What’s in a Dress?

A few weeks ago, I was standing in a little boutique in a hip area of town, wearing what can only be described as a gown, staring at myself in the mirror with a surprised look on my face. People who know me can probably count on one hand the number of times they’ve seen me in a dress, and so anyone (including myself) might be surprised at this. And yet, it wasn’t so much that I was wearing a dress, but that I happened to be wearing that dress (floor-length as it was, with a lace-up back and crinoline in the skirt) and that it happened to be perfect.

You see, I’m getting married in just over two weeks. In a tiny ceremony on a beach. And I had decided that I would, above all else, be practical. Yes, I would wear a dress. (I don’t dislike dresses, I just don’t seem to get around to wearing them very often.) I looked forward to having a new one that I could wear to work, job interviews or formal dinners. No need to break the bank for a cloud of chiffon I would never wear again. And yet every time I tried on a dress that would fit those requirements, a tiny part of me shrieked, “But I can’t get married in this!”. Gradually, worn down by hours of trying on various options, I started to inch my way from casual to fancy, until there I was, mystified, in something you’d only wear to the Oscars.

My aunt (fashionista and shopping advisor) thinks it’s simply because the cut worked better than any other. And this may be true. According to this piece on NPR, I may also have been a victim of “signalling” – effectively being brainwashed by the emotional messages of people around me to believe that only a very special dress would do. But I wonder if there was something more at work.

I wanted to plant my bare feet on the beach, feeling the sun on my back with skirts swirling around my feet. I wanted to feel beautiful and feminine in a way that a normal dress couldn’t provide. I’m almost embarrased to admit this; first because no dress can give you super-powers (sometimes a dress is just a dress), second, because I dislike buying into the notion that a woman should spend a month’s salary and even more time searching for the elusive “perfect dress” and third, because the idea that a woman’s worth and beauty is rooted in her clothing and/or physical appearance is galling at best. And yet, here I am; thrilled at the prospect of wearing my snazzy new dress. But why? Maybe the part of me that feels complete satisfaction with this dress comes from some deep part of me, rooted, perhaps, in myth and watered by love.

The image I had of myself, on the beach, with the skirt swirling around my legs, didn’t really have to do with me as an individual woman. To me, it was as though, in that moment, I wanted to associate myself with the idea of “womanhood” and through that, to all women. Perhaps that vision of myself was archetypal; “ancient or archaic… derive[d] from the collective unconscious” (Fiest J, Friest G, Theories of Personality (2009), New York New York; McGraw-Hill via Wikipedia). According to Joseph Campbell, the language of myth; its signs and symbols, help connect us to our subconscious minds, and through them to the deep, eternal truths of life. A marriage is a powerful mythological ritual, in which two individuals become a singular family unit. All the cultures I’ve ever come across in all ages have had some kind of marriage ceremony. It must be important to us, and perhaps especially, to our subconscious minds. So it could follow that now, before crossing the threshold of marriage, a subconscious part of me was making itself heard for the first time. It makes sense that being “a bride” in the process of becoming “a wife” I would want to wear something incredibly feminine, making me part of a greater community of women on a symbolic level.

And I wonder if it’s just me. Why is it that so many women in our culture are drawn to that symbolic white wedding dress? In North America, we go through most of our lives in slacks or jeans, yet on that one day, most of us choose a princess dress. Are we linking ourselves to a mythological representation of  the feminine? Even in the “olden days” (from my extensive research of Little House on the Prairie and Anne of Green Gables), special importance was placed on the wedding dress. They may not have had money to go out and buy a new one, but they took care to make something new out of what was available. And every married woman I’ve ever spoken to had a story about her wedding dress, whatever she spent on it. It’s certainly worth pondering.

Secondly, a wedding is primarily a celebration of love; an act of faith and optimism, an affirmation of life that touches even the most cynical hearts. In planning for my wedding, I have been amazed by what a wedding announcement will bring out in people. I’ve seen a child-like kind of joy and giddiness in others that is rare in our skeptical, weary world. It seems our society doesn’t often allow for lavish displays of happiness and love. This is one of the few venues (the birth of children being another) where love is celebrated so openly. Maybe it seemed to me that I should greet a celebration of love like this in my best finery; an outward manifestation of all the joy I’m feeling inside.

This is not to say that all brides must wear fancy dresses, new dresses, or dresses at all for that matter. And I do think that our materialistic culture works hard to convince us we have to spend thousands when we don’t. But through this experience, I have begun to wonder why so many of us focus so emphatically on this one piece of clothing. What are your thoughts? Did you have a “say yes to the dress” moment that mystified you?

P.S. The picture above is not my dress. Mine is blue, and cannot be seen by my FH (that’s Future Husband for those who haven’t frequented wedding blogs) before the wedding. 🙂

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20 thoughts on “What’s in a Dress?

  1. I am going to admit that I was a little disappointed a few weeks back when you said that you didn’t have a ‘wedding dress’. I’m happy that you have a dress. I hope you feel beautiful. I hope that it makes you walk differently – even more confidently than you already do. I hope wearing something that you would never wear any other day of your life underpins the events meaning and importance. Not that it’s my business.

    I agree that you don’t have to spend a fortune. I had such a small wedding budget that my dress cost less than some dinners I go out for now but I still love it.

    Maybe after the wedding when your FH has seen the dress you would post a photo?

