To begin with, Queen Victoria was the inspiration for my wedding dress. Think about this: absolutely no one wore a white dress before HRM's wedding in 1840! In fact, most wedding gowns were blue or pink-ish or even plaid. Imagine waltzing down the aisle in plaid pleats and a Scottish bonnet? That Royal Girl re-made the bridal runway in her trend-setter blanc de blanc - not to mention the pale petals of orange blossom crown or that floating veil of honiton lace, pure white, sprinkled with diamonds. The whole effect? Lady in White: mysterious, powerful! (Then, suddenly, like a hastily tacked-on train, the white dress was re-invented as public proof of virginity. Grooms looked at bridal white as a symbol of pure "goods". White became the Virtue Hue for guys, no more strolling up the aisle with a woman veiled in harlot-scarlet.
But the white dress walked itself down the aisle, never looking back. Women everywhere understood what Victoria had put in motion: a chance to "star" - on a radiant stage. Offended gentlemen, on the other hand, kept quacking about ladies' fashions and lady parts - sound familiar?
What rot! (And, friends, I know rot!) But at that longago time -- like all other brides in Britain and beyond, after Victoria's smashing statement, I embraced the color. If you've read the Great Book called GREAT EXPECTATIONS, you'll note that the description of my carefully-preserved trousseau fits that of Victoria's - I had the white satin, the lace veil, the blossoms, the diamonds. I wore, for the record: white silk & satin with three lace flounces (the lace hand-sewn on bobbins by women who love to stitch in bad light: they're still with us!), two-tier pagoda sleeves, (with under-sleeves of broderie anglais), the "corsage" of the dress inlaid with ruche and ribbons. Veil of thulle, hair in bandeaux, fastened by pearl combs and diamonds - pearls and diamonds glittering on the bodice. A bouquet of white roses and jessamine!
O I threw down in that dress! But then, there was the groom. Or, in my case, there wasn't the groom. He just didn't materialize - when, like any other groom, all he had to do was stumble into the aisle on time! OK, I didn't love him - not even close to how much I loved my dress! I knew who he was - he went after half of my fortune (or, I should say, my father's fortune) during our betrothal: I barely noticed his machinations. He was irrelevant, mostly. But it was that wife he'd been hiding - SHE was relevant in that her suddenly-revealed existence put the nuptials on ice! The weasel sent me a letter at the eleventh hour (twenty to nine in the morning to be exact - I stopped all the clocks at that precise second): I was nearly dressed. I had a white satin slipper dangling from one foot and the other in my hand. Then the messenger crept in, letter in hand.
O but what I missed ultimately was not that lying scoundrel -- I "preserved" that dress because I'd been robbed of my chance to shine! So: I was a bride forever, everything froze. The cake? I admit it: marzipan, after twenty years, does not appeal to the palate, nor does fossilized butter cream.
But my saving grace: I, like the Queen, was a style-setter - but also a Revolutionary, a Dressed-to-the Nines Feminist! Now that I am hundreds of years old and still running my mouth - I can pop this unraveling corset and give you the under-story, the low-down.
Ours was the age of the steel and/or whalebone corset, the hoop skirt, the body cage. A woman could barely rustle a bustle without flipping her hoops or inhibiting natural respiration! Then, at last. the trendy women's mag, Water Cure Journal ran a feature on "Turkish pantalons"- an instant runway craze! Here was an undergarment that allowed women to move freely about without knocking over the footman - or displacing an internal organ. These bloomers were big -- the haute couture Godey's Lady's Book (the Women's Wear Daily of the 19th century) endorsed them all the way! But then (again) there was a backlash: these pantaloons were denounced as a gesture of aggression towards men! Gentlemen protested against ladies threatening them with menacing lingerie! Bloomers were seen as a diabolical fashion-strategy of suffragists, cross-dressing on the Bloomer Barricades. (Also, it was not widely known at that time that women had legs: a shock to many men.)
My own fashion revelation? I had invented, secretly, flame-retardant bloomers -- and I was wearing them under my wedding gown on the day I was "stood up". I had intended to "flash" my woolies at my reception -- as, during my research, (don't ask) I'd discovered that wool is flame-resistant, mostly -- it sparks up but then goes out. My bloomers were HOT, in more ways than one!
