Inside America's wedding-dress obsession

"Traditional" wedding dresses aren't traditional -- so why are we so fixated on them?

Published October 5, 2013 9:00PM (EDT)

Screenshot from "Say Yes to the Dress"     (TLC)
Screenshot from "Say Yes to the Dress" (TLC)

At 11 on a Saturday morning, Julie Petrillo pops a bottle of pink champagne, which fizzes and erupts onto the black walnut floor of the shop where she works. A mother of a bride rushes to get paper towels. Julie pours the champagne into three glass flutes and escorts her customers to a leather couch beside the tiaras and across from a stately silver-framed mirror. She sits in front of them, pen and paper in hand, and begins her first appointment of the day.

“Have you been shopping before?” she asks Kristen, a soon-to-be-bride who’s wearing blue jeans and pink flip-flops. “Did you find anything you really liked? How are you with beading?”

Julie is the manager and primary dress consultant at Bridal Trousseau on Main, a boutique in Branford, Conn., with 500 wedding dresses, as well as a sizable collection of diamond headbands, Swarovski crystal veils, and cutely packaged nipple-concealing adhesives. At work, Julie tends to wear all black, aside from the yellow measuring tape that dangles around her neck. She has plump red cheeks and hazel eyes defined by black mascara and blue eye shadow. In her own words, she freakin’ loves weddings.

Her shop is divided into four galleries, each of which has a couch and a mirror facing an elevated black pedestal. Women in taffeta and tulle perch on the pedestals like plastic brides on wedding cakes; the height of the stand makes them appear taller and thinner than their everyday selves. Other than the black-accented galleries and the black-clad Julie, the store is a sea of white. The walls are packed with racks and racks of white dresses, whose feather skirts and sheer bodies give the impression of a Snow Queen’s costume closet. Tucked into the corner are the ruffled, sequined, flowered and bowed “special-event dresses.” The music in the store is always upbeat, though its subject matter seems to place disproportionate emphasis on breaking up with and destroying men. Taylor Swift belts “We are never ever ever getting back together” as a bride in a Princess Diana-style ball gown dances around the gallery with her plain-clothed friend.

Since this is her first appointment with Kristen, Julie takes her speed-dating for dresses. They start with gowns by Matthew Christopher, which sell for an average of $3,500. In the background Carrie Underwood sings “Before He Cheats,” a song about slashing her ex-boyfriend’s tires to teach him a lesson. Next are the Maggie Sottero dresses, which are made to look like expensive designer gowns but cost much less.

Two years ago, when Julie was selling electronic components to aerospace companies, she came to Bridal Trousseau looking for a wedding dress for her younger sister. That’s when Julie saw the one-shouldered Sottero that lies on the rack in front of Kristen. Even though, in a fit of prodigal indecisiveness, she had already bought three dresses for her own upcoming wedding, Julie was helpless in the face of love. She put down a $500 deposit for the dress at Bridal Trousseau and then set to work like a modern-day Cinderella, selling the store’s extra gowns online, sweeping the floor, and helping customers on Saturdays, to pay off the rest of the $1,000 dress. After she was laid off from her other job — which she explains was the result of posting on her Facebook that she was “happy to have a fourteen day vacation because work is like an abusive relationship” — she was hired at the Bridal Trousseau.

Julie had a fantasy of her wedding when she was a child, which involved a ceremony at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and a party at the Plaza Hotel with a pink, white and crystal color scheme. I had no such fantasy.

I grew up with a feminist rabbi mom who was single by choice and wanted to have lots of kids; my older two siblings and I have donor dads, and my two younger siblings are adopted from Guatemala. Our family network extends across the East Coast and includes my mother’s ex-lovers, loosely defined god-siblings and a gay male father figure who lives around the corner and cooks lasagna for us on Sunday nights.

Even though my mom was never married, she often brought me along to weddings she was officiating. I would sit affably in the audience until we all said mazel tov; then my mom and I would feast on miniature hot dogs and goat cheese tarts in extravagant lobbies while the band warmed up. I could probably recite the seven marriage blessings in my sleep. But when my 25-year-old sister announced her engagement last spring, there was a feeling in my family like, do we do that?

* * *

It’s hard not to wish that the hundreds of marriageable men you might meet in a lifetime were as beautifully curated and easily altered as the dresses in a bridal boutique. Boutiques carry sample gowns that are size 12 and available for anyone to try on. Once you choose a dress, consultants like Julie order it in your size from the designer, and after six to eight months, the dress is delivered. It’s true that you could probably purchase a number of complex jet engines from China and receive them in less time than that, but the lag exists because bridal boutiques don’t have anything “in stock.” Designers manufacture a dress only if someone orders it, so the designer waits to activate her assembly line in China until she has a critical mass of orders.

After the gown arrives in Branford, a seamstress makes precise alterations (for a flat rate of $450) so that the dress fits, for instance, that one boob that’s bigger than the other. The gown is hemmed and a bustle is added so the bride can tie up her train when she wants to dance. She can also choose to change a flat neckline into a sweetheart neckline, or add side seams if she loses weight, or order darts near her bust to prevent the fabric from sticking out unattractively.

At 30 years old, Julie knows from personal experience that controlling a man is significantly more challenging than controlling a dress. She married her husband, Allan, last June after “playing house” with him for three years. She had her first child when she was single and 20 years old, and her second when she was 26 and dating Allan. Julie was worried she’d end up with three different kids from three different fathers, so she told Allan she wanted to get married.

They bought an engagement ring when she was pregnant, and Julie told her soon-to-be-fiancé to put the ring in the safe under their bed and give it to her when he was ready. She thought the perfect time for the proposal would be right before the baby was born, or when the baby was born, or in the recovery room after the baby was born, but they came home with their new infant, and he still hadn’t proposed.

“I’m like, ‘When are you going to propose?’ So he stops playing a video game, goes and gets the ring out of a safe, comes back, gets on the wrong knee, grabs the wrong hand, and says, ‘Will you marry me?’ And I was like, oh no, I did this, I know it’s my fault.”

Julie wore the ring for eight months, but then she gave it back to Allan and said she was sorry she had forced him to propose, and that he should do it again when he was really, truly, actually ready. He waited six more months, and then took her to Michael Jordan’s, an upscale steakhouse/casino in Southeastern Connecticut. He didn’t get down on one knee, or make a big spectacle out of it. He just said, “Before I met you, I really didn’t have much going for me. Since I met you, I turned into this better person. And I really just want to be with you forever.”

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.

By Zoe Greenberg

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