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The white dress hangs suspended from the rafters of a rustic barn. Sometimes it hangs on a chandelier. It hangs from a tree branch, or a garden trellis. It is hung from a window frame, so sunbeams can light up the layers of tulle or lace or chiffon.
A wedding dress on its big day, hanging dramatically or awkwardly: The picture has become ubiquitous, among the photographer’s standard shots. On Pinterest there are thousands of images like this. Some are lovely and meditative, some cheesy or precious, some ghostly and strange. Referred to in wedding biz shorthand as “the dress shot,” these photos feel somewhat obligatory, part of the package, with an entire internet full of opinions on getting them just right (“Make sure the HANGER is NICE!”). They’re a relatively new innovation, propelled by the advent of unlimited picture-taking, and dovetailing with our era of performative wedding photos, personal fashion shoots, and Instagram-ready flourishes.
Practically speaking, the dress is hanging in these pictures because that’s the only way to really see it. The traditional white wedding dress is often a substantial sucker, with a train, and it needs to be lifted high to be able to get the full measure of it. So it’s photographed from below, the camera gazing up, aloft and exalted. Sculptural cups, boning, and artful seams create the outline of a woman, a sum of her parts. (Strapless dresses look the weirdest in their hanging state, slumped and incomplete, conspicuously headless.)
In the process of buying this dress, the bride in question has probably seen pictures of it on catalog models or mannequins. She’s seen it in the mirror, ill-fitting in a sample size that offers only an idea of what it might eventually look like. She’s seen it in the process of alterations, as it is wrangled and bunched and pinned to make it work for her body.
Once it is hers, once it has been chosen and settled on and bought and paid for and altered and sheltered until the appointed time, its emptiness — its readiness — is synonymous with anticipation. It’s been an investment. A wedding day photograph of the dress, alone and unoccupied, captures that feeling before it’s gone. It also celebrates the dress as its own reward, an accomplishment and end in itself.
A wedding dress is always a complicated garment, a thing of brightness and beauty, with a heavy underskirt of social pressure, sentimentality, personal and cultural history, gender norms, and great expectations. This is true regardless of whether the wearer chooses to recognize or engage with those things. But like so much having to do with both femininity and weddings, it’s possible to acknowledge this kind of baggage, then shrug it off. Sometimes it’s even necessary, an act of self-preservation.
And so the dress is admired and celebrated and hung from the top of a canopy bed or a staircase or a decorative arch. We make sure to get pictures of it, a mix of portrait and product shot. Still, the very notion of a “hanging gown” — no matter how pretty the customized hanger, nor quirky the styling — has a creepy, haunted vibe.
The pictures, empty of people, are like images from the darker version of a fairy tale. The sight of a woman disembodied, somehow both absent and at the center of things, is unnerving. Displayed alone, the dress is synonymous with her, but also with something bigger than her. It reminds us that the dress has meaning and resonance even when it’s not being worn. That it almost doesn’t need her, could even have a life — or a body, or a mind — of its own. Where is the bride, anyway? Is she getting her hair done in the next room? Is she fleeing the scene?
The morning after my own wedding last winter, I put my long, white dress — which now had a dingy hem and the tiniest of mysterious bloodstains on the bust — on a wooden hanger hurriedly swiped from the hotel, and zipped it up in its garment bag. Back at home, I hung it on the set of hooks just inside our front door, along with my husband’s suit. He’s since taken that suit down, pressed it, and worn it to someone else’s wedding. But almost six months later, my dress is still there, crushed behind a collection of jackets and scarves and some dry cleaning.
What, after all, is a wedding dress after a wedding? It’s something to have preserved or at least cleaned, something to keep or sell: a potential heirloom, or a way to recoup costs. Something you can stage another photo shoot to “trash,” if you’re so inclined, in a kind of bookend to the hanging.
Whatever happens next, whatever pictures you took, the dress is a memory. I loved mine for its scalloped hem and delicate Art Deco embroidery, for the way it fell softly from my shoulders and skimmed my hips. The only photos I have of this dress are from the dozen or so intense hours when it was on my body, when I traipsed through the snow in it, and made profound promises in it, and drank wine in it, and danced and sweated and grinned and cried and hugged a hundred people in it. When it fit me perfectly and belonged to me the most, at eye-level.