Not long after Steve and I got engaged, people started asking about my wedding dress: had I looked for a dress yet? Did I know what kind of dress I wanted? When was I going to go shopping for my dress? Those who knew me well knew, enthusiastic fashionista that I am, that finding The Dress would likely be at the top of my bridal to-do’s.
I hemmed and hawed in response to their questions. Of course, I’d thought about it. Yes, I had a pretty good idea of what I liked. Then as fast as I could, I’d change the subject.
Because the truth was that buying a dress wasn’t just at the top of the list. It was already checked off.
True confessions: I bought my dress before we got engaged.
Steve and I met in February. We took things slow at first, but it was pretty clear by early May, when he introduced me to his sons, that there was something special between us. We were planning a beach trip for later that month, and in preparation, I met my girlfriend Melissa at a salon for pedicures. She and her boyfriend had met and really liked Steve, and we chatted back and forth about our fellas and summer fun as the manicurists pampered and polished our toes. Melissa was amazed Steve and I were already planning a week-long trip together. At the drying station, we stuck our feet under the UV lights, and she began flipping through a fat wedding magazine. Then she handed it to me. “Here, you need to take a look at this,” she said, teasing. “You two are going to be married within the year.”
I laughed off her prediction, but I wondered if she was onto something—I didn’t think we’d be married, but I thought we might be engaged. My relationship with Steve was different from any I’d ever had before—happy, easy, right. I flipped casually through the glossy pages of the thick tome. So many dresses. Some so elaborate and enormous, I wasn’t sure how a bride would ever get in (or out) of them, or move under their weight. And if she could move, how she’d manage not to take out a few people on the dance floor swinging a skirt the size of a small planet.
Then, I turned the page, and gasped.
It was an ad for a Nicole Miller gown. Simple, elegant, romantic. I couldn’t stop staring at it. Nothing else in the magazine had made me look twice (well, except to contemplate the contortions wearing it might require). It was my dress.
The only problem was, I wasn’t engaged.
A few days later, feeling a little embarrassed, I bought a copy of the magazine at CVS. I marked the page with my dress (as I was already thinking of it), then flipped through the rest of the magazine again, testing out whether anything else caught my eye. The only other dresses that registered were ones that echoed the Miller. I hid the magazine from Steve, feeling foolish, a little afraid he might bolt if he knew I’d bought a bridal magazine.
I’d had various thoughts over the years about what kind of dress I’d wear, were I ever to get married. For a long time I thought I’d go vintage, and I still liked the idea. At one point I considered asking my mother to make me something. More recently I’d seen a pattern for a gorgeous crocheted dress in a 1930s style. But even if I’d started crocheting that day, I didn’t think my skills were sufficient to make it happen, regardless of lead time. Besides, if I’d started spending my evenings with white yarn and a crochet hook, the jig would soon be up.
Steve and I went to the beach, and I put the dress out of my mind. Then, later in the summer, I made a girls’ trip to DC to see the Indigo Girls at Wolf Trap with my girlfriends Shannon and Sharon. When we grabbed dinner at a Mediterranean restaurant in a nearby mall, I noticed something: a Nicole Miller store. We had some time to kill the next day, and Sharon asked what we wanted to do.
“Sooo,” I said, “I know this sounds crazy, but there’s this dress…”
Sadly, the store was moving soon, and they had already sold the sample in the style I liked. But the saleswoman was amazing. I wasn’t wearing a ring, but she took my interest in the dress seriously, even pulling out an iPad to find the style number and name on the website. They did have a short version of the dress on the floor, so I slipped it on.
I loved it.
The short dress was on sale due to their impending move. I was tempted, but I wanted a long dress, and I didn’t want to jinx things by buying a dress before I had a proposal. Ahem.
The saleswoman suggested we check Nordstrom. They didn’t have the dress either, though they had several other Nicole Millers. The women working there sniffed at us and chatted in the corner, ignoring me while I tried on one of the available styles. It made me think of that scene in Pretty Woman where all the snooty salesclerks turn up their nose at Julia Roberts’ character until Richard Gere goes with her and drops thousands on new duds. If and when I did go dress-shopping for real, I knew I wouldn’t be going back to Nordstrom’s. Sharon and Shannon oohed over the gown as I modeled it in a giant forty-seven-way mirror. It was a pretty dress, but it wasn’t the one.
For a while I hoped Steve might propose before the dress was pulled from rotation, but I didn’t dwell on it—the dress or whether we’d actually get married. We were having too much fun, traveling to New York, training together for a 10K, having a big multi-family Christmas—growing closer and falling deeper in love. Then, one day in January, I was bopping around online and decided to look for the dress in the designer’s online Lookbook. I couldn’t find it.
My heart sank. I’d missed my window. I was more and more certain Steve and I were heading toward marriage, but it looked like I’d wearing something else to walk down the aisle.
On a whim, I decided to check e-Bay. I clicked through several pages of silk and satin gowns, none familiar. And then: there it was.
I couldn’t believe my luck. I opened the link to read details. It was in my size! Ivory instead of white, but ivory looked better on me anyway. And—an added bonus—substantially discounted off the retail price.
Steve hadn’t proposed yet, but this might well be last call for the dress. What to do? I was still afraid of jinxing things, and I’d never actually tried on the long version of the dress. I’d also had a bad experience back in high school, buying a prom dress a good year before I could expect to wear it, and later wishing I wasn’t stuck with it. Had I met my dress match? Should I take the leap? I messaged Shannon to ask her advice. She smartly pointed out I could always re-Bay it if I didn’t need it or decided on something else. Emboldened, I took the plunge.
And a few second-guesses
When the dress arrived, I had mixed feelings. It was indeed beautiful, and almost ridiculously comfortable. But celebrating seemed premature when I didn’t yet know if I was going to have an occasion to wear it. Plus, I’d always envisioned doing the big dress shopping excursion with my mom and my girlfriends. Having a gown already hanging in my closet, however much I loved it, felt a little anti-climactic. Had I made the right decision?
Then I modeled for a bridal show.
Although they didn’t put me in a wedding gown, I wore a full length bridesmaid’s dress with a long corset I had to be laced into—and once I was laced into it, I could barely bend. No way was I sitting down. A dress like that would make for a fun reception. Add to my discomfort watching the women in wedding dresses require a full entourage to get them dressed, then follow them around, managing their voluminous trains, and I began to think, hmmm.
Later, after Steve and I were engaged, I noted the big chunk of every wedding planning book that was devoted to choosing a dress: pages and pages of fabric descriptions, silhouettes, warnings about ordering a year ahead, and deadlines for multiple fittings. There was a time in my life when all that might have sounded fun. In my forties, with a job, a house, two cats, and a life, multiple hours spent standing on a dais while being pinned and tucked is more persecution than princess. I spent 25+ years looking for the love. I’m too damn tired to spend months agonizing over the dress.
True love at last
So maybe there’s some benefit to having a little more life experience on this one, knowing what you want and going for it. At this point I know what I like and what suits me, and I know to give comfort its due. There are lots of lovely dresses, many that flatter in different ways. But some are difficult to manage; they’d require contortions to fit myself to them, leave me feeling suffocated, unable to move. Choosing a dress is like choosing your love. When you find the right one, it just fits, and you know.
Oh, and two last words of middle-aged wisdom, ladies: Stretch. Lace.