Weddings are like dreams not in the sense of fairy tales, but in the sense of being strange, disjointed departures from daily life that you shouldn’t assume anyone else wants to hear about. But that never stops anybody. Mine happened a year ago, to a man I’d been living with for seven years, dating for eight and a half. We married in the dinosaur wing of the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, Washington. Instead of educational fossils, envision giant 1970s animatronics, rolling beady eyes and jabbing forelimbs, growls playing over hidden speakers. The dinosaur sounds weren’t muted for the ceremony, so our declarations of love were interrupted by pterodactyl shrieks.
There was very little that could be called traditional, probably nothing that could be called formal or elegant. There was one possible exception: the dress. It was white. There was beading. It came down to the floor in ripples of polyester satin. It was a “gown” instead of a “dress,” even though I’d never worn a “gown” before in my life, nor am I likely to again. I was very pleased to have paid only $40 for it.
This was the whole story, the complete narrative of the dress: it had once been someone else’s dress. I’d side-stepped the Bridal-Industrial Complex—avoided the posh salons of Say Yes to the Dress, the bloodsport of a Filene’s Basement sale, the wedding departments of Nordstrom or Macy’s, even the Wal-Mart of the wedding world, David’s Bridal. A 2012 NPR Planet Money exposé on wedding gown mark-ups profiled an otherwise budget-conscious bride who’d been seduced by a $3,500 gown. The average wage at a Chinese wedding dress factory is $150 per month. Piece workers might earn 40 cents per skirt. Planet Money commenters scolded the remorseful bride for assuming she was paying for fabric or construction: “You are paying for being the center of attention and indulged by everybody for a long period of time. You cannot expect to receive that kind of attention and focus and then call ‘foul’ when you get the price.” But what if you’re not dreaming of luxury bridal shopping, gliding down an in-store runway in front of a phalanx of family and friends?
I’ve never even been comfortable with regular shopping. Years of dressing a body that is five feet tall but not “petite” in any other sense of the word has more often been a chore than a pleasure. It is not hyperbole when I say that I would generally rather go to the dentist than to the mall. Neither my mother nor my sister lives nearby, but I thought protocol still required inviting them to help. “You know how you are about shopping,” my sister said darkly.
I turned to Craigslist.
In the original ad, my dress hung shapelessly against a dark wooden door. The listed size was more or less my street size. In the sea of strapless gowns the style stood out: empire waist, V-neck, thick straps. It was $40. I emailed. The seller turned out to be advertising her sister’s dress-as a stay-at-home mom it was easier for her to meet with prospective buyers. The address was in a depressed suburb of Grand Rapids, small homes on dead-end streets curled against a highway. A neighbor stared suspiciously as I parked in front of a tiny, pale blue house. Suzi was at the door immediately to greet me, shaking hands and introducing herself. The house opened on a brown-carpeted living room filled with baby gear. There was a dark kitchen to the back, and two bedrooms, one at each side of the living room. A baby smiled at me from a blanket on the floor. A puffy white garment bag slumped on a brown couch under the front window.
“I thought you could try it on in here,” she said, taking me to a small bedroom, the walls lined with a changing table and two white wooden cribs. I fumbled on the dress. The shoulder straps were far too long, making the neckline alarmingly plunging. There was only one mirror in the house, Suzi had explained, so I waddled into the second bedroom, where Suzi was changing her other baby. I held up the straps awkwardly, realizing that I’d forgotten to shave my underarms, and met Suzi’s eyes in the mirror from where she stood behind me, holding a used diaper.
I knew I was supposed to be gauging not so much whether the dress simply fit (or could be made to fit with judicious strap-shortening), but whether this dress was the one. On television, the act of selecting a wedding dress is more akin to a religious experience than a consumer act. If people were expected to buy anything else the way women buy bridal gowns, civilization would come to a standstill as we stood in grocery stores, waiting for divine direction as to what would be uniquely right for dinner.
Without a saleswoman, without my mother or sister or friends, without God weighing in, I just had Suzi to help me decide. She smiled encouragingly. “It fits you really well,” she said.
“You think?” I asked. How could I tell? I’d never worn something like this, never even pictured myself in something like this, at least not since childhood dress-up games. This was a dress-up game, I thought, a socially sanctioned one for adults. I kept turning in front of the mirror, trying to figure out if I liked what I saw.
