If you were to ask me about my dress shopping right when I’d started the process, I’d probably gush all over your face about the incredible power of seeing oneself as wholly beautiful for the first time, the unprecedented bonding opportunity between mother and daughter that is picking out the latter’s first-ever armful of white gowns, and the Christmas morning-style excitement that rattles the sternum as one pulls back the curtain of the fitting room and reveals to the rest of the salon, “I am now a Bride.” Back then, when I felt like I had won at dress shopping, I’d muse loudly and with abandon at anyone who’d listen, white-winged doves exploding out of my mouth every time I spoke, torrents of rose petals falling all around me from heaven as I gestured skirt shapes.
I had it all figured out, mostly. I’d narrowed the playing field down to four slim-fitting, mermaid-style dresses, then three, then two. One strapless and of raw silk, one with straps and and covered buttons from the top of the illusion back all the way down to the end of the train. They were both very nice, under $1,500, liked by my mother, confirmed flattering by my dress consultants. They were classic, timeless, unfussy. Now I knew, after 26 years of periodic (emphasis on periodic) daydreaming, this is what I would look like at my wedding.
Fast forward three weeks. I have now developed bronchitis, am feverish with a double ear infection (which I thought only babies got), and am staring at cell phone pictures of myself wearing The Dresses while I sit in a CityMD waiting room. I am cold and I am hot. My ears feel like two ends of a Chinese finger trap, sucking ever inward as I flip-flip-flip among the snapshots, mouth dry. Suddenly, I do not see a beautiful, confident, grown-ass, bridey-ass woman. I see, suddenly, nothing but problems: A too-small head with a face full of too-young features sprouting from anachronistic movie star gowns that looked like they were poorly photoshopped into place. A disappointing outcropping in the gut that would surely be impossible to hide behind silks so tightly vacuum-sealed. A girl that does not belong in a wedding dress at all. Oh no, no, no—it might have been the fever that stirred up the doubt, but once I started this spiral, there was no turning back. By the time a nurse called my name, I was contemplating calling the whole wedding off and becoming a nun. Or a sea cucumber.
The days that followed were spent home sick from work, horizontal on the couch, freezing with sickness in our 80-degree apartment, popping hits of an evil antibiotic which attacked my digestive tract with what felt like a metal garden rake, miserably wondering if I was about to buy the wrong dress for the most photographed and attended event of my life. At first I told no one. I simply kept my paranoia to myself and whenever I found myself alone, I pounced upon those photos in my phone and flip-flip-flipped through them, trying to force weak positivity but mustering none at all. Then I let the dreaded truth slip to a few close friends, one by one: “What if… neither of these are it?” Each time, I braced for what I imagined would be the most devastating response: “Girl, you’re out of your mind, balls-crazy.”
Before we go on, it’s worth mentioning that I have a relatively complex relationship with clothing in general. No, it’s not unique to be late for work three out of five days a week because you’ve changed outfits a dozen times (only to land on the first thing you tried on, but with a belt). But for as long as I can remember, I’ve deployed clothing as a pretty crucial part of my identity—okay, not only part of my identity, but also as a defense mechanism for it. I learned early on—basically my first day of public school after six years in uniform at Catholic school—that I’d never be the sexy girl, the effortlessly flirty girl, or the very cool girl. I’d always be the weird, intense, wry one, but I could, at least, be stylish enough to convince people I wasn’t completely unhinged (oh, the irony, when you fast forward to the recent bronchitis-couch-gown meltdown).
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As I grew older, clothes increasingly became my social currency. I devoured magazines, loathed the rich girls sporting designer outfits in my dorm, and spent any leftover money from my part-time job on therapeutic solo shopping trips. My success at parties was determined by my outfit that night. My signature joke to my globetrotting friends when they teased me for having never left the country: “I don’t travel, I dress.”
The strange, blank, almost eerie calmness that enveloped my first weekend of wedding dress shopping, then, came as quite a surprise. I expected to lose my ever-loving shit, not get along famously with my mother, float through the dress salons like a happy dandelion head, then pick four-three-two-one classy, creamy movie-star frocks that were under budget, practical, and agreeable to all parties involved. Ultimately, when the storm did set in—the clouds collecting over me like oil slicks, my fever spiking at 103, my fingers threatening to split from my hands and hitch to Topeka if I flip-flipped through those photos one more goddamn time—let’s just say I wasn’t overly shocked. I was miserable with doubt, but, phew, at least I was still me.
And not me would have been the elegant, structured gowns that make you stand with one leg poised diagonally in front of the other. Not me would have been the faux-grown-up ruse of yanking on a refined gown and hoping it made up for the fact that I still shop at Victoria’s Secret PINK for loungewear made primarily for a teenagers. Not me would have been freaking the fuck out over a little bulge here and there and doing something crazy like eating nothing but grass for the entire month before my wedding. Not me would have been grabbing a dress without trying on at least one of every other kind of dress out there, just to be sure. The Top Two were gorgeous, but every day as the doubts grew stronger, I knew more and more that they were not me.
So I finished my antibiotics, and made a second appointment at Lovely Bride NYC. I told myself it was “just to see what else was out there,” hoping naively that if I tried on other styles, I’d realize I loved the mermaid fit, and would come running back to one of my original two favorites. I rounded up two best friends, they sensed my anxiety and took me to brunch where they spoiled me with champagne, and then we headed to Lovely.
There, I stammered my Very Big Problem to my consultant, Debbie, an exceptional human being with very nice highlights, blushing with hope that she wouldn’t say, “Girl, you’re out of your mind balls crazy.” She did not. She let me wander the dress gallery and feel out the gowns for myself, as she stuck quietly, comfortingly by my side. I tried crochet, bustier, even another mermaid. Then, I slipped into a swishy, ethereal Leanne Marshall A-line. It was soft, youthful, airy, fresh, light... and, well, that’s all I’m going to say. Just like that, I felt like me. Me, perfectly in a wedding dress. A me I didn’t think existed. The fever broke. The storm gave way.
I put my deposit on the dress the very next day, and haven’t had a single doubt since. It will be exactly the right thing to wear.
Watch this space weekly as Lauren Rodrigue shares the victories and freakouts of planning her 2016 wedding and the marriage that’ll follow. Tweet her at @laurenzalita.
Image via TLC.