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Photograph by Deborah Arajs, Studio Lal
Suited Up: Tabi Zarrinnaal

Material Witness

The search for a wedding gown leads to unexpected discoveries

By Traci Hukill

One of the best compliments I received on my wedding day came from a guest I hardly knew. Just as dinner was winding down, she approached the table and knelt down next to my chair. "Your dress is gorgeous," she said, opening her brown eyes wide for emphasis. "It's the most un-cupcake wedding dress I've ever seen."

I had heard from two dozen people that day that my dress and I looked beautiful. You have to tell a bride she's beautiful. But "un-cupcake" was a heat-seeking missile of a compliment that went straight to the heart of the way I had approached my wedding, including my choice of gown.

For seven months I had shunned bridal fever (to the point of dangerous procrastination, as friends like to point out now), trusting in the universe and my decades-old friendship with improvisation. "Un-cupcake" said my plan had worked. My vision of a no-fuss but elegant celebration had materialized in the lines of a gold satin gown with an empire waist, plunging neckline and exquisite beaded band just beneath the bustline that lent the dress a regal Grecian air that I loved--and I'd found it on sale at half-price a month before the wedding, a time frame that left me, after fittings and alterations, with five days to spare.

False Start

The wedding dress exerts a mysterious pull on any woman who wanders near its orbit. Why this should be true even of modern emancipated woman is not clear. But there it is: the choice of bridal gear can confound even the most competent adult female.

"I sometimes think my life might have been different if I had chosen the other wedding dress," the writer Judith Thurman muses in a 2005 article in The New Yorker about the designer Rei Kawakubo. "I was getting married for the second time, and until the overcast morning of the ceremony I dithered between a bland ecru frock appropriate to my age and station, which I wore that once and never again, and a spooky neo-Gothic masterpiece with a swagged bustle and unraveling seams in inky crepe de laine, which I still possess: hope and experience." 

A woman does not want to have chosen the wrong wedding dress. Oh, there will always be questions of snugness and décolletage and panty lines, but the big questions--frilly vs. sleek, revealing vs. modest, bold vs. demure--these matters you want to have come to terms with before the day arrives. You do not want those kinds of regrets.

I almost had one. One day in May, with two months to go till the wedding, I dragged my friend Tai out on a dress-hunting expedition. Mistaking myself for Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and the present for 10 years ago, I'd been thinking along the lines of a sleeveless satin sheath. A couple of minutes in front of a three-way mirror in just such a dress cured me of that notion. The satin bunched cruelly at the thighs, and I felt entirely too exposed by the plunging back. But then I found a lovely brocaded ivory mermaid dress by Sue Wong. The fabric seemed substantial enough to deal with my adipose issues, and the back and neckline, while appealingly low, wouldn't scandalize anyone. I put in an order for the right size and we left the store. Tai furrowed her brow. "I like it," she said, sounding unconvinced.

I knew what she meant. I was unconvinced too.


Photograph by Jane Morba Photography
Suited Up: the author with her sister

The Shift

Had it not been for the heat wave that gave us the Summit Fire, I might have wound up in that tight lacy get-up. But the package containing my dress arrived on a scorcher, and we don't have air conditioning. Ergo, I tried it on in a state of sweaty irritability. I stood there sweltering in my beautiful ace bandage with its just-low-enough neck and its just-low-enough back, imagining a July afternoon in Boulder Creek, which would surely be even hotter than this infernal day.

I peeled it off. I would not be steamed like a sausage in my own matrimonial garments. Moreover, this dress was way too safe. I needed a risk, a gamble, a challenge. I started over.

A month before the wedding, on my boyfriend's birthday, I walked into a small formal shop in downtown Santa Cruz and picked out eight dresses. There was a gorgeous Calvin Klein ball gown with a perfect bodice (too WASPy). There was a spectacular backless creation (not WASPy enough). There were several flirty, bordering-on-bohemian candidates that flattered my figure and appealed to my secret romantic streak. And then there was the A.B.S. satin gown on the sale rack that the saleswoman had urged me to try, assuring me it looked gorgeous on. I tried it on last.

Even on the hanger this dress was different. It was heavier than the others, and it was a pale butter yellow, with a breastband of bronze and pale green beading in a Mediterranean pattern. It moved like liquid. When I slid it on over my head, the soothing fabric rippled into place in one cool, graceful motion.

I looked in the mirror in surprise and recognition. The long and elegant sweep of that luxurious material gave me height I hadn't earned. The neckline plunged well below my bustline, but the neoclassical cut, with gathered shoulders and empire waist, was utterly dignified. This was a gown that swept along the border of daring and reserve with low-key confidence. It didn't beg for attention, it didn't even command attention--it made attention not matter anymore. What mattered were grace and joy and love. I'd found my dress.

Talking Dress

There were moments, over the course of fittings and alterations--the dress was a 14, I was an 8--when I had my doubts. One day the neckline just looked too deep. The seamstress, a wizard named BJ who owns a shop called A Better Fit, cinched up the straps by a crucial millimeter and uttered a piece of advice every bride should hear.

"Make certain every square inch of skin that shows is showing because you want it to."

That's good advice in general, but it's especially important on a wedding day. And it could apply not just to showing cleavage or back or leg, but for revealing who you are. The wedding dress is like a well-meaning friend with a big mouth: it will do a lot of the talking for you. The boss lady who busts out with a tulle-and-taffeta confection and the party girl who opts for demure neck-high lace reveal something about themselves in those choices. Because when you're choosing a wedding gown, you're not just looking for what fits and what's flattering. You're making a statement about you, your marriage, your life. Are you traditional or iconoclastic? Flamboyant or modest? Exuberant or reserved? More important, are you comfortable in that role? The dress will help you figure that out. All you have to do is listen.

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