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The Dress Add to ...

I am trying to remember the dream I had before my wedding day. It involved, of course, my mother. She is raising the veil on my face, and then gets it tangled in my hair.

Other women, I discovered, also dream before they walk the aisle to the altar. They dream about the dress getting dirty, about losing the dress. After all, we call it the dream dress: the single garment that symbolizes the fulfilment of hopes nurtured since childhood. But it is also fraught with fears.

Because marriage is such a pivotal moment, its most visible symbol looms huge in the psyches of women. And it's a preoccupation, says culture critic Camille Paglia, that has proved remarkably resistant to change. "I recognize and respect the intense identification many young women feel with the wedding gown and wedding ceremony," Paglia says in an e-mail interview, "as demonstrated by the enormous popularity of bride's magazines, which 30 years of feminism have done nothing to change. Feminism has too often arrogantly dismissed such evidence of the dreams and tastes of real women."

New York bridal designer Vera Wang has made a powerful business out of the obsession with the dress. She describes it as something "akin to madness" in her lavish new coffee table book Vera Wang on Weddings, which itself reminds me of a dress in its use of translucent pages and overlayered images.

"It happens two weeks before the wedding," says Justina McCaffrey from her Ottawa salon, where she is designing the dress for the high-profile June wedding of prime ministerial offspring Catherine Clark.

"I'll be fitting them and the brides will say to me, 'Last night, I had this really weird dream.' And it's always about the dress."

There are some common scenarios. The bride arrives at the ceremony to find everyone staring at her aghast. She thinks she looks all right until she looks down and sees that she's isn't wearing the dress at all, but a pair of see-through harem pants. Or the dress is covered in blood or people are tugging and tearing at the dress, which becomes muddied and unkempt.

"Of course, it's not about the dress itself," says McCaffrey. "It's about their relatives forcing them to do things they don't want; or it's about their lack of communication with the groom."

In my case, the lack of communication was with my mother. She has always said my success is her success, so I have had to be perfect. So did my wedding. And so she chose the dress I was to wear, which wasn't an articulation of my dream as much as it was hers. She wanted respectable; I wanted high romance. When I think about that dress, nearly seven years later, I still feel the urge to cry.

Catherine Cooper, the designer behind Urban Bride on Toronto's trendy Queen Street West, listens patiently as I tell my dress story. She's used to it. Sitting in her atelier, at the centre of which is a huge jar of pacifier foods like Oreos and Peek Frean princess cookies, she says, "I tell my brides I charge $20 an hour for sewing, $100 an hour for counselling." She is only half- joking.

"I learn their entire psychology," says Cooper, "what they grew up with. For the most part, it's a not a fashion job. It's psychotherapy."

And so she analyzes me, and she is worth the $100: "The first thing I think when I hear you say you asked your mother to go shopping with you for the dress is that you wanted to bond with her; you wanted her approval. And you wanted her love."

Designer Lana Lowon doesn't listen to mothers. She gives them a glass of champagne and shoos them out to the garden so she can give her full attention to the bride. Her wedding dresses are clingy, low-cut sheaths -- dresses for the bride as sex bomb. I can see myself in one of these, fully in charge. Alas, her salon wasn't open when I was getting married.

Lowon is a firm believer that life is about dressing your fantasy. She designed evening gowns for her actress/model clientele with partner and husband Jim Pope before turning to wedding gowns in 1996. She sees the wedding dress as the ultimate dress-up.

"My clients don't want to feel like an offering given up at the altar. That's very important, because this is the sum of who she has been to this point in her life, it's the girl she was, and it's the woman she's about to become. And so she dresses sexy. She shows her body in bias-cut dresses that flatter her figure. If she's not ready for that, if she has a bad body image, then she'll get one of those pouffy gowns. That's what they're there for: to hide the body, hide the girl."

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