  2. I, too, had great plans for a very simple-but-nice dress for my wedding. I, too, ended up with a gown that I adored.
    I threw Husbandio off the trail by telling him that EVERY DRESS we ever saw leading up to that day was almost EXACTLY the same as mine. From the simplest jean skirt to the most elaborate, catherdral-style foof-monster. It was great fun.

  3. I find the focus of the wedding dress, almost as weird as the idea of bridesmaid dresses. I also find that in the US anyway, a lot of women ( mostly ones younger than me ) focus more on the wedding than they do on the marriage. Another thing I find sort of odd.

    I got married in March, in the middle of the biggest snowstorm of the year at a tiny chapel at Yosemite that was over 120 years old, late in the day, it was getting dark and the clouds promised a lot more snow. We choose that place so no one would come. We had 10 people total.

    The one thing I did find kind of ironic was, no one shovels the snow in Yosemite during the winter so, rather than my special Louboutins, I wore hiking boots under my dress. No one could see them, and at the time I was mortified but all these years later, I find hiking boots are much more apropos of a marriage than fancy, pumps or beautiful but absurd shoes.

    Enjoy your bare feet, and your beautiful dress and the day I am sure will be amazing, but just the start to a wonderful future.

    • Thank you so much for those kind words! Yes, I do know what you mean about the focus on wedding dresses. There was a time that I watched “Say Yes to the Dress” – and couldn’t understand what everyone was getting so worked up about, but now, I kind of get it.

      I love, love, love that you wore hiking boots under your dress. I am technically wearing flip-flops, but fully intend to kick them off as soon as possible. 🙂

  4. I bought the first dress that I tried on. It was simply me. It wasn’t uuber expensive or fancy but it just fit and I knew it was mine…similar to the way I felt about my husband when we were first dating. I think what you wear is important because of the ritual and how it makes you feel…whether it be a little blue dress or a big puffy white one–it needs to be special and meaningful to the individual. BTW, does your gown have “puffed sleeves?”

    • Oh bless your heart for that Anne of Green Gables reference! My gown does not, sadly, have puffed sleeves, but I’m just thrilled to bits to be reminded of them. 🙂

      And I relate to your sentiments about your dress – and your husband. Lovely, thank you.

  5. I think we underestimate ritual in our society but it is in our DNA and weddings are a good example. There is something about moving through the steps of the ritual that makes it feel so special. Putting on the make-up or having it put on for you, the hair, the shoes, the family arriving, the something borrowed something blue. And I agree, the veneer of what it means to be hip and cool breaks down at those milestones in our lives, as it should. I hope your wedding is filled with love and happiness and wishing you all the best for your life together.

    • Thank you so much, Dana! For your good wishes, and reading and commenting.

      And yes, you’re right – all those steps leading up to the ceremony too have become important to me in the same way. I have all the old, new, borrowed, blue ready to go. My sister is coming to get ready with me at my aunt’s – we’re not very girly girls, but somehow, it feels completely necessary that she be there.

  6. I tend to have very vivid memories centered around clothing (I remember exactly what I wore on the first day of kindergarden – don’t ask) so although I’m not at the stage where I’m looking for a wedding dress yet, I can totally understand getting swept up in the experience!

    • You remember what you wore for your first day of kindergarten? That’s amazing! And yes, the whole wedding dress thing – it’s very easy to get carried away. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  7. I hated shopping for my wedding dress and there were so many reasons for this, most which had to do with who I was then. I hated that I never could fit in a sample size (how the heck can I say yes to a dress when it’s held up by big plastic clips?). I had to do it alone (in fact, I convinced people from work to go with me because I felt such a fool going alone). And maybe I should’ve gone alone because having these people there (some whom are now very close friends, but back then things were still too new, too professional) made me second guess myself. I kept looking for someone else to tell me I’d found the dress, couldn’t hear myself in all that crinoline. I hated that I didn’t know what kind of bride I was. I thought I was the mature, chic kind who would buy a subtle silk empress a-line gown with a fabulous matching silk long coat, but when I tracked down the boutique and tried it on- it wasn’t me. but I wasn’t that girl in the princess dress either, in lace, and sparkles, all la la romantic- I was working in investment banking for Pete’s sake! I couldn’t find myself in that dress. And so I settled for the one that didn’t make me feel awful, that straddled the two worlds. I perhaps settled too quickly- i’m not sure I ever picked the right one, just one that would do. Never mind, it was from a place called ‘virgin bride’ (oh, yes!), never mind that they refused to order a size down and then I lost so much weight that when it was delivered no amount of tailoring could turn what was now a princess skirt back into an A line. The dress i wore on my wedding day was not the same I’d tried on. Too big, different skirt. My parents never teared up. I remain grateful for my bridesmaids who oohed and awed once the veil went on, or I might not have made it out the door.

    I still have the photograph my colleague took of me in the actual dress that should have been on me. A real aline. It’s the closest thing I have to my ‘yes to the dress’ moment.

    but that all said, it didn’t matter. There were so many other beautiful things that day, and I didn’t have time to pay too much attention to what I was wearing. And I believe every bride is gorgeous on her day and it has absolutely nothing to do with a dress.

    nevertheless, i’m so glad you found one. And it goes with out saying, we wish you all the best. xoxo

    • I remember you looking beautiful that day. 🙂 That is a bit of a wedding battle story – it must have been so strange shopping with colleagues, and frustrating to have to wear a completely different dress than the one you bought.

      But – you’re right, every bride is beautiful on her day and in the end, it’s just a dress – for all the hype around it. xo

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