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Say No to the Dress

2010 is the year of the bride who fights the hype

Email icon  sally.lauckner@gmail.com

Most little girls grow up dreaming about the perfect, white wedding dress. And once a woman has a diamond ring on that finger, the hunt begins. Popular television shows like “Say Yes to the Dress” and the brand new “Girl Meets Gown” chronicle the search for an impeccable dress, complete with the meltdowns and tantrums that accompany budget constraints and multiple alterations. Last year the New York Times reported that some anxious brides-to-be were purchasing five or six dresses before settling on the ideal one. The message is clear: this is the most pivotal day of a woman’s life, and she’s expected to be jaw-dropping.

That expectation places tremendous pressure on young, engaged women says Dr. Beth Montemurro, sociologist and author of “Something Old, Something Bold: Bridal Showers and Bachelorette Parties.”

“The ads in bridal magazines are for these expensive dresses and the women on TV shows seem to have limitless budgets,” Montemurro said. “There’s a concern that the bride’s family will look like they can’t afford it, if she doesn’t conform to that standard.”

The Queen Started This

The white wedding dress is one of the most iconic Western fashions. Many people mistakenly associate the color with the bride’s chastity, but historically, the wedding veil has been the symbol of bridal purity. Eye-catching, jewel-toned dresses were in vogue until 1840 when Queen Victoria donned an ivory gown to marry Prince Albert. Her wedding photographs were widely published and sparked a craze that has endured, and at a price. While brides spend an average of $1,075 on their dress, bridal couturiers, like Monique Lhuillier and Vera Wang, charge upwards of $20,000 for their high-end creations, helping drive an annual $3 billion industry.

But an increasing number of brides just don’t buy the hype – or the designer gown. Last year’s trend might have been purchasing multiple dresses, but 2010 is ushering in unconventionality. Whether it is buying a dress online, wearing a mother’s dress or buying last season’s styles, many anti-consumerist women are leaving tradition at the altar.

From the minute she got engaged, Amanda Grooms West, 23, was not a conventional bride. She and her fiancé, Jonathan, flirted with the idea of eloping to a tropical island, but their conservative Southern families (both from Alabama) vetoed that plan. After agreeing to a small wedding in her family’s backyard, West had just three weeks to find a dress. She had already decided: no strapless, no poufy skirts, no pick-ups, and no heavy material. West, a fact-checker at a fashion magazine, didn’t even like the idea of a white wedding dress, but her husband specifically requested the traditional color.

While pricing dresses online, she stumbled upon The Bridal Garden, a New York City resale boutique that donates all proceeds to children’s education. The next day West went to the store, sans the requisite entourage, and purchased the first, and only, dress she tried on. The simple, sleeveless Peter Langner sheath matched her “no fuss, no stress, no over-spending” wedding philosophy.

“Had I been the type of girl who’d envisioned ‘the dress’ all my life, it might not have turned out that way; I might have been indecisive and had to try on dress after dress after dress,” West said. “But I decided to make a decision then and there—either take it, quit looking and don’t look back, or leave the store and carry on to the next place.”
It didn’t hurt that she snagged a designer dress at a deep discount because it was one season old. She paid $1,500 for a dress she estimated would have cost about $5,000 at full retail value.

Saving money is often the primary motivator for unconventional brides. After spending months searching for dresses at 20 different stores in Texas, Chicago and Oklahoma, Katy Schilthuis, 22, finally found a dress she loved. But at $1,000 it was beyond her budget. Schilthuis, who lives in Norman, Okla., remembered reading online testimonials about eBridalSuperStore.com, a Website that sells designer dresses for a fraction of the retail price. She tracked down a close match of her strapless, A-line dream dress on the site and was thrilled by the $650 price tag. Schilthuis was nervous about purchasing a dress without trying it on, especially as the site does not accept returns, but the discount was too good to pass up. She crossed her fingers and ordered. It arrived about a month before her wedding and although the wait was “nervewracking,” she was ecstatic with her purchase.

Montemurro said that brides like West and Schilthuis are determined to be unique. “It’s a way for them to rebel against tradition and to express their individuality simultaneously,” she said.

At first glance Stephanie Champion appears to be the epitome of a conventional bride: The 27-year-old, Pitman, N.J. resident wore her mother’s wedding dress. Champion explained that she grew up seeing her mother’s dress every day; the sleek gown was framed and hanging in their living room. As soon as she got engaged, she knew that she wanted to wear it, so she had the sleeves removed and added a sash for her low-key, Cape May nuptials. While her dress choice may not seem radical, Champion did resist the pressure to buy a sparkly new gown that would be all her own.

“I was looking forward to my wedding day but for me it was more about actually getting married, and less about the fuss and fluff that goes along with it,” Champion said. “I don’t feel like I missed out by not getting a new dress.” The dress is back in its display box and now hangs on Champion’s living room wall.

Trashing the Dress

Some brides have taken their rebellion against tradition to the point of no return. The Trash the Dress trend began in 2005 with a handful of experimental photographers and a few gusty brides who were willing to literally ruin their precious wedding gowns for the sake of creating edgy photographs. These brides hire a photographer to document them in extreme situations; dragging their dress through the mud, submerging it in water, and even lighting it on fire. The trend was inspired by avant-garde fashion photography, which long ago realized the artistic merits of juxtaposing haute couture garments with grungy settings.

One such bride was Nicole Courbanou-Sanchez, 25, from West Palm Beach, Fla. Courbanou-Sanchez hated the idea of a wedding dress collecting dust in a closet, so she initially planned to rent a gown. After a fruitless search for a good rental boutique, she warmed up to the idea of buying a dress, but only if she could trash it afterward.

“Having cool photos for the rest of my life, which I can show my kids, is so much better that having a dress sitting around,” Courbanou-Sanchez said. “I didn’t feel sentimental toward my dress at all.”

Courbanou-Sanchez admitted that her mother was initially horrified by her plan and even threatened to not pay for her daughter’s dress. However with the encouragement of more progressive family members, her mom eventually came around. The day after their wedding, Courbanou-Sanchez and her husband, Matt, had an elaborate photo shoot in Clearwater, Fla. They took photos on a dusty swing outside an abandoned house and frolicked in the ocean at sunset. Her dress fared relatively well; other than water stains, it only has a few small tears.

“I think the more extreme trash the dress photos are cool but mine were about having fun in my dress,” she said. “You have to look so perfect on your wedding day but it was awesome to let loose the next day.”

Some Trash the Dress brides argue that although the photos look violent, they are about celebrating the fact that they intend to be married forever; destroying the gown is viewed as a symbol of that finality. Several photographers, who prefer to embrace this empowering side of the trend, have denounced the daunting term in favor of the more upbeat “Rock the Frock.”

Montemurro said that the most interesting aspect of Trash the Dress is that it is a form of rebellion that has morphed into a trend.

“Whatever their motivation, these women are telling society to back off.”

Sally Lauckner is a master’s candidate at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.

Katy Schilthuis bought her wedding dress online and sight unseen, at a fraction of the retail price. Photo by Jessica Mooney.

Nicole Courbanou-Sanchez and her husband Matt Sanchez went in for Trash the Dress, seen as a form of rebellion against the over-the-top big white wedding. Photo by K&K Photography.

Amanda Grooms West picked up a sample dress at a resale boutique, for $1,500 instead of the $5,000 it would have cost new. Photo by Cary Norton