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The Unbridled Joy Of Wedding Dress Shopping

A friend of mine once told me he “could never marry a woman who thought the wedding dress was important.” It was an interesting statement to make, given that the friend in question had asked me out on more than one occasion and knew that I had a longstanding love of dresses. It served to prove what I had always known: that we were not remotely compatible and never had been. If and when the day came, he wanted his bride to wear a business suit. We would not have worked on any kind of level.

Aside from misjudging his audience, his comment rankled me because of what it implied. To me, it sounded like he was suggesting that women who cared about their attire were inferior somehow. As if wanting to look and feel amazing on the most important day of our life was frivolous. It felt like he was drawing a line between superficial women who cared about the dress and sensible women who got married in suits. I did not appreciate the insinuation at all.

I explained to him that just because a woman thinks the dress is important, it doesn’t mean the rest of the day isn’t. The significance of the wedding ceremony is not lost on us because we bought a posh frock. Quite the opposite. It’s because we recognise the gravity of the occasion that some of us care about the dress so much.

A wedding is many things: a celebration of love, a public declaration of commitment, and a legally sanctioned contract. If, like me, you’re a hopeless romantic who was raised on a diet of Disney films, it might also be the joyous culmination of a lifelong dream. So why on earth would we not care about what we wear on such a momentous occasion?

The reason I bring this up is because I recently bought my wedding dress. It was a wonderful experience, and I came away more convinced than ever that my stance was correct and that my friend’s remark lacked reason. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that the dress is the be all and end all, nor is it the most important aspect of the day. For some people, the dress just isn’t that big a deal. They have no intention of shelling out huge amounts of time and money, or they simply aren’t able to. Others regard buying a dress as an expensive chore-a box that needs to be ticked, preferably with as little fuss as possible. I get it. I am just not one of those people.

Buying the dress was a huge deal for me. As cliché as it is, I would be lying if I said I hadn’t dreamed of getting married ever since I was a little girl. In nursery, I used to strongarm my friends into playing weddings over and over again. Ben, a friend of mine who lived next door but one, and with whom I was very taken, played the groom. Naturally, I was the bride. The fixation was there from a young age. Again, I blame Disney.

Like many women on the hunt for their wedding dress, I went in with a pretty clear picture of what I wanted. I knew I wanted something romantic, most likely A-line, with sleeves of some description, a nice back and high(ish) neckline. It also had to be a showstopper. I wanted something that would stand out, something unique. I’d seen countless pictures of average dresses, many of which were remarkably samey. I didn’t want that. I wanted to look bridal, but not like every other bride. When I relayed all of this to the consultant over the phone ahead of my appointment, she said straight away that I should take a look at the Oleg Cassini gowns. To nobody’s surprise, an Oleg Cassini is what I ended up buying.

It was the fourth dress I tried on at my first appointment. The way it works at David’s Bridal is you pick out your top three from the rails, and if none of those are right then you can try two more wildcard options. The first dress was stunning. Halfway between an A-line and a ballgown, it had a built-in corset that made my waist look tiny, an illusion neckline and cap sleeves. The only thing I didn’t like was the narrow plunge at the front but that could easily have been covered up. The second dress was a more fitted mermaid style, and while it didn’t look hideous, it definitely wasn’t the way to go. The third was another good pick: a soft A-line with a flowing skirt, long sleeves and jewelled belt. However, it didn’t have the wow factor that the first dress had, and this had a much lower plunge which I simply would not have been comfortable with. Apparently there is a fashion for low plunges at the moment. You see it all the time on shows like Say Yes to the Dress. Women turn up wanting a dress that “shows off the girls,” and while I’m a firm believer in each to their own, I can’t say I get the appeal. Perhaps I’m more old-fashioned that I realise, but I for one do not want my boobs on show on my wedding day. Anyway, I digress.

Having tried on my top three dresses, number one was still the frontrunner by quite a way. The consultant asked if I was up for trying a wildcard, and suggested a dress that my stepmom had spotted earlier while we were browsing. I tried it on, and while it was lovely, I didn’t like the fact it didn’t have sleeves. According to my consultant, that could be easily remedied. She fetched some long lace sleeves, pinned them into place and added a belt to nip the waist in that bit more. And just like that, the dress went from, ‘It’s lovely, but…’ to being absolutely perfect. I remember staring at it in the mirror, unable to believe the transformation, and that was when it hit me. The “bridal moment” everyone on the TV talks about, when the emotion comes and you know with absolute certainty that this is your dress.

I could have said yes there and then, but I had another appointment booked in and I didn’t want to let the lady down. We all knew that dress was the one. I knew it, my stepmom and future mother-in-law-knew it, the staff knew it. But I still wanted to make sure. Buying a wedding dress is a big decision, and if I hadn’t gone and looked elsewhere, I would have spent forever wondering if I could have topped that fourth Oleg Cassini gown. The answer, unsurprisingly, was no. Nothing in the other shop even came close, and so later that day we went back to David’s Bridal.

