My teenage daughter was home sick for a couple of days last week, and somehow we ended up binge-watching the reality show Say Yes to the Dress. It’s hard to believe anyone hasn’t yet heard of it, but in case you haven’t, the show is shot at an enormous bridal store in New York and follows the stories of several consultants (i.e. salespeople) as they help future brides try on gowns until they find the right one or leave in despair. The shoppers arrive with entourages–friends, siblings, parents, future in-laws, etc, the more combative and critical, the better (not for them, for your viewing pleasure). The tension hinges on pretty much one thing: will the bride find the wedding gown of her dreams? Or will she leave empty-handed? (Okay, literally they ALL leave empty-handed because they try on samples and the actual dresses require like eight months of alterations, but you know what I mean.)
Oddly riveting. The show is a visual form of potato chip: you know there’s nothing even remotely good for you in it, but once you start watching you don’t want to stop. I’m not even sure why it’s so fascinating (although I bet the people who edit it know exactly what keeps people coming back). I guess there’s the wish fulfillment aspect of watching someone get to try on enormous gown after enormous gown–if you’ve ever loved a Disney movie or old Hollywood glamour, this is probably something you’ve wanted to do yourself. And of course they play up the drama–focusing on the young woman whose parents can only afford a three thousand dollar dress but falls in love with a six thousand dollar one, or whose sister hates everything she tries on, or who bursts into tears when she finally puts on THE DRESS, the one that apparently makes all her dreams come true.
Because, you know, buying the right wedding gown is the most important thing a young woman will ever do. They tell you so on the show many times. “This is the most important decision a bride will make,” the consultants tell us over and over again. One girl goes to try on her dress and bursts into tears because the train didn’t come out the way she was told it would–the design ends too high up–and sobs to her mother, “The wedding is in less than a month. This is a disaster. What will I do? What’s going to happen? I can’t get married like this.”
Have you guessed by now that I hate-watch this show? I hate everything about it. I hate most of the young future brides who have terrible taste and think it’s a good idea to go over their parents’ budgets and put them in debt so they can have a ten thousand dollar dress with a see through mesh corset inset that shows their navel. I hate the consultants who encourage the idea that one dress will improve or destroy your entire life. Mostly I hate myself for watching and enjoying it and since it’s something my daughter and I like to do together, I’m constantly reminding her that this is ridiculous, that no one should spend that much money on something that you wear for a few hours, that a wedding is simply a big party, nothing more, nothing less, but a MARRIAGE is a wonderful and important lifelong (if you’re lucky) commitment.
A visit from my niece, who’s planning her own wedding (and who is thankfully nothing like the brides on the show), prompted my daughter to get my old wedding-gown out of the closet and unzip its plastic cocoon. I warned her that it wasn’t a very pretty dress, but even so, I was shocked at how ugly it was–I got married in the late eighties and that was not a kind era for fashion.
My search for a wedding dress was kind of a sad one. I picked something vintage out with my mother–a long skirt and crocheted lace top–then decided I didn’t like them. She was so annoyed at having to return them (the store owner wouldn’t even take back the top, so it hung for years in my closet, reproaching me with the waste of money) that I told her I’d take care of finding something else to wear by myself and one day wandered into a store, found a sample dress on a sales rack, grabbed it and bought it. I didn’t particularly like it but I didn’t hate it.
It sure is ugly to look at now though, with its cheap beading and pieces of mesh lace–oh, and the ribbons on its puff sleeves. The fabric is some substance unknown in nature. You know Princess Diana’s crazy over-the-top eighties wedding gown? Imagine that made for ten bucks and you’d basically get my dress.
Annie wanted to try it on of course, so on it went–easily, because a crapo dress like this one has a zipper, not a fancy lace-up or buttoned back. She’s fifteen and long-legged and made it look as good as it could look, but even she agreed it wasn’t something you’d want to wear. Still, she played around for a while with the dress and veil, mugging for us and having fun.
I looked at this girl in the ugly dress I had bought quickly and never loved and thought about her and about her three brothers and about everything that has happened in my life since I wore it down the aisle. Almost twenty-four years later, my husband still has no reason to think I’m much of a dresser–most days I’m in thrift-store jeans and a comfortable sweatshirt–but, man, we’ve been through a lot together, and I can’t imagine facing a day without him at my side.
“You know,” I said to Annie, “Say Yes to the Dress is a ridiculous show. You know that what you wear at your wedding doesn’t actually matter, right? That the only thing that matters is who you’re marrying?”
“Of course I know that, Mom,” she said. Then, “How does the veil go on?”
She’ll figure it out.