A few weeks back, I was digging around for a picture, and in the process of looking for one picture I uncovered decades worth of memories. Here I was by the pool one Thanksgiving at my old apartment in California. That was where I cooked my first turkey. Here, in another photo, it was Christmas Eve at my mom’s house. I was with my best friend, wearing matching Santa hats. She was so beautiful as a girl. I have become accustomed to her as a woman and had forgotten how much I loved and admired her then as well. Weren’t we supposed to take off and travel the world together? And, then, here were the wedding photos of our Christmas wedding.
I noticed that it was an intimate party. At one point in the service, my father-in-law was holding my flowers since my sister was fixing my veil. He was chided the rest of the night for being my flower girl. I remembered that I did not have my hair professionally coiffed when I saw the backstage image of myself taking out bobby-pinned curls in lingerie before I dressed. Did I look like that? Who took that picture? The flowers were white roses, accented with holly berries and leaves, and my bouquet was a solid bundle of red roses. Oh yes, and, here was our friend from Chicago… with his hair dyed blond? Why was he hanging out with my girlfriends in my room the night before I was married? And, didn’t my mom inadvertently catch his shirt on fire with some incense? Yes, that’s right. Very innocently, smilingly, moving casually, she patted out the near tragedy sparking on his back side, saying in her best southern accent, “Oh, my! We put a little hole in you, didn’t we?” A little disgruntled, he muttered, “That was a new shirt.”
The one great indulgence of the wedding was the dress itself. It was ivory with blush colored roses embroidered on the tulle overlay of the big skirt. I was not concerned that people would think me a non-virgin in ivory, but it was mentioned to me as a consideration. I loved the bustle in the back that was gathered from the generous material of the gown’s train so that I could walk and dance at the reception. The friendly ladies who sold me the dress came to the wedding specifically to make sure the bustle was perfectly drawn. The bodice had a gentle piping, which made the top sort of stand on its own. The same ladies also insisted that I have some extra padding in the top. Come to think of it, they seemed to have been globally concerned with the success of the garment and me in it. I wore a white silk wrap around my shoulders, which made me feel like Grace Kelly. The covering was my favorite part, which I added at the last minute. The photos prompted me to get out the dress once again, for I had not looked at it in the nearly fifteen years since I had it hermetically preserved following the wedding. So far, it had not yellowed. I was surprised to see how funerary it looked through the peep window, sealed up as it was in a box around cardboard shaped like my torso. It made me think that perhaps I should be buried in it some day. This thought has discomfited me with a complexity of sacramentality, morbidity, practicality, humor, despair, love and sorrow that I have yet to comprehend or shirk.
I have ruminated about the wedding dress on and off over the years because choosing it was so emblematic for me of life itself. Here I was in a shop filled with beautiful options. In each iteration of myself as a bride, I could experience and even broadcast different emotional and cognitive dimensions of myself as a person. This jacquard A-line with no frill makes me feel grounded, while this one made of spun cotton makes me feel ethereal. This one with lace around my neck makes me feel modest and dignified, while this one cascading off my shoulders makes me feel ambrosial and desirable. This one is innocent. This one is indecent. What shall I look like? What shall I say about myself? What shall I be? In the end, you choose one. One dress. One day. One spouse. One life.
Or, maybe none of these. Maybe, you run off with your girlfriend to Europe or even the guy you set on fire in the hotel room. Maybe, you forsake the dress and marry in blue jeans. Maybe you marry no one at all and collect lovers like driftwood and seashells. But, for each choice made, the others remain unelected.
