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Wedding Dress Shopping: When To Say 'No'

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WEDDING DRESS SHOPPING
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By Joanna Hershon | Reprinted with permission from The New York Times

When I meet a young woman, sometimes one of my students, sometimes a baby sitter, always creative, a little insecure, I often think of the day I found my wedding dress.

Picture Manhattan, the last early summer of the 20th century, the seventh floor at Bergdorf Goodman. Picture the Bridal Specialist -- let’s call her Rachel -- clutching her clipboard. Picture several Russian seamstresses with pins in their mouths -- two at the hem, one overseeing. Picture the Mother -- mine -- and me: young, happy, tense. I’m in the Dress.

It was lovely and elegant and expensive. It had a great deal of ruching. My mother thought it looked kind of Western. Like something a bride would have worn under a big sky: young, American. Yes, I’d agreed, when we first picked out the style and put in our order. My eyes had wandered toward something more bohemian, something less voluminous, but in terms of big purchases, in terms of fashion, I listened to my mother. I argued plenty with her about pretty much everything else, so it was probably no coincidence that, in those days, we never got along better than when we went shopping.

Besides, I was rightfully grateful to have a mother who not only could afford to take me wedding-dress shopping at Bergdorf Goodman but who actually loved every minute of it. I wanted to make her happy.

She and my father were, at that point, supporting me. I was officially a financial drain, the arty daughter of a hard-working doctor and lawyer and more doctors and lawyers before them. I was the cliché of an aspiring actress and writer in the city who was cobbling together some waitressing, some teaching, but really, I was sponging off my parents. It was embarrassing. They supported my choice to go to graduate school to get an M.F.A. in writing, less -- in my opinion -- because they believed in my writing ability than because graduate school was a more wholesome environment than all the sleazy rooms in which I was spending my time auditioning.

They hadn’t been too keen on the idea of my fiancé, Derek, either, at least not at first. He was a painter, musician and surfer who had been living in Mexico, and whom I’d met at a wedding a little less than two years before. After one date, he invited me to come house-sit with him in the Berkshires. My father’s advice over the phone had been emphatic: “Don’t go!”

But by the time Derek proposed on the Brooklyn Bridge (a little more than a year after I’d ignored my father’s advice), my parents were excited about him too. At that point, I had completed graduate school and was consumed with finishing my first novel, which I told my parents I intended to sell. They made clear how hard it was to sell a book, even a really good book. Not to mention, I hadn’t published anything or won any promising contests. And so instead of focusing on my career (or lack of one), we focused on the wedding.

Unfortunately, not everything in that realm was going smoothly, either. When I arrived for my dress’s first fitting, Rachel handed me a Size 14.

“Fourteen?” I asked.

“Those were your measurements,” she said, testy. And then, when the dress proved to be comically large on me: “You’ve obviously lost some significant weight.”

I hadn’t, and I told her so. “We’ll make adjustments,” sniffed Rachel. She said my frame was “challenging” to work with.

Every time I went back for a fitting (there were so many fittings!), I kept searching for that Big Sky feeling. I tried to remember the way this dress (which cost about as much money as I’d made in the last year) had flattered my waist and -- at least momentarily -- made me feel like dancing. But I couldn’t see it anymore. What was worse, Rachel kept insinuating that my body was weird and the problems I had with the dress were simply ... me. That if this couture experience didn’t lead to a perfect dress, I was obviously suffering from some kind of bridal delusion.

Then, two months before the wedding, I signed with a literary agent. Just weeks later, incredibly, my novel sold. During the negotiations, my agent asked for double what the publisher offered, and the publisher accepted. When I told my father the details, making clear that he wouldn’t have to worry about me anymore, he literally didn’t believe me. He just couldn’t imagine it. Which maybe wasn’t surprising, because I could barely imagine it either.

And yet, somehow, it changed things. Two weeks before the wedding, back on the seventh floor of Bergdorf Goodman, Rachel and the seamstresses and my mother stood waiting as I looked at myself in the mirror. The dress finally fit me. It fit and it was beautiful. I looked at my reflection, and I made a decision.

“I want everyone to remain very calm,” I said. I could see Rachel’s face tighten and then assume a layer of ease. “I don’t think I can get married in this dress.”

My mother looked ... alarmed.

To Rachel’s credit, she said, “O.K.” Then, gently, as if I was having cold feet over my choice of a husband, she said, “It is totally normal to feel this way.”

“I saw a dress out front when I came in,” I said. “I don’t remember seeing it here before.”

“The one that looks like a slip?” asked my mother.

“Oh, that one,” Rachel said, and I could have sworn she sounded relieved, as if there was no way I would fit into it. “That’s a new designer,” she said. “We just started carrying her. Would you like to try it?”

“I would.” I said. This dress had caught my eye immediately. It looked like a 1930s fantasy -- silky, backless, I could swear I smelled gardenias.

“I’m sorry,” I said to the seamstresses, meaning it. They shrugged and stood down, and I took off the dress that we’d chosen -- my mother and I -- when my life had looked one way. As I reached up to the ceiling, as I felt silk fall over my body like a sheet of cool water, I realized my life looked another way now.

I also realized that, straight off the rack, the dress was a perfect fit.

“Wow,” my mother said.

And from then on -- after 27 years of insisting that she knew best about what I should and shouldn’t wear -- she started not only listening to me, but also asking my advice.

Because of their various fitting errors, and the fact that they evidently took their mission to accommodate their brides’ individual needs very seriously, Bergdorf Goodman credited my mother the difference in price, which was, in fact, substantial.

This, of course, made me happy. But what made me happier still was the reason the new dress was relatively affordable: it was by a new designer; a young woman who’d somehow convinced those in charge to take a chance on her to create something. To watch and see what would happen.

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