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Tami and I have never met, and likely never will. There are nearly a thousand miles and one international border between us. We are strangers with no mutual friends; we work in different industries; we live in our own little self-constructed silos half a continent apart. And yet we share something that neither of us has in common with anyone else on this planet.
Our lives overlapped like shapes in a kaleidoscope: She sold me her used wedding dress in October, a year and one day after her wedding and a year and one day before mine.
I hadn’t embraced dress-hunting with the same ruthless vigor that some rom-com characters do. On my initial exploratory mission to “find out what I liked” at a high-end bridal boutique, I found myself pink-cheeked and sweating nervously under the hot dressing room lights as a sales associate trussed my naked frame into both the ethereal wood-nymph lace-sleeved gowns and the heavy, swishy, bead-bedecked deco numbers that ruled Pinterest at the time: objectively beautiful dresses, but not mine, and certainly not in my budget.
I have been seduced by many an impractical garment before. But wading through the world of wedding planning, where an extra zero or two seems to be arbitrarily added to every price tag, I felt steadfast in my commitment to not spontaneously fork over a future mortgage payment on a one-night stand of an outfit. After several months of monitoring Nordstrom’s new arrivals without any progress, I decided to make one last valiant attempt and booked an appointment at a beautiful, vintage-inspired wedding dress boutique, to which I had been lured by the siren song of their cool-girl Instagram brides. That’s where I saw it.
It was everything I knew I didn’t want to wear on my wedding day: strapless, for starters (I’m a 34DD and have not played that game since junior prom). Form-fitting. A sweetheart neckline, topped off with an actual, honest-to-god bow. But there was also hardware: the gown was lined up and down with tiny brass rivets. A studded wedding dress.
At $3,290 for the brand new gown or a generously discounted $1,700 for the shop’s sample, I knew I couldn’t justify the price tag. Even after the dress zipped snugly but smoothly over my torso, holding my hips and waist like a pair of hands. Even after I stepped out of the fitting room to literal gasps from my mother, sister, and sister-in-law. Even after mourning the dress, and its insurmountable price tag, that evening over chips and salsa. It just wasn’t meant to be, I shrugged. I donned the mask of the Chill Bride and insisted we move on.
But that night, still thinking about the glint of brass running up and down my hips, I turned to the internet. I trawled through the pages of wedding resale sites. And then, after wading deep into the pages of OnceWed, I found it: one listing. The dress in its full splendor, at a fraction of the sample’s price. The exact measurements of my body, and Tami’s too.
Used wedding dresses are a growing phenomenon for which we have, in large part, the recession to thank. Josie Daga, who founded PreOwnedWeddingDresses.com in 2004, says her platform saw explosive triple-digit growth in 2008 and 2009, and that trajectory hasn’t reversed course since. (The site hosted 458 listings in 2004; Daga says the current number of active listings is around 25,000.)
Faced with the exorbitant and ever-rising costs of getting married, debt-saddled millennials are bucking just about every tradition held sacred by the wedding industrial complex to save money, from elopements to group honeymoons.
“Things like individuality are becoming a lot more important than projected affluence,” says Jacqueline Courtney, who launched Nearly Newlywed in 2012 after buying her own Vera Wang wedding gown secondhand. Courtney recalls some passive pushback and raised eyebrows when she launched, including from investors on Shark Tank, where she pitched the idea in 2012.
“There was sentiment from most people I talked to that women wouldn’t buy a used wedding dress and that I was crazy to start a business like this,” Courtney says. “People said no one would ever buy a used wedding dress and no one would ever buy their wedding dress online.”
Of course, that sentiment has changed remarkably: Over the past six years, the site’s inventory has expanded from 50 dresses to 5,000, ranging in price from a few hundred dollars to several thousand. “It’s funny that [certain attitudes] would exist for something like a wedding dress, because it’s worn for the shortest amount of time and generally treated with the most amount of care,” says Courtney. She sold her Vera Wang gown to a bride, who later sold it to another one. Four women, all strangers, have worn the dress down the aisle.
Beyond the sheer financials, millennials have “revolutionized” the wedding industry with a fundamental shift in attitudes and principles that go way deeper than serving pie instead of cake. Paying to have a gown cleaned, preserved, and boxed up, only to take up precious storage space for years and years, feels less like a keepsake and more like a burden for some women.
“We’ve really seen a mindset shift from women thinking, ‘I should save this dress for my daughter,’ to, ‘I know my daughter won’t likely wear this, and I want someone else to love it again now,’” says Daga. “They love their dress so much, they want to help a bride afford it and make her dress dreams come true.”
