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.

Anonymous March 4, 2007 at 2:59 pm

Get married in Vegas – we got remarried there and it cost about the same as the wedding cake, first time around. And we didn't have a fat Elvis giving us three of our favourite songs during the ceremony, either 🙂

Anonymous March 4, 2007 at 3:38 pm

Does Kev have any BBC contacts in the costume department?
You could do one of those mood board thingies they have on design programs?Just so you know what you want before you have to go to shopping again?
I hate all the wedding stuff. I live right by a church (where Ant or was it Dec? got married last year).It amuses me when I see the bride and the guests poured into unflattering outfits and staggering about on silly heels.
I got married at Slough register office and wore a rather strange (but cheap) dress. No wedding dress on earth would have suited me and being agnostic I wasn't doing the church bit. 25 years ago it was one or the other.
I think simple and elegant is best. I knew a girl once who had hand embroidered anemones on her dress and the bridesmaids dresses sort of picked out the colours.
Claire calls the ugly OTT dresses meringues.
I saw a picture of Sting and his wife after their wedding. She was sitting side saddle on a horse and he was leading her. It looked like he
had found his bride and was taking her back to his castle. (I think the dress was a mere £20,000!)
Somehow I have a feeling that you will look absolutely lovely. Obviously I don't know you , but what I do know of you gives me the impression that your personality will shine through and that you'll be so happy it you'd look radiant in a hessian sack (but DO make sure you make an appointment when you go to try one on!)

Anonymous March 4, 2007 at 3:45 pm

That was a really funny post, sorry if it wasn't meant to be, but you actually owe me a new external keyboard for my mac. This one is all fanta-fied…

Anonymous March 4, 2007 at 5:51 pm

Personally, I'd go for the hire. I mean, you're going to wear the thing once–what's the point of going to all that expense? In the old days, women kept their gowns and passed them down to their daughters, but who does that anymore? Guys get to hire their tuxedos, after all, and there are a helluva lot more places a tuxedo can be worn than a wedding dress. Just my $0.02 worth, though. 🙂

Anonymous March 5, 2007 at 11:01 am

Try Monsoon, my wife has the same scaffolding requirements as you up top, and we went though the same horrors you are describing.
In desperation we went to Brent Cross to have a look in John Lewis and Fenwicks, and stumbled into the Monsoon there.
They had exactly what she needed: nice, atypical and designed for someone who has either breasts of has had a meal since 1982.
The costs were about £95-200 IIRC.

Anonymous March 6, 2007 at 2:21 pm

Ah, Suw. Trying on dresses was pretty hard on the self-image for me. Most shops only keep sample sizes (i.e. really freakin' small) on hand. I lucked out and found one that doesn't do that, and they actually have a wide range of prices. Unfortunately, it is in Massachusetts. I'm not even there anymore for you to come visit. 🙁
I didn't want anything frilly either and it took a lot of INSISTING for them to bring me dresses without sparkly things.
One thing I suggest: try on one or two things you don't like the look of. I know it sounds like bullcrap but I seriously did not want to try on the one I ended up choosing.

Anonymous March 6, 2007 at 3:06 pm

British designers may prefer their women to have nothing up front, but French women aren't shaped like that…
French food, French wine, French style…doesn't a daytrip (or more) sound good to you?

Anonymous March 6, 2007 at 10:50 pm

I'm so glad I'm not the only one! (Should Owen ever get around to deciding that he doesn't hate the idea of marriage) I dread the idea of getting 'the dress'
Years ago I had lovely dreams of the princess thing, but then I actually tried to buy a dress (for a friends wedding), and decided that I really wasn't made for the standard dress designs!
I suspect a period costume type thing will be the way to go if/when the time comes!

Anonymous March 7, 2007 at 2:56 pm

Thanks for letting me know of the horrors that lie ahead. I'm wondering whether to dust off the sewing machine…

Anonymous March 8, 2007 at 5:29 pm

I too try to avoid the cult of bridezilla. I am getting married in two weeks on an amphibious boat in the Charles River in Boston. Not the warmest or most romantic of spots – but certainly fun, romantic and a good excuse to get married in jeans.
I did get a dress – a nice off the rack number from Agnes B. Wedding dresses are an excuse to overcharge!
That being said, we're not doing the traditional thing, so a white dress wasn't really called for…
Bon courage!

Anonymous March 8, 2007 at 11:12 pm

@Neil: Vegas is so not an option. And by the time we got the family out there, it wouldn't be cheaper either.
@Vivdora: Kevin never really had much to do with the costume department as far as I know.
@Joe: Sorry about the keyboard. And yes, it's ok to laugh. I do. Frequently, with a slight manic edge. I just make sure no one is listening.
@Cat: Yeah, hire is looking good. Although hadn't thought about the point regarding passing dresses on. Mum's still got hers but I would never get into it, and it's also a bit… well, 60s. Not much there to work with.
@Chris: Monsoon I have not yet gone to, but will do.
@Redhead: Actually, the back-up plan is to buy it in Chicago when we go over to visit the in-laws. The dollar should still be on my side by then. And I'm willing to try anything on… they just wouldn't let me.
@Betsy: Funny you should say that. One of my friends' wives bought her dress in Paris so he is going to try to get me some more details.
@Jenny: Standard anything sucks, frankly.
@Mother of the Bride: Sewing machine dusting off may lead to a whole nother set of horrors, frankly.
@Heather: Ooh congratulations! Your 'venue' sounds great – we thought of a boat, but there's really only the Sandbanks Ferry… and that's not really all that romantic being, as it is, predominantly a small car ferry.
Aaaah, well, it's all still up in the air, so we'll see. I promise I'll let everyone know as and when.

Anonymous March 19, 2007 at 8:25 pm

If you can sew (or know someone who can), then it might be a good option. When we got married, Elly made her own dress. I thought she was insane, but it worked out really well — she got EXACTLY the dress she wanted and it fitted beautifully. It also ended up being incredibly cheap, as we just needed to pay for the materials. I had to wander in and out of rooms with my eyes closed so as not to inadvertently see what I oughtn't to, but other than that it was great 😉
The results were pretty awesome too:

Anonymous October 2, 2007 at 10:41 am

“Wedding dress industrial complex”? Well this sure sounds great for future brides but I happen to share same opinions with you. I also hate shopping (same reasons), and I never imagined myself buying a wedding dress, I figure it's quite frustrating and annoying. I guess I'll keep things as simple as I can when that time will come.

Eleanor March 14, 2008 at 4:06 pm

I do like traditional wedding dresses, BUT they look pretty bad on me and are far too expensive, so I ended up buying a plain ex-sample dress from ebay, for £5.99!! Its fab and really looks good – and such a bargain. Ebay is the way forward…

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: