Wedding dress shopping is not like it is on Say Yes to the Dress. Yes, you do try on a few dresses at a time and you have a dedicated attendant. But you can find a gorgeous dress under $5000 and the alterations department doesn’t need at least 5 months to tailor it to you. The store and trying on spaces are nice, but everything isn’t opulent. You don’t have a private viewing room or plush couches for your family and friends to rest on.
Trying on wedding dresses, at least at the David’s Bridal I visited one Saturday in April, is crowded and not really private at all. The dressing rooms are small, white boxes without furniture or a mirror and the remaining space is half taken up by the skirts of the dresses hanging above your head. You can hear the other future brides bumping into the walls on either side of you, the clip of metal on metal as they hang up or take down their heavy dresses. In my case, I needed my attendant Kim inside the room as well to help me in and out of each dress. I fought the skirts into the corners just so she would have a place to stand after she closed the door.
When you come out in your first dress, the platforms are so crowded that the only space where you can reliably see yourself is in the mirrored door of the dressing room you just came out of. Attendants angle the doors of the dressing rooms behind you to help you see the back of the dress. You’re looking in between other future brides, flower girls, bridesmaids, various motherly persons, and fleet-footed attendants.
The benefit to the crowds is that it makes for a very encouraging environment, with strangers complimenting you and offering to help flare you train or take photos. But it’s far from private and can feel visually and audibly overwhelming.
Before my maid of honor Kayla and I went dress shopping, I very intentionally avoided Say Yes to the Dress, bridal magazines, and the wedding dress section of Pinterest. I didn’t want my head so full of the images I’d seen that I couldn’t concentrate on what was right in front of me and didn’t want to fall in love with something I couldn’t afford. That is similar to an old shopping rule of mine: never try on something you can’t afford.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about how I found my dress.
My amazing attendant Kim looked like River Song, with curly dirty blonde hair that hung loose down her back. She wore all black, like all the attendants, and was about 7 months pregnant. I mention this because she only worked for 4 hours at a time once a week (she couldn’t stand up longer than that) but still had incredible knowledge of the store and inventory.
Kayla and I had looked around before my 12:30 appointment (yes, you really need to make an appointment) to get an idea of what I liked, and showed Kim my favorites. She pulled 4 of them and I tried them on in order of least skirt pouf to greatest.
I’ve never been one of those women who wants to feel like a princess, but I have a thorough imagination and these were the nicest, royal-est dresses I’d ever tried on. One was a fit and flare corset dress that felt like it would be owned by a Russian countess. Lace overlay the entire dress, only splitting on one hip to reveal the tulle underneath. I liked how I looked it in but I’d been hesitant to get a corset because it takes so long to get in and out of. I’d like my wedding day to go smoothly, and that requires functionality. I’ve also always been of the opinion that lace is rather dowdy. This dress looked beautiful, but it better suited another era, and another color. I imagined the countess who’d wear it would have had it made in exquisite red and gold, a matching kokoshnik, the shape of which would indicate where in Russia she’d been born.
The other dress I really liked in that first batch was a ballgown with a sweetheart neckline and a drop waist covered in exquisite beadwork. It gave my waist great shape and made me feel like I could confidently descend a staircase, Cinderella style. It also kind of felt like I had been squeezed into a very large bangle: the bodice didn’t give at all. And if this was Cinderella’s dress, I can see why she’d lose a shoe by midnight. The skirt was unwieldy and that stiff bodice would make breathing harder and harder as the hours, and dances and songs, ticked by.
Because Kim had listened carefully to what I noticed and liked about the previous dresses, for the next batch of dresses she focused on heavy detailing that would give me good shape. Among these was an a-line dress so lacy and beautiful that it felt like a trick. This one I could imagine looking great on camera in a Hallmark movie (one of the higher budget ones, probably), with the gorgeous lace loops at the bottom. But it was much too long, so those loops would have to be detached and moved up to hem it. We’d discovered that both ivory or soft white dresses looked great with my skin tone (which Kayla said was “kind of unfair, frankly”) but here we discovered my nemesis: blush. The pale, dusty pink made my skin look really red. The lace at the sweetheart neckline tickled the tender undersides of my arms, not in a good way.
The last dress I tried on was a “trust me” dress. It was mermaid cut, which I’d told Kim I didn’t want, but it had a lot of great beadwork and would show my shape, and Kim had a good feeling about it. The other dresses felt like dressing up to play a role, but this one felt like putting on something that was already mine. I came out to “Ohs” from Kayla and the various attendants, brides, and their mothers nearby, which was a good start. Kayla started tearing up, which was even better. Looking at myself in the mirror, I felt excited. I instantly knew how I wanted my hair and started holding sections up to try to get a similar effect. I remembered the lime green mermaid dress I’d worn to junior prom, the Princess Jasmine bell I’d yearned for at a shop in Disney World when I was eight. Maybe those two good memories were partly why this dress felt so familiar. Kim pulled a sash from a nearby rack and, drawing it over my waist, the dress felt complete. It felt like me. I wasn’t imagining who would wear this dress; I knew that I would.
Having a bride try on a veil is a secret trick employed by Say Yes to the Dress attendants to making waffling brides say yes, already, but I didn’t want to be that person. I didn’t want to be convinced by a square of tulle. But I wanted to see what I’d look like on my wedding day. I was still working up to asking for a veil when Kayla suggested it. And because she had, I felt relieved, like what I wanted was valid. Which is why she’s my maid of honor and best friend: she helps me trust myself.
While Kim searched for a veil and hair comb, I trotted around on the raised platform, swooshing the skirt and kicking the train out of the way, testing my range of movement, and picturing Tyler’s face when he saw me in it. When Kim tucked the veil into my hair, Kayla really did start crying, though she would call it “a little misting.” The veil was the perfect length, embroidered with beads in a similar style to my dress. It cupped my shoulders, which I hadn’t realized I’d wanted until that moment. And, looking at the full effect in the mirror, I understood exactly where all those wedding dress and veil clichés come from.
During Say Yes to the Dress’s heyday, I watched marathons while walking or jogging on my mom’s treadmill. The visuals were fun and engaging, and I didn’t need to hear the episode to follow along (that treadmill is ridiculously loud). I observed many beautiful shapes and variations of dresses, many troubled familial dynamics, many women who knew what they wanted but were afraid or unable to claim it. One evening, while watching an episode in the living room with my mom, I told her I felt overwhelmed by all the options. How would I be ever able to pick a dress? I tend to make quick decisions about what I like and don’t like, even if I had no opinion the moment before a choice was put to me, but I’m also terrified of making the wrong decision. I worried that that the uncertain, afraid part of me would render me incapable of choosing. I didn’t voice that I was afraid I’d never have the opportunity to choose a wedding dress because I feared, with exactly one short-lived relationship under my belt, that I would never marry.
Mom, however, had no such concerns.
“You will,” she assured me. “You’ll know when it’s the right dress just like you’ll know when it’s the right guy.” I felt skeptical, asked how I’d know, and didn’t much appreciate Mom’s, “You just will.” But my blessed, compassionate, funny mother knows me. And she was right. She knew it when I called that April Saturday, gushing about the dress we’d found and asking her if she could come up to see it with me when she and my dad came to visit in a couple of weekends. And, because she knows me, knows how I make decisions, knows about my under-budget-to-try-on rule, and knows I like to have a choice made and over with quickly, she and my dad encouraged me to go ahead and buy it.
TV brides exclaim their yes to their wedding dress, their eyes often shifting self-consciously at that last moment, though they can rarely hold in their smiles, and everyone claps and cheers. I suspected this was done up for the cameras, but I did feel like there should be some tradition, some spell or phrasing, to indicate that I’d made my final decision. If my attendant had asked me if I was saying yes to the dress, I would have willingly fallen into the script. However, David’s Bridal has a different tradition. When you’ve decided, your attendant brings you a big gold bell with a black handle and you make 2 wishes, one for your wedding day and one for your future. Then you ring the bell and everyone in that loud, crowded, glittering little heart stops what their doing to clap and cheer for you. It’s a moment just about you. The loved ones you brought and the strangers around you celebrate the choices you’ve made to get you to this moment and the future you’re planning.
I think that’s a much better tradition.
Read about The Ring here.