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Row of wedding dresses Photo: Michael Blann/Getty Images

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The White Wedding Dress Industrial Complex

And how to navigate it if you’re not sure it’s what you really want.

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On a very cold afternoon in January, I was visiting my mom. We walked past a wedding dress store, where a mannequin stood posed with rhinestones dangling down its back and a long train pooling elegantly out behind it.

I had just gotten engaged in December and had already said I wasn’t planning to get a traditional wedding dress. But my mom and I both lingered near the window display. ”Well, we could just go in and look...” one of us said.

The wedding dress try-on experience is frequently depicted in popular culture, enough so that it’s familiar even to people like me, who never intended to enact it ourselves. The bride and her loved ones — a group of friends or her mom or all of these — go into a beautiful, serene store and are served champagne while the bride disappears. When she reappears, she looks transcendently beautiful and everybody cries, even the salesperson. Music plays, love is celebrated, and the wedding dress joyfully marks a grand occasion.

This is not what happened.

When my mom and I arrived for my appointment, the sales associate, rather than letting me browse dresses, asked me what my wedding was going to be like. I had no idea at the time — it was nine months away! — and no idea that I was supposed to know. I haltingly attempted to describe it, and what kind of dress I wanted (I also had no idea about this) to the long-suffering salesperson, who then disappeared to pick out dresses for me based on my description.

She returned with three or four overwhelming gigantic dresses, each of which seemed to be about the size and weight of four to six regular dresses. These were samples, and she explained that while a sample might not be my size, that was normal — I was just supposed to “get the idea of what it would look like when it’s fitted for you.” In practice, this meant I was wearing a dress that wouldn’t zip all the way over my butt and being asked to imagine how beautiful it would look in the correct size. Could I actually try it on in my size before spending thousands of dollars, though? Haha, of course not.

Understandably, because these dresses are both extremely valuable and extremely delicate, I learned that the salesperson comes into the fitting room to help you when you try on wedding dresses. I should have anticipated this, but was totally unprepared to be almost entirely naked with a well-meaning stranger. It was a very cold day and I was wearing mismatched dark-colored cotton underwear under two layers of Heattech under three layers of clothing. The salesgirl patiently stood and watched me struggle out of, and then into, five layers of winter clothes. I awkwardly emerged from the fitting room in two or three different dresses, but each was more embarrassing than the last. My mom and I left as quickly as possible, and I resolved not to buy a fancy wedding dress.

The global wedding market is a $300 billion industry, $55 billion of which accounts for the US wedding industry. The average US bride spends more than $1,000 dollars on her dress, while the average groom spends only a little over $300. The lavish “white wedding,” complete with all of these seemingly required outfits and aspects, is a decidedly modern and extremely recent invention, as is the wedding dress itself. Pre-1950s, the wedding was mostly still a religious affair and not expected to be a huge celebration, party, or expenditure. The bride's wedding dress was not supposed to be the most beautiful or expensive thing she would ever wear, and the party was not supposed to be the greatest party this couple would ever throw or attend. What many of us think of as the ubiquitous wedding today was in fact developed only over the second half of the 20th century, fanned to life by the sort of advertising campaigns depicted on Mad Men.

Wedding traditions, of course, are nearly endlessly varied across cultures, nations, communities, and religions worldwide. Huge wedding parties and lavish ceremonies, celebrations, and expenditures have been part of numerous non-Western and non-white cultures since before America was even a country. But in this country, even within our comparatively short history, weddings are still a relatively recent invention. In the 19th century, the American wedding was, even among wealthy families, mostly a small and private affair. For the middle- and upper-middle-class American Christian families whose future generations would be the central target demographic of the wedding industry, the wedding was far less a celebratory or central ritual than it was in many other religious traditions. Ceremonies were held in churches during Sunday service and followed by a small celebration at the bride’s home.

For the most part, the white wedding dress didn’t exist — a woman would be married in the best dress she owned. The wedding dress was frequently black or another somber color, as women generally only owned one formal dress that needed to be appropriate for multiple occasions, including funerals. The white wedding dress was planted in the American imagination during World War II, when gown manufacturers and jewelers sought exemptions from wartime rationing by essentially inventing the modern wedding industry. These businesses claimed the wedding dress and engagement ring not only as items crucial to a sacred religious ceremony, but also as symbolic of American prosperity, democracy, and freedom. The grand white wedding — so the line went — represented everything we were fighting to protect.

Of all the rituals bound up with weddings and money, the wedding dress is perhaps elevated above the rest, the pinnacle of a very expensive fantasy. Women are meant to have dreamed of their wedding dress their whole lives, and to define themselves by what kind of wedding dress they want to wear. A whole subsection of reality television centers not just on weddings but on wedding dresses, specifically; the emotional ritual of dress choice on Say Yes to the Dress is so heavily entrenched as to have the feeling of a religious ceremony, as though one is watching a woman meet, court, and marry an expensive piece of clothing. As soon as I got engaged, people started asking me about my dress. I began to search wedding dresses online, to try to figure out what I wanted from this supposedly paramount aspect of getting married.

A few months after my torturous first experience, my fiancé, Thomas, and I went to formally tour our venue, a gorgeous museum in Philadelphia (where my parents live), for the first time. The space was vast and beautiful, and I could imagine trailing up and down its various staircases in some kind of princess-like gown. I wasn’t necessarily planning to actually purchase a dress, but the more people talked to me about my wedding dress, the more I became insatiably curious about this one item of clothing and how it encompassed a whole category of experience. As far as I could tell, all wedding dresses pretty much looked the same, and brides looked happy because they were in love. I had never seen a wedding dress that I remembered for more than 10 minutes after I left the reception. But maybe I was missing something. Maybe now that this was happening to me, some grand and electric secret would be revealed.