“It’s hard to wear with a bra,” she offered, mine clearly visible. “My sister paid to have one built in. I think it was expensive.”
“I’m sure it works great. I just figured I’d try on someone else’s clothes with my underwear still on.” I meant this as a gesture of respect, but Suzi heard it as squeamishness. The bottom was dirty, she offered. The dress was in good condition, but would have to be cleaned.
“I’m so short,” I said. “I’d have to get that whole part cut off and hemmed anyway.”
“You look great,” she offered.
“Would you tell me if I didn’t?”
“Sure. I’ve had two other calls already. I’m not worried about selling it.”
Her sister had spent a long time looking for this style, she said. The dress had cost a few hundred, maybe another hundred for the alterations. As we talked I hoped she’d reveal why her sister was getting rid of it. I fished as subtly, then un-subtly, as I could. Finally, I just asked.
Suzi shrugged. “No reason to keep it. I got rid of mine. It takes up a lot of closet space.”
“I guess it’s the kind of thing you only use once. Money’s more useful than a souvenir.” I could feel the word “money” fall flat, feel her bristle.
“I think it was mostly about the closet space. I mean, it takes up a lot.”
I hurried to agree. “And she got married this summer?” I added, reconfirming something I’d read in the ad.
Suzi seemed to finally understand what I was getting at. “They’re still really happy. She just needed closet space.”
Traditional bridal salons do not sell off the rack; they transmit each bride’s order to an overseas factory so that bridal gowns are, technically, made-to-order, even when they’re mass-produced. Wedding dress retailers assume that brides won’t want to wear a dress anyone else has even tried on, much less actually worn. Online, sellers announce, “Never worn, never altered!” or “Only worn three hours!” Some brides try to suggest that they’re doing their poorer sisters a favor: “The dress was purchased for $1,717. I am selling it for $800 OBO because I would love to make a budget bride’s wedding day truly amazing.” A shocking number of brides are indecisive enough to buy multiple dresses, and unable to return the extras. Other brides don’t want to look indecisive or flighty, but also don’t want to admit that they’ve been left at the altar: “My wedding was cancelled,” some ads say, carefully omitting who might have done the cancelling.
Most postings were short, laconic with sadness or embarrassment. A few sellers wanted to share their stories, and they began at the very beginning: “I bought it for a wedding,” as if there were some other common purpose for a large, white gown. Outside of a debutante ball or a quinceañara, there is only one possible thing people do in dresses like these, and seemingly, only one possible way to look while doing it. Hundreds of websites and bridal magazines offer tips on choosing a wedding dress, but they uniformly assume this means a big white gown. The only decisions to be made involve the neckline, the volume of the skirt, the amount of embellishment. Edgier brides are assured that they do not have to choose white: ivory is an option.
As inescapable as it is now, the tradition of the white dress dates only to the 19th century, and its primary message was never about moral purity or sexual virginity. For generations, European and American women married in the nicest clothes they already owned. The dedicated wedding gown, in white, originally gained popularity as an expression of wealth-what decadence, to design a dress that pairs the palest possible color with a length designed to drag along the ground. These dresses are meant to get dirty. Their trick is showing that you don’t care. That you have the money and closet space to pay a preservationist to clean and seal your dress in a box for the daughter you don’t yet, and may never, have. The daughter who will never wear it anyway, because wedding dresses change with time like anything else. One decade’s big white dress is not another decade’s, and someday the early 21st century’s strapless looks won’t be any more tempting than the puffy sleeves of a 1980s Princess Diana dress.
The assumed reason—purity—has become increasingly ludicrous in modern American society. But the other—wealth—is as powerful as ever. Perhaps the most obvious route of rejection is to fetishize thrift. I felt so sneaky cruising Craigslist, my finger in the eye of the people who would charge me thousands of dollars for a one-use-only white dress. But why did it not occur to me to wear something else altogether? My fiancé and I let our “wedding party,” consisting entirely of our two sisters, wear what they wanted. We didn’t give ourselves the same leeway. He settled on a dark suit that he already owned-the only suit he owned. He looked like a groom. In my white dress, I looked like a bride. We could have stood on top of a cake. Except that we didn’t have a cake. We’d decided to serve donuts instead.
