In a dark, unfinished corner of my basement there is a set of rough wooden shelves where we keep things we’ve nearly forgotten. The bottom two shelves are mostly crammed with recently refilled boxes of Christmas decorations. But the top shelf contains even less useful items. The soft case for my saxophone I haven’t played in forever is there, along with some old computer parts waiting to be recycled someday.
And next to that sits a box that hasn’t been opened in more than fifteen years. The box was stored at my parent’s house for a while and then moved in with us when we had room for it. It’s traveled halfway across the country and back, been a little beaten up along the way, and gathered plenty of dust, but still it’s remained sealed.
Because what it contains is something I will never use again. I won’t get rid of it, either. At least not any time soon. What it contains is my ridiculously formal white wedding gown.
I’ve been thinking about that box a lot this week, and not just because I saw it as I stuffed away the Christmas decorations, but because this past Saturday I had the opportunity to join one of my nieces in her shopping quest for her own ridiculously formal wedding gown.
The bride will be getting married next fall on the east coast and her mother (affectionately known as the momzilla) decided to plan a Midwest gathering of epic proportions this holiday season so that grandma and most of the aunts and female cousins could participate in wedding dress shopping.
It was a really sweet idea, inspired in part by TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress, an inexplicably addictive show in which brides try on crazy expensive and ornate dresses that they will only wear once. And then everyone cries.
That’s pretty much how it went, too. On the designated day, eleven of us (including the bride and the momzilla) descended on an already busy bridal shop filled with rack after rack of white gowns. We were the largest group there that day, even causing the consultants a bit of grief as they lined up chairs around an elevated platform where the bride would emerge from her dressing room.
At the momzilla’s insistence, my niece tried on at least six gowns (this was an actual momzilla-issued mandate). Then she tried on just one more, one that wasn’t anything like she had imagined she wanted. And we all cried. Seriously, it happened just like it does in the show. She tried on lots of beautiful white gowns and she looked lovely in all of them, but this was clearly THE DRESS. The scene could have been scripted.
There’s a look that comes over a bride, a certain expression that signals to everyone watching that she is suddenly able to envision it all, that even if she didn’t know it, this is the wedding dress she’d been picturing herself in. And once she’s decided, there’s very little chance of persuading her otherwise.
Perhaps that’s what it was like for Queen Victoria when she broke with tradition in 1840 and donned a white gown covered in delicate English lace for her wedding to Prince Albert. Very few brides were wearing white at the time, but Victoria knew what she wanted. I imagine the first time she saw herself in that big white dress, she got that look, and cried. She also started a trend.
Ten years later, most wealthy English brides chose white gowns and Godey’s Lady’s Book, the 19th-century American woman’s go-to guide for all things fashionable, had this to say about wedding gowns: “Custom has decided, from the earliest ages, that white is the most fitting hue…It is an emblem of purity and innocence of girlhood, and the unsullied heart she now yields to the chosen one.”
In the world of fashion, I guess ten years ago probably is considered the earliest ages, but whether the custom was long-standing then or not, it certainly is now. More than ninety percent of today’s American brides wear white on their wedding days.
I suppose it’s practical enough, if you plan to never wear the dress again and just have it cleaned and vacuum sealed into a box that you’ll put up on the basement shelf of things you rarely use until the daughter you may or may not have rejects it in favor of THE DRESS she saw in Modern Bride Magazine.
But that was one tradition Queen Victoria didn’t start. In an era when most brides simply wore their best dress and then wore it again, Victoria re-wore her veil for Christenings and other important life events and she re-purposed bits of the delicate lace.
Now my dress might be used again someday. I don’t have daughters, but I have a lot more nieces, and maybe someday there will be future daughters-in-law who might want to give it a try. But I’m not holding my breath. Because there’s something magical about that moment when a bride sees herself in THE DRESS, the one that, even though she may not have known it, is the one she’s imagined sealing up in a box to store forever in her basement on the shelf of rarely used things.