In 1975 when I married Dave, I wore my mother’s wedding dress. It was of cream-colored satin with long sleeves, a fitted torso, and flared skirt. Simple and lovely. Tradition comforts me, and I felt the dress was a link to my young parents and their day in St. Louis twenty-three years before.
My bridesmaids wore long blue and white gingham dresses with square necklines and puffed sleeves, the epitome of seventies prairie splendor. I so loved those Gunne Sax creations that Dave bought me one as a wedding present. It was the perfect outfit for Colonial Easton Day when I wore it last, eighteen years ago.
Mom has our shared dress wrapped in tissue, stored in a long white box up in the attic or in a closet somewhere, but, while a fifties dress worked well in the seventies, it’s not going to fly in 2016, so with glee and wonderment, I’ve tagged along with Casey on her quest for THE dress.
“The Plumed Serpent” conjures a haughty, feathered snake. Purple perhaps, with emerald eyes, and a flickering black tongue, a sidekick for Aladdin’s genii. Nowhere in the words lies the flounce of a wedding gown, yet Casey’s search began at a shop of that name. Karis, Casey’s maid of honor and traveling partner in Asia, and Lisa, her dear friend and cousin Trevor’s wife, joined us for this opening plunge.
Was champagne offered? Yes it was, and we were thrilled with our treat as Karis, Lisa, and I settled on a sofa in front of a low stage before an expansive mirror, while my daughter disappeared into a dressing room with the consultant.
Shortly, Casey returned, smiling sheepishly and rustling in layer upon layer of tulle. It was not my girl’s style or choice, but she looked pretty and amused, and wasn’t that part of the process, to play princess and see what might work?
Next, she shimmied forth in a form-fitting lace number, and then, in an ice-white movie-star sheath. In each, she looked beautiful, but never captivated, and every time she re-appeared, I scanned her face for a sign that something in this or that dress had what she wanted. There was a flicker of interest in a gown with Grecian lines, but the cut was such she couldn’t get it over her hips, which was discouraging and underscored the challenge and risk inherent in this mission.
For, unlike every other clothing purchase, wedding shops carry only one sample, one size, of each gown, so even a likely prospect entails guesswork. To give some clue as to how the finished product might look, the consultant clamps, cinches, and belts loose fabric. If the dress is too small, it stays unzipped or unbuttoned, held together by clamps connected by ribbons, just enough to give a vague sense of its effect. Can you imagine? Such jimmying and jamming of flesh and fabric, and still the bride-to-be must take a leap of faith that the addition or removal of panels, lace, straps, and sequins, will produce the effect she wants for her wedding day.
While we did not find a dress, the Plumed Serpent was an excellent introduction, and armed with new insights, Casey made an appointment at Kleinfelds in New York. Have you seen “Say Yes to the Dress?” I have not, but Kleinfelds is the setting for this popular reality show, and while the store has been an institution for years, it has gained celebrity through television exposure.
The day of our visit was bitter cold, and newscasters had solemnly warned listeners to bundle up. People pudgy in fleece, wool, and gender-neutral parkas raced briskly to restaurants and coffee shops. Noses peeked from multi-wrapped scarves and woolen hats pulled low over brows and ears. Heavy socks and Uggs were featured footwear, except for Casey who opted for thin socks and Frye boots. “My toes are freezing,” she groaned. “What was I thinking?”
She was thinking of chiffon and lace of course, and with relief, we spotted Kleinfelds and hustled inside.
This, most surely, was a temple to marriage. The reception area was cavernous, with a lofty ceiling supported by Corinthian columns, their capitals ornate with curling plaster leaves. A graceful white orchid and green mosses sprouted from huge urns. To the left of the front desk, a stately mannequin, chin thrust skyward, shoulders proud, her face a mask of ennui, stood resolute beneath the weight of great waterfalls of satin that, to my thinking, would slow a bride down.
My daughter sat beside me on a velvet loveseat, flipping through bridal magazines while we waited. Her long auburn hair tumbled over her parka-padded shoulders as she dabbed on some lip-gloss. “Nice shade,” I said.
“’Infallible’,” she replied, brandishing the tube so I could see the name on the side.
I gazed at my girl, lovely in any case, spruced up with mascara, eye shadow, and “Infallible,” to emulate her wedding-day look as she tried on dresses. I could feel the prickle in my nose, a little sting in my eyes. “You look beautiful, Sweetie,” I said. She tilted her head to one side and smiled a baby sloth smile. My dear one.
“Hello! I’m Diane! I’ll be your consultant today!” We snapped to attention and shook hands with a reed-thin woman dressed in a stylish black pantsuit and heels. Her blond hair was long, with bangs cut straight across her brow, and I guessed she was about my age. Her smile was broad, many-teeth-broad, as she led us into the showroom in back and chatted with Casey about her wedding plans, venue, budget, and design preferences. The two of them headed for the dressing room and left me to survey my surroundings.
My, what a bustle! Floor length mirrors were arrayed throughout the large room, each with a low, round platform before them. Clusters of mothers, maids, friends, and the occasional bewildered father gathered before those platforms, watching with loving eyes as their youthful brides-to-be swished and turned in dress after dress. Against this flowing vista of attendants, gowns, and mirrored images, I spotted a pert nose, bright blue eyes, and wisps of blond hair well-muffled in a scarf and parka. Karis.
After hugs and pleasantries, Karis’s eyes drifted from mine and focused somewhere over my shoulder. “Oooooh! Sparkly things!” she cooed. I followed her gaze to a lavender wall of arched niches lined with shelves of brilliant accessories. “Disneyland for ladies!” crowed Karis as she tried on a jeweled tiara, admired pearl-encrusted combs, and ran a finger beneath pairs of dangling earrings. “What’s this?” she asked a salesperson while placing an intricately woven headpiece, a “Juliet cap,” it turned out, over her hair. “Perfect for pilates, don’t you think?” she said.
“Karis!” called Casey as she and Diane swept into the room. The girls hugged and squealed a bit, then Casey mounted the platform for our viewing. The dress she modeled was “light and airy” according to Diane, but to me, the peach-colored satin was flimsy as a nightie. None of us loved it, so they returned to the dressing room for the next round. While I preferred a fitted white dress with a ruched bodice, Casey liked a cappuccino lace. “I look pretty in this, I think,” she said, but her tone was flat, her expression, uninspired.
And Karis and I knew what we wanted to see in Casey’s face, for one mirror over, we’d witnessed another girl’s moment of discovery.
The woman was pleasant looking, short, and stocky, probably in her late twenties. Her brunette hair was caught in a messy knot on the back of her head. The dress she chose – a strapless sequined bodice with a voluminous multi-layered skirt of scratchy tulle - was nothing either of us would have selected. But as she twirled and swished, her hands buried in the folds of her dress, her smile brightening to rapture, her radiance filled the room. “This is it!” she exclaimed, clapping her hands and jumping up and down, delighted as a child. She loved herself in that dress. Hearts full, Karis and I grinned at each other, and clapped along with everyone in the vast room. As the young woman retreated to the dressing room to change, reluctant to change, her reflection flowed with her from one mirror to the next, and she beamed at every glorious vision of herself as she passed.
That is what I want to see when my daughter finds her dress.