Even if Suzi’s sister’s marriage had already ended, I would not have disqualified the dress. But it made me happy to know that the sister was happy. I thought about asking for her name, but I had no legitimate reason. From the thin lines of powdered foundation visible on the straps and bodice I could tell we were more or less the same skin tone. This would be all I’d ever know about her.
As I was trying to figure out how to consummate this interaction, how one should say yes to the dress while standing alone in a stranger’s bedroom, Suzi reached into the skirt and unfastened the train I hadn’t realized existed. I was alarmed at how much more dress there suddenly was pooling around me. Suzi tried to put it back. Her hands crept upward towards my thighs as she searched for the fastenings.
“I really like it. I’d like to buy it,” I finally said, and Suzi’s hands retreated from my stubbly legs. I returned to the children’s room, giving the baby on the blanket a little wave, trying to seem like a good person, like someone you would want to get married in your sister’s wedding dress, even after she implied she didn’t want her bare breasts to touch it.
I changed and returned to the living room. “I’m glad to have a dress that made someone else happy,” I said. “And then I can pass it on again later.” Suzi just nodded, found the Velcro tabs that bustled the train into the skirt. I handed her two twenties. She bundled the dress into a garment bag that included a clear plastic pouch with bobby pins, little artificial flowers on wires, a crinkly white garter. “I’m not really sure what all’s in here,” she said, “but it’s yours now.”
Some women who never have that moment of divine confirmation in their dress, who don’t just know, end up comforting each other on online message boards like The Knot: “Thanks girls. I think I’ll just forget about that feeling. It was just literally everyone who talks to me about it says that I’ll know when I put it on and what not. I think I am focusing too hard on that and not the actual dress. Media plays a big part in this! LOL!” The modern bridal consumer: savvy enough to know that media plays “a big part in this,” but not savvy enough to escape its influence. I knew I didn’t want the bridal salon experience. But I’d then strategized how to acquire the exact thing they sold.
Our wedding photographer asked me if there were particular features of the dress I wanted highlighted. I couldn’t think of any.
“But what drew you to that dress in particular?”
“It was 40 bucks?” I tried.
I sounded like a parrot, bragging about those forty dollars, forty dollars, forty dollars, as if thrift were the only acceptable reason for my decisions. I could have bought a sundress from TJ Maxx for $40, but I didn’t. I could have worn something I already owned for free. As The Atlantic recently admonished, “Your Ironic, Low-Key, Unconventional Wedding Is Still a Wedding”: “If you see yourself as the kind of person who wouldn’t want a white dress, say, you may find yourself explaining-to yourself, to friends, or to a mass audience-why you went with one.” The rise of the Bridezilla has spawned the anti-Bridezilla, the woman either embarrassed to admit she cares about tablecloth colors, or who genuinely doesn’t care but still has to make the decision-as I’ve learned, the caterer won’t do it for you. A jewelry designer quoted in The New York Times notes the increasing popularity of nontraditional engagement rings: “A lot of gals don’t want to look engaged. They seem to want something that blends in with them more.” But having gotten engaged, whether with a diamond or a candy ring pop, the vast majority of women choose to get married in a garment that does not blend in with their regular identities at all. The traditional wedding dress looks nothing like most of the women who put one on. It didn’t look “like me.” But it made me look just like a bride.
The day of the wedding, as our photographer led my fiancé and I around the Seattle Center, the crowded tourist area home to the Space Needle and the Pacific Science Center, strangers shouted out congratulations. People grinned just seeing us walk past. I’d never been stared at so much with such pure and lovely goodwill. I’m sure somebody was annoyed or glaring, but what washed over us, what I wasn’t prepared for, was the communal joy.
“I got tenure this summer, too,” I could have shouted. “I’ve published a book!” Those accomplishments were invisible, individual, kind of geeky. But there I was, wearing a big white dress, and everyone could see what we were doing. Marriage was a shared rite of passage I’d disregarded or delayed for eight years, only to realize two hours before my wedding how personally powerful its collective recognition could be. But I think some part of me had realized earlier. Some part of me had wanted a uniform.
