She told me if she could go back, she wouldn’t have pushed him to give her the ring. “I would have left it alone. I would have let him do what he wanted, I would have let him pick the ring he wanted — well, the ring …” she says, and trails off, suggesting that she may not regret her interventions as she’d have you believe.
* * *
Julie does help women buy diamond tiaras and lace veils, but above all, brides want help looking skinny on their wedding days. As a size 18 (20 in bridal) Julie understands this desire intimately. Most of the saleswomen at Bridal Trousseau are about a size 2, and Julie, who describes herself as “pear-shaped,” says that her dress size is part of the reason she’s so successful at her job. At some boutiques, the saleswomen don’t know how to dress a plus-size bride, so they’ll just throw an A-line gown her way, because they think it’s the only silhouette that can fit over her boobs.
As soon as Julie became manager, she ordered bigger sample dresses so that larger women could try on all the silhouettes in the store. Plus-size gowns cost about 10 percent more than their counterparts, which Julie suspects is the reason that bridal sizes run small. If you’re a size 16 at J.C. Penney, you’ll be an 18 at Bridal Trousseau, and designers can label you as plus-size and charge you more. Although this decision may make sense for designers, it causes problems for Julie, since her primary job is to make her clients feel smaller.
* * *
Julie knows exactly what type of gown looks good on exactly what type of girl. “For a pear-shaped girl I think the best thing is a drop-waist gown … which hugs your hips to about five inches below your hip-bone. So that way people know where your hips are. The apple shapes I know have huge boobs and a huge stomach and then chicken legs … for that you need a corset gown with a lot of ruching. It could be a ball gown, but the bodice has to come to the shape of a V… If you have a bust and a small waist, and hips, you should absolutely be in a mermaid gown. If you hide that, shame on you.” Pencil-shaped women should wear slinky, streamlined dresses with keyhole backs that are “very fitted but not structured. Like an upscale nightgown.”
One afternoon, I watch Julie corset a bride named Gina, who is also pear-shaped, with a baby face, wide hips and broad shoulders. Julie yanks the dress’s built-in zig-zagging silk ribbons tightly across Gina’s back; Gina says she doesn’t mind if it hurts, as long as she looks skinny. Satin digs into her sides, and her breasts spill over. Her three-person entourage says she’s never looked better, though they wonder whether she cares about the ability to walk on her wedding day.
Kristen is tall and thin, and she doesn’t need Julie’s help with corsets. After four failed dresses, she stands on the black square pedestal in the middle of the gallery in a simple organza gown with a round train. The back is held together with powerful metal clips that look like pliers.
Kristin likes the dress, but she came to the Bridal Trousseau having already fallen in love with a more traditional dress she found the weekend before at another bridal shop. Now she’s torn between the two. She’s worried this one is too simple, and maybe even boring. She runs her fingers up and down the front, tracing the line of her hips in the organza.
Everyone keeps saying that you just know when you find the right dress, but the actual moment of choice doesn’t seem so certain. There’s a lot of indecision, and worry, and long moments examining your body in the mirror and wondering if it will ever look the way you want. Kristen pulls out a picture of herself in the other dress, and she and Julie examine it together.
“Look at your hips in that one, and look at them here,” Julie says pragmatically, like a close girlfriend. Later she tells me that as soon as she saw the picture of Kristen in the other dress, she knew her job would be easy. “It was just blah. It did nothing for her shape … it was an organza, it was hip-hugging and then went out. It made her hips look huge. And I’m in the business of making everyone look skinnier.”
Finally, after closely examining pictures of both dresses and looking as if she’d rather die than make a choice, Kristen decides to buy the dress. Julie says, “So is this your dress?” Kristen nods. Julie says congratulations. They hug, with Kristen raised four inches above the ground in her shimmering new gown, and Julie solidly on the floor in her black slacks and sparkling gold flats. After Kristen changes back into her street clothes, she signs a contract stating that the sale is final. The gown is her gown. Though as she signs, she watches another bride try on the same dress one gallery over.
* * *
The concept of a traditional gown, and a traditional wedding, is pretty much totally made up. Well into the early American Republic, brides got married in their best dresses, which were usually gray or black or brown. But in 1840, Queen Victoria wore a white gown to her wedding; as often happens with queens, Victoria’s fashion choice became popular, and wealthy brides started wearing white to their weddings, too. By the 1930s, almost all brides could afford white dresses, since factories were mass-producing gowns with white synthetic fibers.
In the 1930s, bridal magazine editors, jewelers, etiquette writers and fashion designers invented the conventional wedding as part of an ad campaign to sell their products. As Vicki Howard skillfully argues in her book “Brides, Inc.,” the wedding industry wanted women to think of an elaborate white wedding as a timeless rite of passage, even as wedding fashions changed from season to season. The ads worked: In 2006, weddings were a $70 billion industry; the average cost per family was close to $30,000.
