When people find out what I do for a living, the first thing they ask is for me to tell them my worst stories. I work at a bridal shop, and they want all the gossip about women who insist on getting their way, who demand too much, or cry, or ask for your cell phone number so you can dash across town armed with needle and thread to save the big day. (Yes, that last one has actually happened.)
It’s a strange occupational choice, I’ll admit, given that I was never a kid who hosted Barbie weddings or cut out pictures of tulle gowns from magazines. In my big Italian family, weddings were productions that required banquet halls, large guest lists and fog machines to set the scene.
But they never seemed like fun to me.
I didn’t know it then, but behind all the glitz and glam weddings were also occasions that meant confronting one’s social status, complex family dynamics and body insecurities.
Working at the bridal shop, I learned that weddings amplify everything. Cherished traditions go hand in hand with expectations and opinions on colour, cut and whether or not something “looks like a wedding dress.” When I saw a family or bridal party debating the merit of one dress over another, what they were really arguing about was how a woman should be.
Because despite what some well-intentioned, body-positive commercials might have you believe, for most people, a wedding dress should be tasteful, traditional… and make them look as skinny as possible.
Or at least that’s how the bridal industry can make a woman feel. Take Dorothy*, who came to me already having found her perfect dress elsewhere. She told me she couldn’t afford it—even with her not-insignificant budget—because the salon quoted her an extra $400 just to make it in her size.
“Excuse my language, but that’s bullshit,” I told her. “I’m going to find you a dress.”
She described the gown she had in mind—something fun, fitted and entirely impractical—and I helped her into our shop’s closest approximation. When she couldn’t pull the sample-size dress over her hips, I suggested she lift her arms and slide into it from underneath. I crouched and pulled the hem towards the floor. It wouldn’t move.
“I don’t think it’s going to work. I’m sorry,” I said, as I grabbed the top of the gown to help her pull it off. It still wouldn’t budge.
I didn’t want to let on how embarrassed I was, not for Dorothy, but for myself. In that moment—with the dress bunched up around her shoulders, her arms poking out helplessly—I realized that despite my best intentions not to reinforce this bride’s worst insecurities, I’d failed.
Unwittingly, I’d become part of the problem. I eventually got her unstuck, opting instead to clip the dress to her bra and leggings as if she were a paper doll. I asked her to imagine what it would look like in her size and she, remarkably, told me she could. I gave her a discount, offered to throw in a veil and told her how sorry I was.
Dorothy left happy with my reassurances that her dress would fit. “Hopefully,” she said, “It’ll be too big by the time I try it on!”
Then there was Blanche, who began her fittings as a bridal-size 4, but had dropped to almost a size 0 by her wedding date—despite insisting she wasn’t trying to lose weight. At her final fitting, her friend high-fived her and exclaimed, “You did it!”
“Well,” she replied, “I have to look my best.”
This is the lie women have been sold about their wedding days: this is the most important thing you will ever do. This is your biggest accomplishment.
For better or for worse, in order to successfully do my job I had to become part of a machine built to convince women who were otherwise my peers to drop a few month’s salary on a garment they would only wear once and had to practically starve to fit into. And I did this knowing full well that I could never buy into it myself.
But there were other times, when I’d meet brides whose happiness and romantic stories had me wishing for my own. More than that, I met women I’d want as friends.
Rose came into the shop and I liked her from the moment she introduced herself. It was more than her soft English accent and warm, wide smile. She was my favourite kind of bride—just kind of over the whole thing. Bored with florist appointments and cake tastings and seating charts, she just wanted to marry her best friend. We spent her appointment laughing, making bawdy jokes and avoiding topics like wedding colours.
So it was surprising when I heard her crying in the fitting room after she had found The Dress.
“I wish my mum was here,” she whispered. I wasn’t sure if she meant for me to hear that, but I gathered my courage and pulled back the curtain a bit. Rose was standing in her panties with the dress in her hands. I took it from her and placed it on a hanger. I asked if she needed a hug. She nodded, tightly wrapping her arms around me.
It was there, with a kind stranger’s breasts pressed into my cheek, I realized that I wanted her wedding to be special. I saw how the right dress had made her truly happy—and how helping her find it made me happy too.
*Names have been changed