The centripetal force of the white wedding gown can be seen not only in weddings like mine, but in weddings that were once unthinkable. My own marriage to an Asian-American man, now neither scandalous nor striking, was once illegal in thirteen states. At the time of our wedding, same-sex marriage was legal in almost exactly that many states, a number that more than doubled in the following year. There is now a segment of the American population perfectly poised to rewrite the entire book on weddings, to remake our mental images. But check out a wedding fashion blog like Two Birds Nest (“Weddings to admire & inspire for lesbians, queers, trans*, and everyone else”) and what you will see is white dress after white dress after white dress. Happy couples in two white dresses, or one white dress and one tailored white suit, or two white suits. There are exceptions, but the continuity is striking. Women, even when they are marrying other women, gravitate seemingly inevitably towards white. Is this affirmation of tradition something we actively want, or something we lack the imagination to see beyond?
In the months leading up to the ceremony, I’d gone alone to have the dress altered at a narrow storefront I’d passed a thousand times on the way to work. A brusque Vietnamese woman pulled a flowered curtain around a small changing booth. “Dirty,” she commented as she pinned up the shoulder straps. She knelt on the floor, looked at the bottom of the skirt. “Very dirty.”
“I know,” I said. “I bought it used.” I glanced at the garment bag hanging on the wall. It had ripped in several places and was now covered in strips of packaging tape.
“Hm.” She sounded disapproving as she spread out the train in a huge half-circle.
“I don’t think I really want a train,” I said.
“I don’t think so?” I said slowly, ready to consider counterarguments. In silence, the seamstress whipped out a pair of scissors and began slicing off the entire half-moon of fabric. This was not a place for indecision, for talking over the options with female friends or sales associates. “Very dirty,” she said, shoving the amputated fabric to the side. She stood and tugged at the sides of the dress; I should have been calculating how much more expensive this alteration would be than a simple hem and straps, gauging if it were really necessary. But I was too busy being stupidly flattered; I’m never too thin for anything, but apparently I was thinner than Suzi’s sister.
When I returned to pick up the dress, I had to wait a long time for the changing room. There was another bride, very young and toned and tan. She’d brought her mother. Her bag was not covered in packaging tape. When I tried my own dress back on, the skirt still seemed too long. I marched back and forth across the narrow shop. “Stand up straight,” the man at the cash register said. “Stop looking down.”
I stood as elegantly as I could, tried to imagine myself walking down the non-existent aisle to the science demonstration stage on which we’d say our vows. The space looked like an underfunded elementary school classroom, a giant sign overhead reading Live Demonstrations. My fiancé and I had joked about adding a banner reading .of Love. It seemed like an accurate definition of a wedding. The dress still felt too long. I tried to pretend that the other customers weren’t looking at me. “You look nice,” the other bride’s mother said.
I thought of Suzi, holding a diaper while her baby wriggled on the bed. It takes a village, and when the bride does not bring her village with her, bystanders have to intervene. The mother at the tailor shop could see I needed reassurance, that I was only pretending to be able to do this alone. I retreated to the changing booth, still trying not to trip. I asked for the dress to be shortened. “I’m too clumsy for this length,” I tried to explain.
The garment bag ripped in two more places between the seamstress and my closet. The morning we packed up the car to drive from Michigan, where we lived, to Seattle, the zipper broke. It died closed, so that the dress was sealed inside until I was willing to rip open the bag for good. I’d had the idea of removing the dress at campsites and hotels, a mini photo-essay of the dress in a tree in North Dakota, a picnic table in Minnesota, a bridge in Spokane. Instead, the bag lay limp on the pile of camping equipment in the backseat. When I got pulled over for speeding in Montana, the Highway Patrolman noted our license plate. “You’re a long way from home. Where’re you headed?”
“To Seattle,” I said. “To get married.” I jerked my head at the garment bag, proof positive of my story. He wrote me a ticket anyway, but lowered the speed. “Twenty dollars off,” he said, “and no points on your license. That’s your wedding present.”
