Last week, wedding dress retailer David’s Bridal filed for bankruptcy—its second time doing so in five years—and reportedly plans to lay off almost 90% of its workforce (about 9,000 employees). Cue a lot of excellent pun-work about cold feet and saying, “I don’t.”
Outlets and analysts have been scratching their heads trying to figure out what this means for the wedding/bridal industry. Is it covid’s fault? Social media’s? One podcast I listened to about this, Dave and Dujanovic, jokingly (I think?) fretted over the strength of the very institution of marriage. Is our country soon to be overrun with unmarried whores?!!?
I think we can all benefit from a deep breath. There are many reasons why a bride might not flock to a store that sounds like their uncle runs it. Court documents named three omens that preceded the retailer filing for chapter 11 bankruptcy: internal factors (boring, so let’s put a pin in it), covid (understandable), and “shifts in consumer behaviors [that] have contributed to the elongation of wedding planning cycles and an overall casualization in wedding events” (let’s fucking dig into this, baby!!!!). CEO James Marcum wrote in the filing that “an increasing number of brides are opting for less traditional wedding attire, including thrift wedding dresses.” Marcum is basically saying, “Brides are trash raccoons these days who want dumpster diving weddings.” I’m kidding, sort of.
Marcum can shade thrift stores and backyard weddings as much as he wants, but I think the company holds the blame for not taking the temperature of the modern bride, who might be skeptical or nervous about the long shadow cast by wedding expectations—not the other way around, as he seems to suggest. Maybe, too, brides who thrift their dresses are simply not devoting every minute to wedding planning, because it’s taken a less central role in their lives.
Last summer, Jezebel’s Emily Leibert wrote a whole feature about the pressures to assimilate into mainstream bridal culture. Brides she interviewed “were deeply invested in challenging sexist, racist, and fussy bridal norms, whether by denouncing religions that make saints out of chauvinists or refusing to inhabit a docile, beta-wife role when they are everything but.” But they faced a lot of backlash trying to navigate the industry in any way that deviated from the lily-white norm.
As someone at the very beginning of my own wedding planning, I’m certainly calculating not only what outfit I want to wear, but what that outfit says about the type of bride that I am and how I feel about the institution of marriage. Am I allowed to hang a sign around my neck, over my ballgown, that reads, “Don’t worry, I’m in on the joke”...?
What I do know is that there is a movement within the wedding industrial complex dubbed “anti-bride” that my skepticism pretty neatly falls into. (Nothing like an already-coined customer term to describe your anti-capitalist hesitations!) You’ve seen it on Instagram, probably: The anti-bride is chic, cosmopolitan, and carefree. Her “wedding” is just another fun Saturday in her fulfilling life—certainly not a day she’s dreamed about since girlhood.
I’ve perused David Bridal’s offerings, and while a lot of the dresses are frankly pretty similar to those of other bridal retailers, the ethos of the company definitely fails to capture the growing agnosticism of today’s brides. Browsing through the dress models on the website, you just see corny smiling face after smiling face, like they’re posing for high school prom photos. “Maybe they’re on klonopin?” I wonder, considering how much fucking stress planning a wedding is these days.
I don’t want to bolster the moody bride; there’s a lot of bullshit wrapped up in that aesthetic, too. But even scrolling through BHLDN’s website, Anthropologie’s bridal offshoot, I’m seeing women who look like they’ve called their mom “a bitch” at least once during the planning process. There’s a sensuality in the product branding that reassures me these women have masturbated. I cannot say the same about David’s Bridal’s models. And that distinction does matter!
Yes, I’m still planning on buying some sort of fancy dress for an afternoon of being surrounded by my wonderful and crazy aunts. I’m probably going to dance with my dad to an overplayed Van Morrison song. But I’m anticipating an onslaught of conflicting emotions about my values, my projected values, and what outdated norms I may be perpetuating by getting married. It might sound sort of spoiled, but ideally my wedding dress retailer can speak to some of that conflict.
David’s Bridal, to be fair, has made a few feeble attempts to appeal to the modern bride’s independence and penchant for curation. In January, they launched their own planning platform, Pearl—but the move didn’t help, as they announced that they were $27.5 million in debt just four months later. In 2020, they debuted a concierge chatbot, Zoey, to help brides navigate the wedding dress buying process, but how many people want a wedding version of Clippy guiding them through their Big Day? These additions, much like a heavily beaded and sequined dress from David’s Bridal, felt like cluttered adornments atop an already-too-busy outfit.
Right now the company is in a bit of a holding pattern. David’s Bridal is waiting to see if someone will buy them out (to pay their dowry, if you will). But the way I see it, it was simply time for them to let go of their brand of traditional, lobotomized wedding fantasy—much in the way most of us have.