Modern first world culture invites us to unprecedented opportunity for options in consumption. We seek simulation, especially when many of our fundamental needs for survival have already been met. The consumer economy invades the self with aspirational messages about who we can be, how we express our identities (especially through brand choices), and how we broadcast ourselves and receive others in relationship. Is this the malaise, namely, the too muchness of opportunity and the inaccurate, yet implied, presumption of endless options for our lives? For in the end, of the many beautiful and attractive options, we still must choose. And, for all the criticisms I can have of this mode of living, I cannot deny being formed and informed by it. Maybe this is why the wedding dress haunts me, or maybe I am still just a little afraid of that scary bridal figure with the beating red heart at the apex of the Haunted Mansion ride at Disney World.
In any case, as I approach another round of holiday consumption, and look forward to another year of choices, I will try hard to honor genuine creaturely freedom and even to find it again within myself where it is lost, just as I will try to eschew the burden of consumer choices that in so many ways actually obscure our ability to be free.
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie is currently writing Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.
8 thoughts on “The Wedding Dress by Natalie Weaver”
Canadian sociologist, Erving Goffmann [1922-1982], author of The Presentation of Self in Everyday
Life, once said, circa 1959:
‘The world, in truth, is a wedding’.
Erv’s quote appears in Louise Purbick’s book, The Wedding Present: Domestic Life Beyond Consumption,
the title of which puts me in mind of sanatoriums and the cult of invalidism.
I wonder if men have feelings about their wedding day tuxedo and the cumberbund that
co-ordinates with the colour of the bridesmaid frocks. No love greater hath man that
he agrees to be snapped wearing sea foam green.
The wedding dress becomes something else in the wake of failed expectations.
When I joined the Catholic Church long ago (though I’ve dropped out since then), I had to buy a dress for the ceremony. So my sponsor, a Sister of Charity, and I went to Macy’s in NYC, and where I tried on all sorts of dresses and showed them off in the dressing room with her sitting there on a wooden bench, letting me know what she thought would work, or mostly not, because it had to fit in with the sacredness of the ceremony.
It was the most fun time imaginable, and she seemed to enjoy it also. It’s as close as I can get in my life to a wedding dress. The dress we chose was a gorgeous, deep cobalt blue, with a straight skirt, 3/4 length sleeves, a tie at the waist, and a rolled collar round the neck, a winter dress, because the ceremony was taking place in December. I say that I have left the Church and I have, but still in my heart there is a bond that doesn’t go away, and that dress has something to do with it.
*sigh* A winter dress. What would Ceres/Demeter wear?
Thank you for your comments. On our tenth wedding anniversary, I had a chance to revisit the whole dress issue. I wore a little cape to our party that had a white faux fur trim. It was really simple and pretty and resembled closely the first runner up, that is, the wedding dress I did not wear. In that simple, warm wrap, ten years later, I felt much more earthen yet much more divine than I had in my princess frock.
Great question, thanks!!
The thanks above was for Heqet’s insight!!! — and Love the faux fur trim, Natalie!
Really liked this post. Why is it that wedding dresses are so “triggering”?
Especially taken by “I was surprised to see how funerary it looked through the peep window, sealed up as it was in a box around cardboard shaped like my torso. It made me think that perhaps I should be buried in it some day.” Whoosh!
First thought: back in the Victorian days the bride was expected to wear her wedding dress to all social occasions for a year to advertise her new status. They also had requirements for how long a widow had to wear black.
Second thought: I heard the story of a woman who wanted to wear her mother’s wedding dress for her own wedding. When she asked her mother, mum replied that they had cut up the wedding dress years ago to make curtains (a reverse Scarlett O’Hara!).
Third thought: In some cultures white is considered a color of mourning, widowhood. In these cultures, wedding dresses are often red or some other bright color.
Fourth thought:The biography of the wedding dress, ala Sergei Tret’iakov. What systems of human social relations does an object pass through as it goes from creation, consumption, destruction, and reuse?
Thanks for your comments. I consider sometimes whether we are already buried beneath the weight of such garments, which also makes me think that living is in many senses a perpetual process of dying – dying to self so that we can live for others; dying to self because we have lived for others; dying to self because we simply are impermanent so we plat dress up while we can.