The Practicality of a Wedding Dress

The Bride is Embellished by her Friend, Henrik Olrik, 1859
Anyone who knows me with some degree of intimacy could tell you that I am a very practical person. Whenever I buy a piece of clothing, I stop and consider what other clothes in my closet could complement it, where and when I could put it on, how often and with what it would need to be washed, and if its price is worth its wear. The same logic applies when I sew. When I make a modern item, it's usually with intent to wear it for a specific event and then to use it many more times (probably with several alterations and changes as I have to get it just right) in the future. When I make a historical garment, even more thought goes into the process - is the material inexpensive enough to warrant buying it, yet sturdy enough to withstand the activities for which it's meant? Does the style I have in mind work for this time period/activity, and will making up the piece in this style be more trouble than it's worth? Am I planning on wearing this just once for a ball or parade or other fancy occasion, only to put it aside and never touch it again?

All of these questions are very hard to reconcile with my current Big Project: a piece of clothing that will only be worn for one day in my life. 

Something that won't get laundered - if anything, I'll have to shell out for dry cleaning after its sole outing.
Something that isn't made of durable, wear-well fabric, but is gossamer and full of lace.
Something that won't fit me forever, but will be designed to hold my person for a single moment in time - at what will be, let's face it, probably the skinniest period of my life.
Something that doesn't match anything else in my closet, to which I'll have to coordinate specially purchased shoes, and a veil I will never wear again.
Something that may not be as comfortable as a summery sundress or jeans and a t-shirt - while wearing it, I'll be constantly reminding myself to sit up straight, spill nothing (it's white, for crying out loud!), not trip on a long skirt, and watch out for those nasty sharp edges on tables and door latches.
Something that I will make myself, spending a lot of time and sweat and tears (and hopefully not blood, although stabs from needles aren't out of the question here) and seam-ripping and redesigning and trying again, because I want it to be perfect.

A wedding dress is not a practical garment in any way, shape, or form. And, silly as it may sound, I am having a very hard time with that.

This is obviously a still from The Sound of Music and I do not own it. :P

My type-A personality wants everything to be perfect and exactly right on the first try. But my type-B personality (yes, I know you can't have both, so I guess I must be an A-and-a-half) flies the flag of common sense and reminds me that no one is going to be able to SEE if those seams aren't finished. The two get along fairly well when I'm making "ordinary" things, but where do I allow them to camp when I'm making my wedding dress? I mean, ideally you only get one of these in your lifetime, and it's got to be absolutely perfect, right? But then, if you're only going to wear it once, what difference does it make if the side seams split after you've danced in it and the hem comes out when it's been stepped on? Does any of that even matter? It doesn't have to wear well. It's a wedding dress.

And yet we live in a society that places a tremendously heavy importance on the dress that you wear to say your vows. There's an entire reality TV show that revolves around the concept of picking out The Perfect Dress, and though the six-figure gowns the stars whine about aren't any closer to the average American's reality than anything else on "reality" TV, the very fact that the show exists is a reflection on what we value in a wedding. I'm not saying that's a bad thing.  (Okay, having a meltdown in a bridal boutique fitting room while your mother and eleven bridesmaids engage in a screaming match over the depth of the dip in your backless gown isn't exactly exemplary behavior.) But in general, making that white dress one of the focal points of your big day is harmless enough, and a lot of fun to boot.

Illustration by Garth Williams, These Happy Golden Years

It wasn't always this way, of course. In thinking back to a lot of the stories that have been important to me, the one that stands out the most right now is the Little House series. I've been rereading these and blogging about them (well, I’m not nearly as up to date on that as I’d like to be). Though I haven’t reached These Happy Golden Years yet, I know from many previous readings that that’s the one (SPOILER ALERT) where Laura Ingalls marries Almanzo Wilder, in the little parlor at the Reverend Brown’s homestead, in her best black dress.  When I first read this at age ten or so, my youthful and romantic sensibilities were somewhat shocked – as, too, were Caroline Ingalls’ motherly ones. 

“We can finish the black cashmere and I can wear that,
 Laura answered.
“I do not like to think of your being married in black,” Ma fretted. “You know they say: ‘married in black, you’ll wish yourself back.’”

