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When you tell people you’ve gotten engaged, their voices take on a certain tone: they become louder, co-conspiratorial, expecting you to share in the exhilaration and to talk details. As someone who identifies as “socially uncomfortable” on a good day, when I started to plan my wedding, this focus made me edgy, even in the company of friends (never mind salespeople who wanted something from me). Even a simple question of “Are you so excited?” from a friend of a friend left me feeling like a bad actor, and I couldn’t respond because the question seemed rhetorical to me.
Of course I was excited. I was elated to marry someone who understood. My husband has social graces, but also reads me well (which is probably why he proposed to me in nature, far from the company of other people). Our engagement was low-key; the wedding was to be small and outdoors, and one of my oldest friends would officiate. But The Wedding Conversation was a bigger beast than I could corral away; whatever the context, it was the most amped-up version of exhausting conversation etiquette I’d ever experienced. In a way, the public spectacle of the wedding began long before the wedding itself, with all these conversations that left me feeling like I was pretending to be someone else.
And without fail, the conversation would always come around to the dress.
“Have you picked out a dress yet?” was an important crossroads of the choose-your-own adventure of this conversation; what I chose to say always dictated how the rest of the exchange would go. I didn’t have a good answer, and the length of time between our engagement and wedding date was shrinking. My instinct was, then, to minimize the ritualistic importance of the dress to me: I would be a carefree bride who just picked out something simple at the last minute! That was a comprehensible, relatable way to be. I knew people who’d done it, and they seemed to have total control of their lives; using them as an example when answering the dress question made sense.
So if anyone asked, I responded with “No, but I’m sure I’ll find something,” and chuckled, and hoped that was the end of their questioning about the subject. Often it was.
But I did care. I wanted what I wore to be something I wouldn’t wear again to another event or donate after. I wanted something beautiful, and I didn’t have thousands of dollars to spend. And that’s all I knew. So I did what I do whenever I have a problem I don’t want to admit I’m having: I Googled it, alone, at night.
Typing “wedding dress” into a search engine is like going into Ikea without any idea of what you’re shopping for — overwhelming and noisy, with a paralyzing number of choices. There are thousands of dresses at every price point, and everyone has advice on how and where to shop. I started my solitary search by looking on Etsy, thinking that I could choose a vintage piece. I spent night after night saving tea-length orbs of tulle and off-white bibbed ‘70s numbers in the “Items I Love” folder, where they’re still haunting around, as far as I know. And my other tabs were open to horror stories about online wedding dress shopping gone terribly awry.
Here is where you ask where my sisters and girlfriends were throughout this process. I will answer you this: I have several singular, invaluable female friendships in my life, and they are many things, but I do not think of them as wedding dress shopping relationships. I admit that this is probably a hurdle of my own making, but it also has something to do with the way that weddings are sold to women as a collective experience. The wedding dress try-on scene I saw in my mind was a melange of dozens of shopping scenes from movies and television shows: In a tastefully decorated boutique done up in shades of pale pink, fawn, and greige, the bride emerges to an appreciative murmur from a circle of her most trusted female advisors. This is a scenario I’ve never participated in, and I found it impossible to envision myself in the starring role.
The most relatable wedding dress shopping scene I could think of was from Emma Jane Unsworth’s book Animals: Two thirtysomething friends, neither particularly bridal, hit the boutiques for a dress. At the shop, they take full advantage of the free bubbly, to the dismay of the salesperson who quickly realizes she’s not getting a commission. The friend accompanying the protagonist spouts off one disheartening reaction after another, dubbing each dress “intolerable” and “a lesson I suppose in terms of what we don’t want.” This scene was far easier for me to understand, but not ideal for solving my problem. And besides, the calendar was creeping into summer.
So I browsed, feeling an inarticulable sense of urgency. In mid-June, I PayPaled $75 to an Etsy vendor in exchange for a “sheer minimalist white party dress” with cap sleeves and a V-neck. Since the dress was see-through, I bought a slip, and tried them both on in front of a mirror I’d propped up on top of the hamper so I could have at least a three-quarter-body view. In the reflection, I looked distorted and short, the bell-shaped dress floating around me like a ghostly medusa. A true vintage aficionado could have worn it (after alterations and accessorizing, including structured undergarments!), but I was not that person. It did not suit me at all. I wadded the dress up in a bag and dropped it off at a donation center, feeling embarrassed about the whole thing.
At the end of July, I dropped a couple hundred dollars on a dress I liked from the Australian label Lover, and it was pretty enough — off-white and sleeveless, with a nude lining and an overlay of patterned lace. The dress was lovely and tasteful, but I kept returning to the idea that I still harbored — that what I wore on my wedding day should be something singular — and kept lonely-shopping for what was nothing more than an idea. It made no sense (why didn’t I just ask someone?), but it was in line with deeply ingrained personality traits I’d honed forever. As a child, I walked around with a splinter in my hand for hours rather than asking a daycare assistant for help; as a teenager, a boyfriend spending time with another girl left me weeping in my bed with jealousy, but I didn’t talk to anyone about it save for my diary. To confide in nobody about my wedding dress woes wasn’t new. To reach out would have been to admit to my anxiety, and also to admit to caring — it would have felt like I’d been pulled into the complex. It would have felt like I wanted the boutique scene I felt so uncomfortable about.
Finally, in early September, I bought a third discounted dress on eBay from the same designer; it came to me two weeks later, also from Australia. The dress was a cream floral lace with short sleeves, cut close at the bodice and through the hips, with a flowing handkerchief hem that hit me mid-calf. Its details were finer and more delicate than those of the second dress, and it was most certainly an occasion garment. But as I looked at myself (in the kitchen mirror this time, under the good lights), I realized it was too long in the bodice. I’d have to find someone to do last-minute alterations.
I was aware that tailors who specialized in wedding dress alterations would not accept me and my foolishness a week before my wedding date, but I knew of a tailor who’d previously fixed another dress for me. I nervously typed out an email (subject line: “dress question”), acknowledging my timing problems and attaching an image of the top of the dress to show what I hoped was the simplicity of the alteration, and waited. It was after Fashion Week, so I lucked out, and my gracious tailor replied, telling me to come in and get measured.
As I zipped the third dress up in her teeny fitting room at the end of September, it dawned on me that in all my meta-agonizing about saying the right thing or staying on script, this was the first time that I’d allowed anyone, professional or friend, to give me feedback about whether a dress suited me and how it fit. My tailor pinned the lace of the shoulders, and suddenly the back of the dress was flush against my skin and no material billowed from anywhere. She closed the curtain back up again so that I could change into my normal clothes, and I stood there in front of the mirror for an extra moment, looking at this version of myself that required another person’s help. It still looked like me.
After we made plans for me to pick the altered dress up two days before my wedding, I hugged my tailor and thanked her profusely, feeling genuinely grateful and not even a little bit like I was acting the part. “No problem,” she said, smiling. “I’m just happy to help you.”