The staff were not remotely surprised when we turned up. The lady on the front desk laughed and said, “We knew you’d be back.” My consultant had told me earlier that she was free from four o’clock onwards, and had booked me in for that time knowing I would show up. She got me back in the dress, belt, sleeves and all, and this time she even added a veil.

There is something magical about veils, I’m sure of it. You wouldn’t think these delicate bits of fabric had the power to finish off an already stunning dress, but they do. Somehow, a veil pulls everything together and brings the whole ensemble to shimmering life. It’s like they’re woven through with fairy dust. They possess this mysterious ability to take a girl in a wedding dress and transform her into a bride. I wasn’t sure I was going to have a veil at first, but the moment I saw the effect it had, the decision to have one made itself.

It was lucky we went when we did, because the dress I chose was actually being discontinued that day. There were four left in the warehouse in the US, and by paying the deposit I was able to secure one of them. The knowledge that I might not have been able to have it had we gone later feels serendipitous to me. My stepmom was very pleased at having been the one to spot the dress. She was also the one who suggested that my stepsister try on the dress she would later go on to choose for her wedding, which shows just how well she knows the both of us.

While my dress ticks all of my boxes, I cannot say it is exactly what I envisioned. This is hardly surprising, given that every time I go dress shopping I end up with something different to what I imagined. I went in knowing that what I came away with was probably not going to match the image I had in my head, but it would be the right one. Some women go in with such a narrow vision of what they want-such a rigid set of criteria-that their dream dress proves impossible to find. The best way to approach it, in my opinion, is to know what you want but have options within those parameters. For example, I knew I wanted sleeves, but I wasn’t dead set on a particular type. Whether I go for full-length sleeves like the ones I tried on, cap sleeves or three-quarter, I still haven’t decided. But the fact I was open to several different things meant I had more options, and the result was a bespoke dress that fits my personality exactly.

I’ll admit the cost was a little higher than I had originally anticipated, but it’s worth it, not just because of how the dress looks but because of how I feel wearing it. To be honest, the consultant could have said any number up to £2000 and I would have paid it. You see I wasn’t just buying a garment-I was buying a feeling. I was buying a wish fulfilled and a set of dreams for the future. I was buying a milestone, and to me that is worth shelling out for.

There is a superficial element to choosing a wedding dress. Of course there is. The idea of wearing a beautiful, show-stopping gown is undeniably appealing, and your wedding is the perfect opportunity. But there is so much more to it that just playing dress-up. I’ve written before about the transformative effect the right dress can have on your mood, bearing and confidence, and wedding dresses are no exception. The consultants get it. They understand that the wedding dress is both a reflection of who you are as a person going into your marriage, as well as the person you hope to be going forwards.

When I stand in that room and say those vows, I want it to be as my very best self. Not my everyday self, the one who gets up and goes to work, goes to the shops and does chores around the flat. I can be her any day. Being my best self means looking the part, making the effort. For me, choosing a beautiful dress is another way of showing my fiancé how much I value him and our relationship. It is my way of acknowledging the importance of the day, the commitment I am making and the beginning of a new phase in our lives. If I didn’t care about those things then I wouldn’t bother. I’d rock up in just any old thing.

I do get the argument some people make, that you are marrying the person you love most in the world and therefore what they wear and how they look on the day shouldn’t matter. If that is how you feel then fair play. You do you. But I don’t feel that way, and that’s OK. We dress up for all sorts of other occasions, after all. No one told me I was wrong for wanting to look nice at prom, or striving to look smart for job interviews. The way we dress can be a reflection of the situations we find ourselves in, and so grand occasions call for grand attire. It’s a way of showing how you feel about an event. I make the effort to dress nicely for other people’s weddings because it’s their special day, and how I present myself should acknowledge and reflect that. So you can bet your life I’m going to go all out for mine.

You’ll be glad to know that the friend in question has mellowed considerably since he first made the remark about not wanting to marry a woman who thought the dress was important. We’re not in touch very often nowadays, but the last time I saw him I asked if he remembered saying it and whether his feelings had changed. He said they had, and that his bride could wear whatever she wanted. He also accepted that whatever she wanted was unlikely to be a business suit. I don’t think he ever meant for his words to sound judgemental, and I think I probably inferred far more from them than he intended. I also know that as a practising Christian, the religious aspects of the day are going to be his primary concern, whereas those are not applicable to me.

However, my original points still stand. If your wedding dress is important to you, that is not a bad thing. It does not reflect negatively on you in any way. It does not make you silly, or superficial, or frivolous, or any of those other words we use to describe women who care about what they wear. Whatever your reasons for caring about the dress, know that they are valid. Your reasons might be different to mine. Some people will never quite get it. But wanting to look and feel good on your wedding day is, believe it or not, a perfectly acceptable way to be.

Lauren Phillips is a language teacher and writer with a deep love of words in all their forms. She uses writing to help her process her own tangled thoughts.

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