When we were in California, my mom wanted to take me wedding dress shopping. I have to admit, though I’d pretty well maintained all along that I don’t *really* want to wear a traditional white poofy dress or spend obscene amounts of money on a dress I’ll wear once, for a few hours, I was kind of curious about the experience of trying on actual wedding dresses. Because, as QIR mentioned during our visit, I am actually a girl deep down inside.
Full disclosure: I’ve been reading a few different wedding-related sites for quite some time, even before we got engaged, probably since we first started talking about it. So it’s been a while, and I’ve read a lot of what other people had to say about dress shopping. Most of what I read made me prepare for the worst. Conventional wisdom seemed to say, about bridal stores, that the staff would be pushy, rude, or both (especially since I don’t have a “traditional” large solitaire diamond engagement ring); the selection would be bad; the sample sizes would be either way too big or way too small and I’d have to be bungee corded or clipped in and only have a vague idea about how the actual dress in my size would look. The dresses would look ugly or strange in the bags; they would be in poor condition with stains and rips and holes; they would all be identical strapless white poofy numbers with little difference between them. I would feel humiliated; I would feel uncomfortable. These things and more I was led to expect before my experience, but my mom really wanted to see me in a traditional dress even if I don’t decide to go that route, and I had to satisfy my morbid curiosity, so we shooed Dan away for a couple of hours and went inside.
Perhaps it was just the store that we went to, but my experience was, overall, a positive one. We were warmly greeted and given a little tour of the store, including the bridesmaids’ dress area when I’d mentioned I might be wearing one of those instead. I was given a handful of thingys to clip onto hangers of dresses I might want to try on and given the run of the store. My mom and I wandered around looking at a large variety of dresses in all levels of formality and price range, and I specifically tried to find ones that had color or something interesting about them, like an unusual bodice or cool beading. One piece of conventional wisdom did seem to hold true; it was really hard to tell what the dresses would look like all zipped up in their plastic bags and eventually we started unzipping the bags a bit and pulling aside the trains to see what the backs would look like (since I’m particularly interested in a corset back style). Once I’d put a marker on a dress, it would disappear while I was in another part of the store, and once I’d picked out 5 dresses a saleslady who looked like she could have used a good meal or 300 over the last 65 years and who was also probably no stranger to the bottom of a bottle of Jack Daniels came over and told me she’d be helping me in and out of the dresses.
I was brought into the dressing room and told to disrobe, to tie on this heavy, hot crinoline/petticoat thing, and to put on a borrowed bustier (luckily, being one of the most popular bra/cup sizes they had one in my size – though the cups were a little small). Then the lady brought in the first dress, took it out of the bag, arranged the skirt and layers of fabric and material and oh my god these dresses have a lot of material and put it up over my head and zipped it up. It fit perfectly. I mean, there is no way I would have needed any alterations done to the thing because it was my exact size. Fluke! I told myself, and I held up the skirt and walked out to the “display” area where there’s a pedestal and a mirror. The lady arranged the skirt and my mom got this look on her face like it was something she’d been waiting her whole life to see. This dress had a detachable train, so I put it on without the train and got to move around on my own, turning to see myself in the mirror.
It felt like I’d put on a bride costume, but oh, how that costume fit. No strapping in or clipping was necessary for that dress. The neckline was good, the detail was flattering (though a little overwhelming with all the beading and such), and I felt my little girl self who likes to play dress up exclaiming with glee on one shoulder while the offbeat, indie, non-mainstream self harrumphed on the other. I never expected to feel such conflict, these opposite messages coming from inside. My mom snapped a few pictures and eventually I climbed down off the little podium and went back into the dressing room with Lizard Lady to try the next dress.
Dress 2 had beautiful multicolored embroidery and more interesting detail on the bodice. The lady slipped it over my head and it zipped up to fit perfectly. Again. It was strapless and had a line across the waist, but it didn’t seem to matter as she held up the train and I lurched into the mirror area because I could see how well it fit me and how all along I’d been wrong about strapless dresses. Because damn! it looked good on me! I SO was not expecting that. After my mom took some more pictures, the lady held the train up to show what it would look like bustled to show off the beautiful embroidered colors. I got a little hand mirror so I could see what the back looked like myself – now the little dress-up girl was jumping up and down in delight. Counterculture self raised one eyebrow in a wry expression. In the bag, this dress had looked like it would probably not be at all flattering on me – but in a way, it was even better than the first.