Thrilling to the possibility of my own “dress dreams” coming true (not to mention my surprise at having “dress dreams” in the first place), I hastily filled out the inquiry form on the listing. I’m accustomed to (and in fact, quite appreciate) the sanitized, impersonal transaction of online shopping, but my initial email to Tami belied all of this. There were capital letters where lowercase should have sufficed. There was an egregious sentence-to-exclamation point ratio. There was a “thanks a million!” sign-off. Clearly, I had surrendered my bridal chill.
Tami wrote back an hour later. For the next week, our back-and-forth about measurements, alterations, train length, and shipping logistics were peppered with the kind of gushing one normally witnesses late at night in a women’s bathroom: I crowed over the amazing wedding photos she shared; she informed me that my name is also her favorite color.
We reveled in our shared aesthetic sensibilities. We sheepishly confessed our nerves about how odd it was to buy or sell such an important and meaningful aspect of our respective weddings to or from a total stranger.
We started following each other on Instagram; I faved her artwork and pet illustrations, her cool new blue hair, and her gym selfies. I had the sneaking suspicion that were there not quite so many latitude lines between us, we could likely be IRL friends. When the box arrived, the first person I alerted was Tami, in a hastily tapped-out missive. Subject line: The Eagle Has Landed. She mailed the dress with a note, handwritten in loopy cursive on grid paper. “Bet you’re excited to get this bad boy on,” it began.
“I was so excited to see your wedding photos,” Tami tells me over the phone. Our first and only phone call takes place three and a half years after our orbits first overlapped; two and a half years after I wore her dress, now mine, to marry my husband; four and a half years since she wore it to marry hers. I felt excited and a little nervous to talk to her on the phone, this perfect stranger with whom I share perhaps the single most meaning-laden garment I’ll ever wear in my life.
Tami tells me about her eerily familiar experience of looking for the right dress, making appointments at bridal shops, letting sales associates swathe her in dresses of romantic lace and swishy beads and other materials she’d otherwise never reach for in her real, day-to-day life.
She remembers the day when, on a lark, she went to a sample sale, where she found the dress. “I put it on, and it was like, every other woman trying things on — girls in thongs, halfway into their dresses — everybody stopped,” she says. “Everyone was looking at me. This dress just stopped the world.” Like me, the dress was everything she thought she knew she didn’t want.
After marrying in 2013 (exactly two years and one day before my wedding), Tami knew she didn’t need to keep the dress. “I had no sentimental attachment to it … it’s beautiful, but I’m not going to go and take it to a shop to have it boxed up and preserved,” she says. “I wanted it to live again. I wanted it to have another party.” Some Googling led her to OnceWed, a wedding dress resale platform established in 2008 that now draws, according to the site, more than 6 million visitors a year.
“I really didn’t think it was going to sell, to be honest,” Tami tells me. “It wasn’t a style that was on trend. But I put it up anyway.” A month later, she got my manic, exclamation-peppered inquiry. “I was like, wow, the internet is no joke,” she says. It really isn’t.
We chat about the dress, of course — our dress, as Tami always calls it. We also reminisce about our twinned experiences down the wedding-planning rabbit hole. We trade notes on the leather jackets and shoes we each chose to wear with the dress (Tami found a pair of vintage lilac snakeskin pumps; I wore chunky metallic ankle boots). I could see myself drinking beer with this person, I thought, maybe playfully dragging the guests who misbehaved at our weddings or swapping notes on clothing that works for our seemingly identical bodies.
I’m struck, again, by the tenuous but very real thread that knits us together across a vast expanse of space. Perhaps I’m grasping for meaning. Maybe it’s futile to look for intimacy and connection in a capitalistic transaction, of all places. But to me, it feels special and rare to share a tiny, unlikely scrap of the universe like this one. The symmetry of it makes this big, dumb world feel a little less lonely.
On the phone, I clumsily posit to Tami that it’s “interesting” how we’ll likely never cross paths in real life yet share this unlikely tether. “Of course, I’m probably overthinking it,” I rush to add, feeling sheepish about my unprovoked earnestness. “No, I feel the exact same,” Tami says. “That’s sort of what I was hoping for. I wanted to pass the torch and have this thing live again, and share this moment with a stranger.”
I still have the dress. Initially, I had plans to donate or resell it — plans that were, both literally and figuratively, boxed up and tucked away after the wedding as the marginalia of real life resumed its rightful place on my personal hierarchy of needs. I tell Tami that the gown that carried us both down the aisle is hermetically sealed in its dry-cleaning box, and ask her what I should do with it. Is it now on me to pass the dress onward, to give it the chance to see another dance floor?
“It’s your baby now,” Tami says. But what a great story, she adds, to invite a third member into our tiny, improbable sisterhood. “I think,” she adds, “that you’ve known the answer all along.”