When I arrived in Seattle I paid my ticket online, then made an appointment to get my hair done for a bargain price by saying I was going to a wedding, but omitting the fact that it was mine. I only tripped up when the hairdresser asked me what I’d be wearing that night. I haltingly described a flattering fictional dress, which, if it existed, I would wear all the time. I would wear it to anyone’s wedding but my own. At mine, I lifted my skirt in ungraceful handfuls, still trying not to trip. After the alterations and cleaning, my $40 dress had leapt to $250. Even paired with shoes and jewelry I already owned, it was officially the most expensive thing I’d ever worn. Todd and I said the words we’d written for each other, in front of the people we loved, who laughed only in the places we wanted them to laugh. We toasted with sparkling wine from Costco. On the live demonstration stage, a Science Center employee ignited an honest-to-god fireball.
On the drive back to Michigan, the dress rode again across the backseat. I finally got my picture at a campsite in the Black Hills of South Dakota. We arrived in the rain, light fading fast, so we split up, our first division of labor as a married couple. Todd found firewood; I staked the tent before full dark. It was nearly impossible to get the fire going, and then the smoke from the damp wood coaxed back the migraine that had dogged me for the previous two days. In the morning, with my skull hammered open and the sky gray and still threatening, we packed up the site. Hotels from here on out, we agreed in surrender. Todd used up as much of the food as he could, scrambled eggs buried in bell pepper and onion. As he washed dishes, I fetched my dress from the car, leapt to hook it to a tree branch.
In most of the photos, the dress floats against the brown and green pine forest, white wrapped in translucent blue plastic. I was trying to avoid capturing the plastic tubs tied with bungee cords, the bright green tarp covered in wet dirt and pine needles, Todd washing plastic bowls printed with skeletons from a Halloween sale. I helped him pack up the car, and then realized I’d taken the wrong set of pictures. I snapped one more, the dress foregrounding our dusty hatchback, Todd leaning against the bumper. What I should have been celebrating all along: not the fairy tale of nature combined with the fairy tale of the dress, but the fairy tale of the dress combined with Todd washing dishes, then waiting patiently by our car to start the long drive home together. A photo of our eighth year together and our ninth, and the strange shining day that made a before and after, even if the after has turned out to be almost exactly like the before.
In the after, I routinely wear to work the same shoes I wore to my wedding, a pair of blue heels I also wore for my graduate thesis defense years before. They’re lucky shoes. The dress I could only ever plausibly wear again for Halloween. Synthetic fabrics can’t be evenly re-dyed, especially not a wedding dress, with its mélange of fabric types and embellishments. Queen Victoria, who triggered the vogue for white gowns, had her lace dress disassembled and altered so she could wear pieces of it again. Even the Queen of England felt self-conscious about packing her dress away merely as memory or heirloom, and I can’t quite get over it, either.
After the wedding, I mentioned to my mother my intention to sell or donate the dress. I feel like I made some kind of promise to Suzi and her sister, albeit one Suzi hadn’t even acknowledged. “Oh, don’t do that,” my mother protested, more sentimental about my gown than she’d been about her own. She also pointed out that, given the improbabilities of my body shape, I may have had my dress altered beyond usefulness to anybody else. But if anyone reading this wants it, let me know. We’ll work out the shipping. I will be honored if you want to wear the dinosaurs and donuts, to slip into Suzi’s sister’s happiness and my own, and make it yours. The dress is white and long and polyester. It is not new-with-tags. It has most definitely been worn. There’s no train anymore, no garment bag. The hem is black from walking through Belltown after the Science Center closed. We ended up at a dive bar called the Five Point, where my husband used to drink years before we met, before we ever arrived in the same city. I scraped my elbow on the exposed brick of the outdoor patio and drank bad wine out of a scotch glass. There are no photos of this. I clopped past the jukebox to the restroom, hitching up my skirt. The dress still felt like a costume, but with the wedding concluded, the tablecloths chosen and used and then wadded away by the caterers, I could fully embrace the role. Not Bridezilla, but Princess of the Five Point. “Your husband is looking for you,” someone told me, the first time anybody had said that to me. I was someone’s wife now, a role lovelier and more strange than the others, a too-big dress in a stranger’s house that still, somehow, became mine.
Caitlin Horrocks is the author of novel The Vexations (Little, Brown, 2019) and the story collection This Is Not Your City (Sarabande Books, 2011). Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories, AGNI, The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, The Pushcart Prize, The Paris Review, Tin House, One Story, and elsewhere. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and teaches at Grand Valley State University and the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. (updated 7/2019)