I am trying to remember the dream I had before my wedding day. It involved, of course, my mother. She is raising the veil on my face, and then gets it tangled in my hair.
Other women, I discovered, also dream before they walk the aisle to the altar. They dream about the dress getting dirty, about losing the dress. After all, we call it the dream dress: the single garment that symbolizes the fulfilment of hopes nurtured since childhood. But it is also fraught with fears.
Because marriage is such a pivotal moment, its most visible symbol looms huge in the psyches of women. And it’s a preoccupation, says culture critic Camille Paglia, that has proved remarkably resistant to change. “I recognize and respect the intense identification many young women feel with the wedding gown and wedding ceremony,” Paglia says in an e-mail interview, “as demonstrated by the enormous popularity of bride’s magazines, which 30 years of feminism have done nothing to change. Feminism has too often arrogantly dismissed such evidence of the dreams and tastes of real women.”
New York bridal designer Vera Wang has made a powerful business out of the obsession with the dress. She describes it as something “akin to madness” in her lavish new coffee table book Vera Wang on Weddings, which itself reminds me of a dress in its use of translucent pages and overlayered images.
“It happens two weeks before the wedding,” says Justina McCaffrey from her Ottawa salon, where she is designing the dress for the high-profile June wedding of prime ministerial offspring Catherine Clark.
“I’ll be fitting them and the brides will say to me, ‘Last night, I had this really weird dream.’ And it’s always about the dress.”
There are some common scenarios. The bride arrives at the ceremony to find everyone staring at her aghast. She thinks she looks all right until she looks down and sees that she’s isn’t wearing the dress at all, but a pair of see-through harem pants. Or the dress is covered in blood or people are tugging and tearing at the dress, which becomes muddied and unkempt.
“Of course, it’s not about the dress itself,” says McCaffrey. “It’s about their relatives forcing them to do things they don’t want; or it’s about their lack of communication with the groom.”
In my case, the lack of communication was with my mother. She has always said my success is her success, so I have had to be perfect. So did my wedding. And so she chose the dress I was to wear, which wasn’t an articulation of my dream as much as it was hers. She wanted respectable; I wanted high romance. When I think about that dress, nearly seven years later, I still feel the urge to cry.
Catherine Cooper, the designer behind Urban Bride on Toronto’s trendy Queen Street West, listens patiently as I tell my dress story. She’s used to it. Sitting in her atelier, at the centre of which is a huge jar of pacifier foods like Oreos and Peek Frean princess cookies, she says, “I tell my brides I charge $20 an hour for sewing, $100 an hour for counselling.” She is only half- joking.
“I learn their entire psychology,” says Cooper, “what they grew up with. For the most part, it’s a not a fashion job. It’s psychotherapy.”
And so she analyzes me, and she is worth the $100: “The first thing I think when I hear you say you asked your mother to go shopping with you for the dress is that you wanted to bond with her; you wanted her approval. And you wanted her love.”
Designer Lana Lowon doesn’t listen to mothers. She gives them a glass of champagne and shoos them out to the garden so she can give her full attention to the bride. Her wedding dresses are clingy, low-cut sheaths — dresses for the bride as sex bomb. I can see myself in one of these, fully in charge. Alas, her salon wasn’t open when I was getting married.
Lowon is a firm believer that life is about dressing your fantasy. She designed evening gowns for her actress/model clientele with partner and husband Jim Pope before turning to wedding gowns in 1996. She sees the wedding dress as the ultimate dress-up.
“My clients don’t want to feel like an offering given up at the altar. That’s very important, because this is the sum of who she has been to this point in her life, it’s the girl she was, and it’s the woman she’s about to become. And so she dresses sexy. She shows her body in bias-cut dresses that flatter her figure. If she’s not ready for that, if she has a bad body image, then she’ll get one of those pouffy gowns. That’s what they’re there for: to hide the body, hide the girl.”
