room. "Where did you put my dress?"

"Your dress?" He was quizzical. I started to panic.

"My wedding dress." I walked into the living room. "The one you took to the cleaners. I thought it would be in the laundry room, but…" I trailed off.

He was silent. I flashed back to the moment at the Bridal Galleria where he had told me I wouldn’t buy the dress. I flashed back to our wedding. I thought about my mom’s wedding dress. I knew. I knew that look in his eyes.

"I didn’t know I was supposed to pick it up," he said. I had never told him to pick it up. He was right. I had never told him to pick it up. I had assumed he would have done it on his own, because that’s what I would have done, but I should have known better. I should have said, "don’t forget the dress, and don’t forget to pick it up!" All those years ago, just an extra few words and I would have been holding a giant cardboard box instead of about to have a panic attack over the fact that my wedding dress was lost to me.

The thing is that a wedding dress is so much more than just a dress. It is a symbol of youth, the scaffolding of purity, the proof of socially acceptable desirability and commitment. There is a relationship between the wearer and the dress that goes deeper than the everyday outfit. Wear a wedding dress at the wrong time and you are kooky, unstable, an obsessed Miss Havisham (even that honorific, Miss Havisham, suggests obsession with eternal youth). Choose not to wear a traditional wedding dress (long, white or off-white, expensive) and you are quirky, off-kilter, weird. The wedding dress is such a prized cultural icon that entire television shows are devoted to its pursuit and acquisition. "The dress" is the adornment of that star of the show, the bride. "It’s your day," I heard over and over again as we were planning our wedding. No one said that to my husband, whose rented tuxedo was promptly returned to the shelves of scores of others like it after we said our vows. Men are expected to look generic on their wedding day, to blend into the background of similarly suit-clad men, all of whom need to blend further back to make room for the bride. The unique, special, one-of-a-kind bride in her long, white or off-white, expensive gown.

I got the special day and the special dress and the late-night dance party. I lost the dress and I am still married to the most wonderful man I know.

The thing is, I got all of that. I got the special day and the special dress and the late-night dance party. I lost the dress and I am still married to the most wonderful man I know. The dress is consigned to time and memory — the dry cleaners, having no contact information for the owner, gave it away or auctioned it off or sold it to someone else. My beautiful tulle-topped silk-skirted gown is someone else’s now. And perhaps it’s just confirmation bias or perhaps it’s real, but I couldn’t be happier.

I have learned several lessons from losing my wedding dress. One is to never trust my little sister with administrative details. Mostly, though, I’ve learned that losing a burden isn’t any kind of real loss at all. Not every woman will feel this way about their wedding dress, and I do certainly feel sad at times about this. I will never be able to give my daughter, should I have one, a piece of my wedding dress — but who’s to say that wouldn’t have turned out like my mom’s wedding dress? I will never be able to try it on again, but frankly, I’m happy to look at the pictures and remember how I looked that day. I think occasionally about where my wedding dress is. Mostly, I hope that whoever has it got it for a great price and didn’t need to spend 10% of their wedding budget on it. And at the end of the day, it’s one less thing to carry with me wherever I go.

My husband and I recently moved again, this time into a house we bought in San Francisco. We have an enormous storage space downstairs, filled with my yearbooks and his sports memorabilia and a small ping-pong table he found on Craigslist. We could fit another box down there, but I’m glad we don’t have to. Mostly I feel a little free, like the weight of one more thing I was supposed to carry has been lifted from my shoulders.

Watch: Our Favorite Wedding Movies

The author in her wedding dress. Photo: Gabriel Ryan

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