And yet Laura chooses to wear her best black dress because it is new, and serviceable, and will wear well, and will save the expense of a new dress. (And besides, she wears her old sage-green poke bonnet with the blue silk lining, and borrows Ma's square gold pin with the strawberry in it, and so she had something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.)  I don’t think a white wedding gown even crosses the horizon of her imaginings on the Dakota prairie, though she’s firm that the dress she will be married in must be a nice one.  Almanzo, trying to be helpful when she’s thinking it over, suggests she wear the calico work dress that she has on at the time – as Miss Cornelia Bryant says, just like a man.  But of course that won’t do at all, she couldn’t possibly, and Laura is married in black. Presumably Almanzo is married in black also, though this is an irrelevant piece of information and not mentioned.  Whether or not at any time she wished herself back is not clear, but they were married for sixty-four years, and I like to think she didn’t.

Illustration by Garth Williams, These Happy Golden Years

Practicality, therefore, is a good and noble thing in a wedding dress, isn’t it? But I am not on the Dakota prairie, and though I’m not made of money either, my resources are far more extensive than Laura’s ever were. It's quite reasonable, then, that my dress could be more frivolous than hers, and I don't expect to wear it again. "Serviceable" isn't a word I need to consider.

In thinking about this, Shelagh from Call the Midwife (my favorite television show of all time) comes to mind, too. Her situation was also very different from mine, in that she started out as a nun, fell in love with a widowed doctor, left her religious order and became a second wife and stepmother.  When she and Dr. Turner got married in season 3 (it's early enough in the show that it shouldn't be THAT much of a spoiler, guys, and it happened like four years ago) she originally wanted to get married in a nicely tailored but incredibly boring, almost colorless suit. It was sad and many viewers including me wept many bitter tears over the prospect. And then there was a whirlwind round of Dr. Turner's son Timothy almost dying and Shelagh realized how beautiful life is, etc., and ended up getting married in the most gorgeous 1950's confection of white satin and lace and a big poofy veil that was to die for.

Most satisfactory.

Property of Call the Midwife and the BBC

I don't think Shelagh and Patrick Turner's marriage was more or less happy than Laura and Almanzo Wilder's because Shelagh's dress was prettier and dreamier than Laura's - or because Laura's dress was less fussy and more practical than Shelagh's. I think a wedding dress is just that: a dress that you wear at your wedding, and how it looks doesn't reflect the level of care you have put and are going to put into the marriage, for good or ill.  

Some of you reading this may be rolling your eyes and saying "duh? You didn't realize until now that a wedding dress is not a big deal unless you want it to be?" If that's how you feel, I get it - I realize this post is pretty self-indulgent and is largely just my own navel-gazing about something that will not affect 99.999999999% of the world. (Obviously there are more 9's involved than that but I bet you didn't even count how many I actually included. The point is made.)

Jacqueline Bouvier on her wedding day to John F. Kennedy,
Life magazine, 1953

So, in the end, I have made and finished my wedding dress with nine days to spare before my wedding. (The original plan was to finish it three weeks in advance, but, uh, that didn't happen.)  It is made of inexpensive materials that I still thought were pretty. It's a design I made myself, and some people would call it too fussy (others would call it too simple), but I like it.  It fits me and me alone, even though I had to let out two of the seams in the back so that it wouldn't pinch under my arms (either I put on some weight since taking my own measurements a few months ago or else the bodice contracted slightly after all the additional embellishment was added - I prefer to believe the latter).  And, most important of all - the day I wear it will be the day I marry the man I love with my whole heart and soul, and he would be delighted to see me at the other end of that aisle in the church if I were wearing a white frilly potato sack. 

Perhaps this is disjointed (quite possible). Perhaps I'm sleep-deprived (very very possible). But writing it has helped me sort out my thoughts about something that was important to me, and still is, though perhaps not as much as I thought it would be when I wrought Anne-Shirley-level imaginings about it when I was fourteen. And right now, that is what blogging is for me.  Like I said before, a tad self-indulgent. 

Cincinnati Museum of Art, 1864-66

But, doggone it, a wedding dress IS self-indulgent. 

Even if you plan to put an apron over it afterward and cut bread and butter in it for your first newlywed dinner in your new claim shanty.

Which, by the way, I don't intend to do, so I did not design mine with an apron in mind.

If you scrolled all the way to the end of this post in the hope of seeing some photos, nothing doing - this blog is, after all, public, and my fiance (old-fashioned though his heart may be) has easy access to the Internet. 

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