Dress Reversal

Jen is crisp and simple. Cornelia is delicate and feminine. I inspect one, then the other. One, then the other again. I can't decide. I first met Jen weeks ago, and I have idealized her ever since. Cornelia only just popped up, but she's tempting.

Jen and Cornelia, you see, are dresses--wedding dresses, actually. In keeping with the bridal industry's peculiar need to personify wedding gowns, these dresses have their own names. As I stand in the middle of the bridal salon, saleswomen flit around, clucking opinions and advice. I had been partial to Jen's white silk and sleek lines. Everyone else seems drawn to Cornelia's deep ivory and soft lace. Jen is "sophisticated," they say, while Cornelia is "fun." They consider which gown would better match the month, season, and venue of my wedding.

Whether either gown's distinct personality meshes with my own is of little concern. Apparently, for my wedding day, the gown's persona is more important than mine.

There are a lot of superlatives floating around the store today. Perfect. Ideal. Most-special-magic-romantic. The women here encourage me to envision perfection. Yet all I feel is a gnawing anxiety climbing from the too-large satiny shoes they've placed on my feet to the pearl-studded pins embedding a billowy veil in my hair. The dress everyone else loves I'm unsure about. The dress I thought I loved suddenly has lost its luster. I just want to leave the salon and breathe fresh air.

Outside I chastise myself. How hard can it be to choose a dress? After two dates with my fiancé I knew he was a keeper. I've had more outings with some of these wedding gowns and still I can't commit. Since we got engaged, Mr. Right and I have found a place, set a date, and picked a caterer, a DJ, a photographer, and a florist. By comparison, shouldn't the dress be easy? And yet Jen and Cornelia--and Maya and Mia and Hannah and Charlotte--continue to torment me.


They say that but for a few details, there's an eerie similarity between weddings and funerals. Ever since my beau proposed, I've been pondering our wedding. Part of what impels me to have a traditional, formal wedding is to gather the people I love, who have been a part of my life, to celebrate a happy occasion. The last time many of these people came together was 20 months ago, at my father's funeral. Certainly, I have noticed the odd similarities between these events. Selecting a time and place, choosing the music, planning the program. Rehearsing the procession with the casket, just as we'll rehearse the ceremony.

If ever I was uncertain that joy and sorrow share the same narrow ridge in our hearts, it's become clear to me as I've planned this wedding. I am so happy to share this celebration with my friends and family. And I am so sad when I envision celebrating without my dad.

It is easy, I think, to get swept into the madness of any big, big business, like the multi-billion-dollar wedding industry. The smiling (or sometimes coquettishly pouting), pencil-waisted brides in encyclopedic bridal magazines; the deconstruction of posies vs. nosegays, buffets vs. plated dinners. There are checklists of chores, rules for when and where certain pre-wedding events should take place. There is so much emphasis on creating The Perfect Day or The Fairy-Princess Wedding that the ceremonies and traditions no longer seem to require any meaning. The incongruous thoughts that collide in my mind are amusing and terrifying all at once because they share the exact same priority and importance:

1) Do I have what it takes to make a marriage work for a lifetime?

2) Why did my father have to die too soon, before he could meet the man I fell in love with?

3) How should I wear my hair for the wedding?

No one seems to want to address the first two questions. But the hair conundrum? Just watch as people pounce all over that one. Perhaps that's because it's easier to control hair than relationships--you can't pomade over life's inevitable tough spots. Perhaps it's because hairstyles are a currency common to all brides, no matter their past or future. The hair dilemma is the same, whether your wedding is large or small, you've been married before, your divorced parents don't get along, or your father is dead. We may be powerless against death and divorce. But hair and makeup will bend to our wishes.

Later this month hair and makeup and cakes and caterers and personalized favors and tulle bunting will take up a great deal of space at St. Paul's RiverCentre. Thousands of people will swarm the convention hall for a thrice-yearly event: the Twin City Bridal Association's Wedding Fair. To hear it described, the event--billed by the association as "the ultimate wedding planning experience"--is a utopian convergence of all the beauty and romance of a wedding and all the more pedestrian, business-like steps needed to make the dream a reality.

There's a stark science behind the event. Every year in the Twin Cities, some 20,000 marriage licenses are issued, and, one can accordingly assume, there are approximately 20,000 proposals, according to Matthew Trettle, vice president of the association. Some 27 percent of those proposals happen over the holidays, between Thanksgiving and New Year's. Another 20 percent take place on Valentine's Day. The January wedding fair caters to those who were betrothed over the holidays; the March one targets the Valentine's Day engagements; the October fair kick-starts the plans for folks who got engaged over the summer months but tabled wedding planning in lieu of enjoying sunshine at the lake. There are about 12,000 formal weddings in the Twin Cities each year, and many reception sites are booked 14 months in advance. The average cost of a wedding locally is $20,000--"Less than the coasts," Trettle offers.

The wedding fair is a tactile enlargement of the dizzy spin that the vendors in attendance hope will take over the mind of bride. A bridal fashion show takes place three times during the day, allowing brides (and bridesmaids, and mothers-of-the-bride) to envision--you guessed it--the perfect dress. You can step inside a state-of-the-art limo, or listen to the strummings of a cocktail-hour harpist, or interrogate a DJ about his show ("When we play 'YMCA' we all come out on the dance floor, dressed up like the Village People"). There's a café where fairgoers can buy lunch and sit in a space that's decorated like a reception hall. "We have a mock head table and cake table," Trettle explains, to give you ideas about votive candles and ribbon-adorned chairs and place-card designs.

If the March 24 event is at all like previous wedding fairs (and yes, I went to the one in January), it will likely be overwhelming. The fair offers an arena--literally--of choices and ideas. But it's about commerce and contracts and deposits, not traditions and support networks and marriage. It's for the many, and that makes it confusing for the few who feel like we don't quite belong here. If the bridal industry's rose-colored view of the matrimonial world were feasible, we could reduce every wedding to a specific set of mathematical values (how many guests + how big a budget + how many months in the future), pop it in a calculator, and expect an answer that amounts to the perfect wedding.

Once I might have been quick to dispense with wedding traditions that seemed ridiculous. Long ago I believed that, as a grown woman, I would have no need to be "given away" by my father. Yet today I feel a little cheated that the choice wasn't mine to make. I would like it much more if the man who raised me could shake hands with the man I will build my life with. There doesn't seem to be room on the wedding industry's template for any combination of joy and sorrow, no matter how clear it is to me that I can't have one without the other.

Perhaps this is why I am stuck on the dress. According to the industry, I am not just selecting a garment. I am choosing a personality, and by extension, I am determining the tone of my wedding--and, the wedding industry subtly suggests, maybe even the fate of our marriage.

But Jen and Cornelia, they're just dresses. And building a life together is something constant, that my intended and I do every day. It's unfair, really, to place the burden of our future on the shoulders of a strapless gown--no matter how pretty. So I return to my spot in front of the mirror, content to narrow my search for a dress that, while perhaps not symbolic of all my hopes for life and marriage, perhaps not perfect, fits just fine.

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