Sunday, March 4, 2007

Wedding Dress Industrial Complex

by Suw on March 4, 2007

A couple of weeks after we got engaged, Kevin wrote a post about the 'wedding-industrial complex' – the commercialisation of weddings. Yesterday, I discovered the 'wedding dress industrial complex'.
My friend Kate came up to London, and I met her in Victoria armed with a list of bridal wear boutiques and stores, ready to try on some dresses. I have to admit, I'd had nightmares about this all last week. In one, it's the day before a 'party' and I still have no dress and I'm desperately trying to find a dressmaking pattern and some fabric in a dingy haberdashery. In another, I'm trying to find information about suit hire for Kevin. In another, none of the stores we visit will let me try on any dresses… oh, wait, that was reality.
For the sake of context, I have to explain that I don't like buying clothes. Kate usually has to accompany me: At the beginning of the day I explain to her what I need to walk away with at the end. She then forces me to shop until I've located everything I need, using the 'frog march' technique if required. I really do not like shopping – I find it demoralising, depressing, frustrating and too expensive. Partly I think this is because I'm very much a non-standard body shape, so nothing ever fits. Particularly dresses. I actually gave up trying to buy dresses about a decade ago, when I came to the conclusion that anything that fits over my bust is going to be like a sack over the rest of me, and anything that fits my hips and waist is not going to do up higher up. I have the same problem with blouses, actually, but the sack effect isn't usually quite so pronounced.
So I can't say that I was looking forward to yesterday's expedition. Luckily, Kate and I dined at Wagamama's ahead of venturing forth to the shops, so I managed to fortify myself with a large bottle hot sake. We had a fairly easy beginning – the two boutiques we sought out in Victoria were shut and 'by appointment only', and full of what looked like expensive wankery. One was full of 20s/30s style dresses, designed for stick insects with no bosom. Pretty easy to rule that out.
We then went up to Oxford Street as there are a whole number of places round there. I was curious to see what BHS offered, just on the off chance they might have something cheap but stylish which I could then spruce up myself (I'm a dab hand with a needle, as it happens). But the choice was limited and the designs pretty rank.
Then House of Fraser's 'Bridal Room' or whatever it was called. Racks of dresses, and lots of young brides-to-be squeezed into frocks that would make them look like every other bride there's ever been. An assistant came over and informed that we'd need an appointment, but that we could look if we liked. Gee, thanks.
It seems that there's some sort of secret bride club that I didn't previous know about that has its own etiquette and secret handshake that you have to just know. The assistants were immaculately dressed and aloof as you like. If you're name's not on the list, you're not getting in (to the fitting rooms). Whilst I had the assistant's attention, though, I asked how long it takes to get a dress made, and was informed that it would be about nine months, so I'm in time for the February wedding we've now settled on.
Nine months? What the fuck are they doing? Hand selecting the moths that will lay the eggs that will hatch the silkworms that will spin my very own personalised silk that will be hand woven into fabric to be hand dyed with specially selected yak spit and rare Mongolian orchid seeds? Given the price of some of the gowns there, though, I'd expect nothing less.
Kate and I had a look round anyway. We discounted an entire rail of 20s/30s dresses, designed again for the mythical Woman With No Breasts that so obsesses designers but which you'll rarely see walking down the high street. Most of the other dresses had the sort of high waist that makes me look as if I'm a galleon in full sail. Maybe it was just because we only saw them hanging on the rail, but they all sorta looked the same. I didn't see a single one that cried out to me 'You must wear me!'.
Meanwhile, in the centre of the room were a couple of girls being fussed over by mothers and friends and assistants, trying to shoehorn them into dresses that looked to be several sizes too small. There was precisely nothing notable about either of them, and I felt totally removed from that process, from the … bride-ish-ness of it all. In fact, I felt so disconnected from it that I even walked out without looking at the tiaras, which frankly is unheard of. I love my sparkly baubles, I do.
We then went to Pronovia, who gave us possibly the most polite 'fuck off' I've ever had, plus a big – as in A3 – glossy brochure full of waifs pouting in white. Can't imagine I'll ever go back there, frankly. Haven't seen a thing in the brochure that entices me and, whilst the assistant was perfectly nice and polite, the atmosphere there was 180 degrees away from welcoming.
On then, wearily, to Berketex. I was expecting the same from them, too, by this point, but the assistant that spoke to us was actually friendly! Wow! She invited us to look at the dresses and there was actual, real human warmth in her voice. Most unexpected. Again, though, most of the dresses conformed to the same wedding standard, but I did see a couple that I would have liked to have tried on. I can't, however, see me being able to afford any of them, but if there's a shop I've been to so far that I would go back to, it would be Berketex.
Thence on to Selfridges. Their collection was in the basement, and they had possibly the least welcoming set-up of all of them which screamed 'You can't afford us so fuck right off'. At this point, my main need was to get to a pub where there was alcohol for sale, because I think if one more assistant had asked us to make an appointment I think I would have punched her.
Now, it's true to say that I've never been much of a 'joiner', but this sort of Cult of Smug Bridezillas is one I just want nothing to do with. I don't want to be fussed over by snooty assistants who look down their nose at you cos your budget's not high enough. Jeeze, some of those dresses cost the same amount as our entire wedding will cost.
And they all look the same. There were very few dresses worth a second look, and many of them are probably going to be way too expensive. In fact, the starting price for most of these dresses is £obscene. It's a dress you're going to wear once in your life, and whilst I appreciate that some girls want to do the whole fairytale princess thing, there are no alternatives for those of us who want to look nice, but don't want to have a hock a kidney in order to do so.
Of course, I could try traipsing round second hand shops, or look on eBay, but there's going to be a fundamental problem with that. The dresses are highly unlikely to fit me. I could, I suppose, go for one of these Chinese or Vietnamese tailors that will make you a dress to fit, but I'm uncomfortable with buying a dress that I'm not going to get to try on first.
So, what next? I suppose I will go back to Berketex, just to try a few things on and to try and understand what it is about these dresses that I don't like, and what are the details about the ones that are OK that distinguish them from the anonymous swathes of fabric hanging beside them.
Though there was one shop that piqued my curiosity on the way home last night. It's just round the corner from where I live and in the window they had an Edwardian-style jacket and skirt with matching parasol. Behind the shutters that they were closing I could just glimpse an unusual-looking wedding dress. I think I might just have to pop round there tomorrow and see what that's all about.
But I have to admit that I'm seriously considering instead hiring a dress from a historical costumier instead. Be much cheaper. I could get a nice medieval gown for £150.

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