O I was a wild babe - my father made his fortune as a brewer of beer and ale -- and I was used to dancing on candle-lit tabletops, suds in hand, petticoats awhirl:
Look here, I appear as a character in a classic tale in which bad behavior abounds: children are threatened, bullied, kidnapped and terrorized; cold-blooded murder, spying and savage beatings are routine, desperate wretched prisoners escape from convict ships then finally dance on the gallows -- and, as ever, lawyers make money and reputation on everyone else's suffering. Yet somehow the most shocking crime appears to be mine! Despite my having been jilted on my wedding day, shriveling into my trousseau -- I command no sympathy. I remain convicted of aggravated wardrobe malfunction and corrupting a minor by turning her against men and teaching her to seduce then spurn them.
My first "crime" obviously involves the nonstop wearing of my wedding dress. The latter entails instructing my adopted daughter to be mean to the opposite sex. Many women are mean to men -- mothers often afford their daughters thoughtful advice in this area -- so for many years I thought that it was the question of personal hygiene re my crippled deshabille that convicted me. (OK, I admit that enshrining myself was a bit over the top and the dust baths I took didn't quite get the job done.)
But -- let me say it again: it turns out that my most heinous human violation was telling my adopted daughter to be a bit of a snark with men. It's all really about Love, Loss & What I Wore, but also about Being Old, Female, Abandoned & Probably Bitter, isn't it? Of course I had to preserve and protect my nearly-perfect moment -- by stopping the clocks. So, time vanished for me -- I'm still burning: I'll burn forever. Yet I maintain that it's possible to be like me: sort of well-preserved and way outspoken -- and still be fashionable! Admit it, aren't we all a little guilty of my big crime -- desiring the dress more than the dude? Aren't we all guilty of hoarding the moment when we believed that we were most loved? Aren't we often mis-characterized by the authors of our fate? MS. Havisham proclaims it: If you can't have a Big Fat Wedding, have a Big Fat Wedding Ruin! (Or, in effect, a marriage.)
As for Pip -- let me tell you. He fell in love with my Estella not because he admired her character, but because she was a looker! And then, yes, she was mean to him. He liked that, he was a bit of a masochist. Pip's own extremely mean sister abused him -- though she had to eventually be knocked about and half-beaten to death herself before she became a person who was Nice to Men! Pip saw that Estella would have her comeuppance, as I had mine. Did I tell her to be mean? Of course I did! Be mean, my darlings! Let them love you, then lower the boom - you have bloomers on under the wedding dress! And running shoes into your 80's - under the Jason Woo's!
Look closely, I'm still on fire: a risen phoenix! As my BGF from the 20th, Sylvia Plath wrote: "I rise from the ashes with my red hair/ and I eat men like air."
You call me a man-hater? Should I hate those who maligned me and made me a pariah -- because I kept my wedding duds on beyond the expiration date? No, the ones I hate are the Lady Parts Preoccupied - those male-weepie ball-cuddlers who insist that a woman be married forever to Whiteness itself: the virgin, the no-opinion breeder wife -- then the "fade-to-grey-then-white" Older Woman, moving meekly aside for the trophy wife... see the writing on that blank wall?
I cop only to one "crime", which is this: still sounding off into middle and advanced age, (OK -- "dawn of time" age) And I remind you - I've been indicted for the most unnatural act of all, which seems to be urging women, whatever age or color or style -- to act boldly, to wear what they choose to wear -- to speak out in whatever radical fashion they choose.
So I'd like to "re-make" the colorless color, the sweet bridal white, at this point -- and embrace it as I did so many years ago. But now let it be a fashion upset -- Havisham Pale! I'm back with another spider's nest or two in my white hair, limping out here on the runway....
Light a candle off my ass -- set the world on fire! You can quote me directly: MS. Havisham, that's "Havisham", with no "e" on the end - for shame.
I'm yours, spiders & wrinkles and all -- till some other White Light shines on me and, honey, that Final Author tries again to shut me up!
- Carol Muske-Dukes
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