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. 🙂