And so over the course of a month I’ve gone to four wedding salons in New York, and I’ve learned that there’s a whole interior language to wedding dresses, a rich and ultimately useless vocabulary to talk about this one purchase. The language also comes with a system of money that feels like a completely different currency. An “inexpensive” wedding dress costs around $1,000; a mid-range one costs anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000. In the endless scroll of clothing websites open on my phone while I’m half-occupied with other things, when I filter to “bridal” or “gowns,” five-figure price tags are not an infrequent sight.

The first time I came out in a dress and all my friends oooh’ed and aaah’ed and exclaimed, I got it. I briefly understood the longing and the arrival baked into this experience. Over the course of a few weeks, I tried on a figurative handful of shockingly expensive dresses, many of which were beautiful. I got used to the experience of trying on samples, and there was a dreamy, costume-like quality to the dramatic designs and luxe materials. I would never wear this dress again but that was the point; this wasn’t for me, but for the version of myself that was The Bride, who would live a day within the literal version of a Snapchat filter, all the volume and glamour cranked up high.

A part of me was grateful to let go of my worries about being perceived as frivolous or materialistic and saturate myself in the kind of hyper-femininity so widely derided throughout a culture that at the same time requires it of women. There was a way in which bridal culture was so over the top, so stacked with glittering objects that it felt like a kind of hysterical drag, the relief of stepping out of myself and into a character who only had to care about being pretty. This kind of femininity is always an act, whether one tries it on for a night or wears it for a lifetime, and it can function simultaneously as escapism and armor. My previous worst experiences with trying on clothes were turned on their head: It wasn’t that I had to be beautiful enough for the clothes, and frequently failed to do so. Rather, the dress itself, the very fact of trying on such these dresses, turned me beautiful, transforming me, or anyone else trying on the same gown, into something to be exclaimed over. Weddings without question objectify the bride, a fact by which I’ve been frequently horrified since I got engaged. But at the same time that was what appealed to me, what made the experience of standing in a store in an enormous white gown one of longing. Sometimes that’s exactly what many of us crave: Being a beautiful thing, being a precious object.

One thing that became shockingly apparent during these experiences is that the bridal industry is set up for women who are two things: rich and thin. I am decidedly "sort of" both. I wear a standard size and rarely have trouble finding clothes that fit at mainstream retailers, but I'm about a size 8, and roughly half of the samples I tried on at bridal stores wouldn't zip over my ass. While this brought up some less-than-enjoyable feelings for me, it's ultimately a minor issue: I can, if I choose to, find an utterly traditional wedding dress from a major designer that fits without much difficulty. But the fact that I'm right at the top of the size range this industry includes made me horrified thinking of the overwhelmingly vast majority of women to whom these experiences are simply not available.

I'm equally "sort of" rich. I have enough money that I could buy one of the impossibly expensive dresses I tried on, which is to say I have the raw capability of spending a few thousand dollars all at once if I really wanted to. On the other hand, the fact that I could spend a few thousand dollars at once if I really wanted to makes me feel like I’m rich, and the fact that it makes me feel that way simultaneously shows that I don’t actually have enough money to spend this much of it on a dress.

The barriers to entry here are once again so high, so narrowly selective, that it made me wonder who this industry, so ubiquitously present in our culture, is actually for. I suppose the answer to that question, like far too many things, is “the people who can afford it.” As with so much in America, that population is a shrinking minority. The way wedding culture sells itself to the American populace at large and then makes itself available to so little of that populace seems a cruel joke — you have to have this to prove your love, to access this ritual that has been drilled into your fantasies by every piece of culture you've encountered since you were a child, but also you can by no reasonable means afford it.

This fantasy of wealth beyond reality or responsibility is built into the details of these dresses, all the way down to the tiny rows of covered buttons. It’s not a dress as much as an escape from everyday life. The fantasy of the wedding is that the event itself, but the dress especially, will be lifted up beyond the everyday, vaulted into the world of fairy tale, where royalty and celebrities and the very wealthy live, a place where no one ever worries about paying bills. Mostly when we spend too much money, we do it in order to pretend that money isn’t real. This is why part of the point of the dress is that you can’t wear it again — it becomes a perfect object, distilled and frozen in time, lifted out of the ordinary cycles of use and value and repetition.

Each time I left each of these stores, I walked back onto the street feeling like perhaps I could rationalize it. Those feelings usually lasted about a block and a half, after which I started feeling nauseous and shaky and regretful, like when you eat candy all day, like when you ignore a phone call you’re dreading. I thought how the most expensive thing I have ever bought is the couch in my living room, which I use constantly, every day of my life, and how I had just tried on a dress that cost more than that couch. I started making a list of things that cost less than the dresses I had tried: every pair of plane tickets I had ever bought for Thomas and I to travel together, the entire cost of most vacations I had ever taken, a vintage 1970s gold Firebird that had been for sale in a neighbor’s yard the last time Thomas and I had gone to visit his parents in Chattanooga. A year of a gym membership. How much money I made from freelance writing in 2014 and 2015 combined. I plummeted back to reality. Twice I tried to cancel the entire wedding a couple hours after trying on dresses.

That’s the thing about fantasies; they have a comedown, they carry with them a hangover. I still haven’t bought a dress. My mom found her wedding dress for $30 in a store window a few days before her wedding, but I also know people who spent thousands of dollars on their dresses and looked beautiful and gained from that purchase a value that seemed, to them, to justify it, the grand marker of a grand event. But I haven’t yet figured out how to want something that much, to believe in a fantasy that justifies its own invention, to long toward the priceless.


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