I remember sunny summer afternoons, before or perhaps after blueberry picking season, when I toted my red plastic briefcase of art supplies to the backyard. Our canvas tent, airing out after one of our family vacations spent at Michigan state parks, made a perfect work space. I flipped the pages in my drawing tablet and selected my pencils and began to sketch. It was always the same: a woman's body, with little detail on face or hands, the emphasis on the dress. My favorite dress was inspired by Anne of Green Gables' early obsession with puff sleeves, as well as the contemporary fashion trends of big shoulders and sleeves that bespoke empowerment. I still remember the white dress, with big puffed short sleeves, adorned with bows. The fitted bodice erupted into a ballgown skirt, and the dress was embellished with pastel floral and swirl embroidery. I loved this dress. I wanted this dress.
And, a few years later, when I was a sophomore in college, I tacked up my favorite Estee Lauder Beautiful ad, featuring a bride in a puff sleeved confection of a dress. I would, according to the elaborate timelines my friends and I created, marry at age 24, in such a dress. I also imagined the romantic repartee between myself (J) and my future suitor (FS):
FS: What scent are you wearing?
FS: How fitting, because you are beautiful.
J: (beaming, rapturously in love)
Clearly I was in college, and soon to be majoring in English literature, for a reason. I needed better romantic repartee (hello, Mr. Darcy!).
Fast forward some decades, to early August 2011, when my beloved boyfriend G and I have just become engaged. Within two weeks, I was wedding dress shopping. While my fashionista tendencies have ebbed and flowed depending on paychecks and student loan payoffs, as well as proximity to shopping centers, I still love clothing, especially fancy dress clothes. The kind of gowns that have a limited use, that stun with well-cut lines and sensual fabrics. The kind of clothes I have worn, well, almost never in my life. This was my chance.
I previously blogged about the first wedding dress shopping trip here, and these first two photos show my interest in tea-length gowns and lace. I dreamed of a tea-length, fitted bodice and floofy skirted 1950s vintage style. I even had one such dress, purchased on eBay long before our engagement. This bargain dress featured a pink taffeta underlayer and lace overlay, with a pink chiffon embellished bustline. Somehow, though, this look wasn't flattering, and while I loved the party feel of a short dress, I didn't feel sufficiently bridal.
Bridal. What does that mean? I knew what it meant in the 1990s when my friends and I had a strict, conventional timeline to adhere to: graduate, marry, wait two years, have kids. The bridal phase would truly be one of transition, from the newly minted independence of recent college grad to a wife, soon-to-be mother. This narrative alluded all of us, in one way or another, and I think we're all better, stronger, truer selves because of it. But what does bridal mean when you're engaged at 38, in your first serious relationship, cohabiting, and sporting enough degrees to justify your student loan payments? What does is mean when your plan, post-marriage is to move to a bigger (rented) home, earn tenure, and consider a canine "child"?
This question, and the corresponding question of what a wife is when you follow a more progressive, feminist, deeply spiritual but not religious, ethical model, accompanied me throughout our engagement.
I realized that I wanted the long gown. I wanted the sweep of some kind of train. I wanted a dress that would trail romantically across the beach, where our wedding would be. I wanted a gown with some kind of sleeves, and I hoped for a gown made in America. I found Premiere Couture, a perfect bridal shop in Madison, Wisconsin. When I told Laura what I wanted, she pulled several dresses, including one that met all of my wishes.
Since strapless dresses are so ubiquitous, I tried a few here, and loved the previous dress, an airy silk dress by Canadian designer Lea-Ann Belter. As rivulets of sweat manifested everywhere during our ceremony, I thought back to this dress and had a moment where I wished I was wearing one lightweight layer instead of double-faced satin with a double lace overlay.
Alas, that gown, nor this classic, elegant strapless lace couldn't compete with the gown that felt perfectly me.
With a flattering v-neck line, a ruched satin waistband trimmed with satin covered buttons in the back, to the a-line skirt and short train, from the scalloped edges of the Italian re-embroidered lace, my gown, Amber by New York designer Janet Nelson Kumar, was everything I could hope for. I felt bridal, but most importantly, I felt me.
The dress was hot on a 90 degree day when the reliable Lake Michigan breeze had apparently absconded, but was keeping the white reception tent, some five miles inland, relatively cool. Still, I had no trouble lifting the dress and traipsing into the chilly waters post-ceremony before greeting and hugging family and friends.
My dress was one of the clearest links to bridal and wedding tradition, as the color, style, fabrics neatly fit into conventional trends. And while G and I eschewed many wedding traditions, we agreed that the dress would be secret until that moment he saw me crest the dune, walking with both of my parents. A little mystery creates a greater allure around the dress.
Later, my mom helped bustle my dress for the dancing hours to come. And, yes, I was true to the claim I made to post-college roommate K that I would dance all night at my wedding. And, yes, I can be added to the long list of brides whose bustle falls out with an errant step. The ribbon tie came loose, but my dress is just fine.
I wore my dress to the hotel, and reluctantly took it off, hanging it in the closet after inspecting the hem for beach and grass stains. The mystery was gone, the dress worn, sweat-slicked, and a little frayed and dirty around the hem. Soon it will be cleaned, then I'll hang it in a muslin bag in my closet, in our new home, and in subsequent homes to come. I'll slip into it on random occasions and twirl around my bedroom, remembering a day of such great happiness, such beauty, so perfectly me and G and us.
Will I trash my dress, wading deeper into the lake for soulful, artful photographs? Doubtful. Will I throw a wedding gown and other fancy dress party? Perhaps.
G is packing some of his wedding garb for our honeymoon to Seattle, and I'm envious on one level. Will he wear the clothes and relive the memories? Will the linen shirt and purple Chuck Taylors bring him back to a marriage of water and sand, of smiling faces, and swirling dances? Or will they lose their allure in the everyday? I can see both outcomes.
A wedding gown holds dreams, desires, intentions, and mostly, the woman who is moving between fiance and bride to wife. Ultimately, through all my questioning of what these roles are, I've found that the answer has always been to be, well, me. To live and love in the ways I know, and some ways I've yet to learn. And that is as, nay, more beautiful than a once-in-a-lifetime gown.