Dress 3 turned out to be, on reflection, my favorite. I’d picked it out because it had a corset back and because it wasn’t white or ivory but a light gold/dark champagne sort of color. The embroidery detailing on the bodice and skirt were the same color as the satin, and the train was rich and flowy. My favorite part of the dress had been the unusual lines on the bodice and I was curious about what I’d look like in that color, never having worn it before. As the dress fwumped over my head, the lady took some time in lacing up the corset back, making sure the lacing was even. This dress was also strapless, but was a bit of a sweetheart neckline rather than straight-across. I huffed and puffed out into the mirror area, my mom snapping pictures, and I stared at myself in the mirror, because DAMN did that dress look good. Maybe it’s because I work out (good arms/shoulders); maybe it’s because I have a bit of my family curse going on (skin that tans at the drop of a hat despite wearing copious sunscreen), but I couldn’t believe how well that dress fit or how beautiful it was. Holy guacamole was it ever heavy, though; the thing had to weigh at least 30 or 40 pounds. The detailing on the bodice turned out to make my waist look about 18 inches around, which was definitely pleasing to my vanity. And again, no alterations needed; all I would need would be a bit of hemming (and a bustle, of course). Costume girl clapped her hands and did a jig, and even Counterculter girl looked less pissed off.
Dress 4, we all agreed immediately, was just not my dress. It was beautiful and had a unique neckline with some sheer netting on the back and in the front, and would have looked good on a lot of people (it also fit just right) but after seeing the sweetheart necklines the narrow V of this dress just cut off my neck and collarbone. My mom didn’t take any pictures.
Dress 5 had green and silver detailing on white, which is why I’d picked it (green!). I liked it from about mid-chest down (especially the netting overlay, which was way lighter than all the heavy satin of the other dresses), but the top wasn’t perfect. It was another corset-style back but that dress turned out to be just a bit big on me, so it had to be laced tighter and the balance was a little off. At this point, I was pretty exhausted from all the taking off and putting on and hauling the big heavy dresses around on my person, so I was glad to put on something a little different (a bridesmaid’s dress I’d eyed online). However, this sample WAS way too big for me, one of the straps was broken, and the whole thing looked like I was playing dress-up in mommy’s clothes. It was also a bit of a let down after all the fancy dresses to try on something so simple with just one layer of fabric. It was hard to tell whether it just didn’t look good on me or whether it was because the dress was too big, but I felt a little sad after seeing myself in the mirror. On the internets, the dress was so pretty! but in person? kind of disappointing.
Only after I finished trying on the dresses and was putting my clothes back on did the lady start hustling. She explained to me how the labels on the dresses worked and how if I bought that exact dress (the sample) I’d pay 35% or 50% (depending) off the pricetag, but if I ordered one through them it would be full price. I guess they were trying to unload some of their sample stock, because my favorite dress would have been only $300 and not $750 after I did the math (I guess it was on a super-good sale?). She wrote down the style numbers of the ones I was most interested in (as did I, but dammit I lost the paper I wrote them on!) and was very clear that I should be coming back in again to try on the dresses. “Maybe next time I’m in town,” I told her, and we left the store, mom in her happiness to see me all dressed up and me feeling conflicted.
Because honestly? after trying them on, seeing how good they look (and make me look!), and after the good experience I had, I’m not so anti-tradition now. Though from a purely practical standpoint, the place where we’re getting hitched isn’t a church or a hall or anyplace traditional but outdoors on a beach or a lawn, and I’ll want to dance and be able to move around and not be exhausted from hauling around 23098430984 layers of heavy satin. Dan will be very formally dressed but in a more unusual manner than one might expect, so I’d like to find something that kind of goes with his style. After the dress shopping and dancing we did that evening, we went back to my mom’s and she and I looked at other dresses on the internets, and I actually found a couple made by one designer that incorporate quite a bit of color – and I have a choice between 46 colors, not 3 (pink, red, black). So now I’m not sure what to do, and not sure what to think about what I want. I still want to incorporate green into what I wear, but now maybe I’m not so hell-bent on being indie. I only get one day to be a bride, one day where I can legitimately wear a dress like the ones I tried on, and I guess I haven’t decided yet if I want to give up that opportunity. On the other hand, while $300 is a damn cheap price for an actual wedding dress, it’s a lot of money to spend on a dress that I can only wear for one day.