True to the trend, Julie got married in 2011 with a $33,000 wedding. Her wedding ceremony at St. Vincent’s was very traditional: “I picked all my hymns … covered my shoulders, blah blah blah.” But her wedding reception was a bit different from Queen Victoria’s. She and Allan had a huge party with “colors that were very Miami,” turquoise up-lighting, and a martini bar. The whole affair was a tribute to the New Haven nightclubs where Julie and Allan first met and to their favorite house music DJ, Tiësto. At one point in the night, Julie and her nine bridesmaids changed out of their gowns and into velour sweat pants and white tank tops. They descended the stairs to Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls),” and everyone went nuts.
“It was just– so much freakin’ fun,” Julie says. “It was worth the 30-something thousand dollars, ’cause I’ll never forget it.”
* * *
The more time I spend with Julie at the Bridal Trousseau, the more I realize how many words you need to learn if you want to sell wedding dresses. First I learn the different silhouettes (A-line, ballgown, fit-and-flair, trumpet, mermaid) and then the different fabrics (chiffon, lace, organza, satin, silk, taffeta). Then I begin to pick up essential miscellaneous vocabulary: “commandos” are the seamless silk shapewear that women wear underneath their gowns; when the fabric at the top of the dress looks like a stylized heart, it is a “sweetheart neckline”; “ruching” is a sewing technique that creates small ruffles on a bodice; and “body forms” are the cardboard silhouettes that Julie places inside dresses to make the bust look bigger. The plier-like clips are called “pony clips” and sell for $1 each at Home Depot. Julie says they were originally designed to fasten wires together and to attach outsize tarps to garages.
Most important of all, I have no idea what a trousseau is until Julie and her boss Lisa, who co-owns the store, explain it to me one afternoon. Julie says it’s French for trunk, and Lisa says it’s your dowry. Not only what you’re going to wear, but also your place setting, your dishes, the cows that your dad wants to send with you.
“Your aesthetic, your personality …” Julie says.
“Whatever you were worth,” Lisa says.
“Whatever you were worth,” Julie agrees.
There is something deeply comforting about the idea of the timeless white wedding. If you buy a white gown, and you spend hundreds of dollars on a cake, and you go on a honeymoon, then maybe you’re just like everyone else. Maybe your relationship, with all its uncertainties and complications, can pass for normal. You can fall neatly in line with your mother and grandmother and great-grandmother and every other bride.
But this also explains much of the anxiety I saw. What if you don’t want a fancy wedding? Or you have qualms about spending so much? Or you don’t feel how a bride should feel? What if, in fact, you can’t pass at all?
* * *
In the fall, my boyfriend and I broke up in part because I was wary of marriage. Not just with him but with anyone. I liked being his girlfriend, but I had doubts about the idea of committing to someone for the rest of my life. We sat on my bed and he said he felt he constantly had to chide me into monogamy; we kissed, and then I was single.
It is a strange moment when I ask Julie to choose a hypothetical wedding dress for me. She plays a game with her customers: She tells them she knows which dress they’ll buy, and she whispers her pick to a family member. At the end of the appointment, she’s almost always right. When I ask her what my wedding dress should be, she doesn’t hesitate. “Sophisticated, slim-line, not much beading …” She rifles through the rows and racks of tightly packed gowns and asks me where I’d like to get married. I say the forest. She knows the exact dress I should wear.
My wardrobe throughout the year consists mostly of Target T-shirts, some of which have holes, and skinny jeans I haven’t washed in at least a month; I wear the same pair of scuffed snow boots every day from November to March. But the dress I try on is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Made of duchess silk satin with lace flower beaded appliqués covering the bust and starting again below the hips, it was designed by Watters & Watters and costs $3,700.
Julie says it’s the ultimate outdoor dress. The lace flowers are raw-edged and would look good against the gnarled trunk and fallen leaf backdrop of the forest. It’s fitted against my torso and then flairs out below my hips — the Princess A-Line Silhouette. I tuck my cotton bra straps into the satin interior of the dress; Julie rolls the back and clips it so it looks like my size, though I still have to pick up the bottom so I won’t trip as I walk to the gallery pedestal.
I stand in front of the mirror and Julie arranges the train so it falls gracefully behind me. She explains that wedding dresses are supposed to “kiss the floor,” so brides look as if they’re floating. She puts a veil on my head.
“Do you think this is kind of what you would do?” she asks. I look in the mirror, at the veil with lace piping that falls to my shoulders and at the embroidered lace train that blooms at my feet. I can picture being content, in my 40s, playing with my kids in some green yard in Philadelphia, near the woods. It’s harder for me to imagine wearing a veil and walking down the aisle. But I look so bridal! I finger the frayed beaded flowers and touch the satin that clings gracefully to my torso. I understand why women put on a wedding dress like this and start crying. We hope that if we make the right choice here in front of the mirror, the rest will follow.