The $100-billion bridal industry recognizes the enduring power of the fantasy. Canada’s doorstopper industry bible, Wedding Bells magazine, has pages of brides looking like Guinevere or the Lady of Shallot. There are Victorian belles with ostrich plumes in their hair and Scarlett O’Haras in lace and silk rosettes. And after the ’90s flirtation with minimalism, made popular by Carolyn Bessette’s wedding to John F. Kennedy Jr. in unadorned Narciso Rodriguez, the regal look is back.
Some call it the Cinderella syndrome. The intense fascination with women who make the fairy tale their own reveals how dominant a myth it is in our culture. The apotheosis of the myth was the 1981 marriage of nursery school teacher Diana Spencer to Prince Charles. Diana’s dress — a full taffeta gown trimmed with thousands of pearls, antique lace and a vast 25-foot train — epitomized the princess bride ideal and thousands of women throughout the ’80s followed.
Grace Kelly’s ivory peau de soie and satin dress, with yards of antique rose-point Belgian lace, was created by MGM Studio’s costume designer Helen Rose for the actress’s marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco. It was a significant choice. “On her wedding day, a girl is acting in her own film,” says Lowon. “The dress defines the role she wants to play, the impression she wants people to have as she walks down the aisle.”
Not everyone buys into the dress. Take New York academic Jaclyn Geller’s 2001 book Here Comes the Bride: Women, Weddings and the Marriage Mystique, a 400-page anti-marriage rant.
“I hope to dissuade many would-be wives from draping themselves in white and walking down the aisle,” Geller, 39, writes. “We must stop repeating the absurd mantra, ‘It’s okay to be single,’ and adopt the more aggressive stance that it’s not okay to be married.”
Geller is, as one critic called her, a lone Amazonian warrior in a culture in which marriage is booming. Her anti-marriage mania is right to target the gross excesses of weddings. But she misses the point when she criticizes women for wanting to make the choice. In this regard, the self-professed spinister-by-choice is old-fashionedly blinkered in her thinking.
A case in point is an upcoming lesbian wedding ceremony taking place in Toronto this summer. The designated bride, who never ever wears a dress in everyday life, recently walked into Pam Chorley’s Fashion Crimes boutique in Toronto and poured out her inner fantasy.
“She came in in jeans and she went out with a full-length dress with a bit of a train, the colour of an orchid,” says Chorley. “And on her head we wrapped silver speckled tulle and old lace. She looked fantastic.”
McCaffrey in Ottawa has also had her share of wedding dress transformations: “It’s more often than not the corporate chicks, who come in with their briefcases and Gucci glasses and tell me, ‘Listen. don’t give me anything with crinoline. I just want a suit.’ And then by the end of the appointment, they are standing in front of the mirror wearing the pouffiest dress in the store, a tiara on their head — and they’re bawling their eyes out.”
It’s all part of the theatre of the self, where ideally you write the script for the character you are about to play — bride for the day. “Weddings are all about the bride: She’s the superstar,” says Paglia. “The groom is just a cipher. The whiteness of the gown symbolizes a virginity or purity that modern liberated women thought was a fossil of history. But there are enduring mysteries about procreation, whose biological burden falls most heavily on women. The whiteness of the wedding gown marks women’s last moment of innocence.”
In my case, I had directed everything — the bridesmaids (in matching blue velvet), the flowers, the limousines, the flirty first dance number by Sadie B. Hawkins.
But I hadn’t scripted that dress, and for months after the ceremony, it haunted me and made me feel my wedding had been a less than fabulous affair. One day, I pulled it out and looked at it hard. And then I realized that it had become another symbol: of relinquishing control.
Only then was I able to put it away. I paid to have it preserved and have it stored safely in a shiny white box. It is my own personal relic, the kind you see in churches. It makes me contemplate my inner life.
Since that moment of self-realization, I have since ceased asking my mother to shop with me. As I approach my seventh wedding anniversary in the fall, I am more my own woman. And so the symbolism of the wedding dress rings true; it did mark the end of the person I was and the beginning of the person I am now.