Had Jeff Zaslow been the father of three sons instead of three daughters, he might never have written The Magic Room. Sweetly committed to understanding the girls in his life, Zaslow, “wanted to write a nonfiction book about the love we all wish for our daughters.”
When his wife suggested a bridal shop might be the place to set the book, he knew her instincts were right. Research led him to Becker’s Bridal in Fowler, Michigan. Fate and good old journalistic digging, led him to the women whose stories he tells so beautifully in this multi-layered gem of a book.
Every woman has a wedding dress story. Some of you have read this essay. Many of you haven’t. So here is mine.
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“I give you a lot of credit,” the bridal consultant said as she zipped me into a six thousand dollar confection of a gown. Clouds of white silk billowed around me. “A lot of women would think about doing this but not many would follow it through.” She pinned the size ten sample into an initial semblance of fit. “There you go. Let’s see what you think.”
Fifty years old and there I was trying on wedding gowns. And I wasn’t even engaged. In fact I was already married. Happily so to the same man I had kissed beneath the wedding canopy more than two decades before.
That April day in 1980 I wore his cousin’s wedding dress. Family situation and finances dictated a creative alternative to purchasing a gown of my own. We nailed borrowed right out of the gate and took care of old, new, and blue in due time. I felt pretty enough, but it wasn’t my dream dress. It fit the bill: white and lacy, right size, and best of all, free.
At the time, the borrowed gown seemed right for another reason. I married during the era when women needed men like fish needed bicycles. Matrimony was anathema. Real women wore navy suits and floppy little silk ties, not wedding dresses. When I told my boss I was taking a few vacation days to marry my fiance, she bristled with disdain. Her eyes said it all — I was turning my back on The Cause.
As a young girl I dreamed of wearing my mother’s dress. With its capped sleeves, fitted lace bodice and a runway’s length of tulle gathered into its skirt, my mother’s wedding dress was Audrey Hepburn all the way. The back hall closet was my choice haven for hide and seek. Not because the closet was such an original hiding place but because, wedged back behind zippered plastic garment bags and sacks set aside for Goodwill, I was close enough to the dress to touch it. Close enough to dream of wearing it one day. When she and my father divorced, the dress disappeared — donated, I later found out, to a local theater.
I realize this preoccupation is rather juvenile. Twenty-six years down the aisle I know that dresses do not a marriage make. Commitment isn’t forged with dupioni, underwires and lace but with dedication, understanding and laughter. Nevertheless, I’ve always felt that I’d missed out on a crucial part of what makes a woman a woman. So much so that the first silent promise I made to my daughter even before they cut the cord was that she would have her own wedding dress one day. There’s no accounting for the lost dreams of childhood.
Somewhere on the road to fifty, I decided to use the year to do those things I’d dreamed of but had put aside. Some women parachute out of Cessnas. Others train for marathons. I called up the fanciest wedding salon in our town, explained my intentions, and made an appointment.
Then I nearly canceled. This was silly. What business does a fifty-year-old woman have trying on wedding dresses? Nevertheless, I showed up at the appointed hour. Ever the writer I figured if nothing else, I might get an interesting essay out of the afternoon.
Lisa smiled when I shared the reason behind my appointment. The store was undergoing renovations and we were in last season’s sale section. “Let’s go next door,” she said. “That’s where we have all our newest gowns.” I wanted to hug her. She understood how important this was and she was with me the whole nine yards. Or fifteen or however many there are in gowns these days.
“May I choose more than one?”
“Sure. Why don’t we start with three and if none of those work, you can try on more.” I took my time. Some were so plain they looked unfinished. One Marie Antoinette number just needed the flock of sheep and beribboned staff. Most though were the stuff of dreams. I moved through the racks slowly, enjoying every moment, every shimmer of silk and taffeta. It was all there: lace, tulle, embroidered trains; hand-sewn crystals twinkling from the center of pleated rosettes; hems edged in pearls; on-the- shoulder, off-the-shoulder; strapless, backless and plunging neckline.
I chose one that reminded me of Audrey Hepburn, one that was mermaid slinky and overlaid with heavy Alençon lace, and a third that was strapless, quite high style and elegant.
Lisa took me into a curtained dressing room and I realized that I was going to have to undress in her presence. Remove my bra and nestle my real-woman, unimplanted, eighteen-years-post-nursing breasts into the bodice of these gorgeous gowns. What had I been thinking? I suddenly felt like Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard’s desperate, once-beautiful actress. But there was no turning back. I took a breath and reached for the Audrey Hepburn.
She drew back the dressing room’s mocha velvet curtain and gestured me towards a ten-foot wall of mirror. I hadn’t expected the afternoon to come with all this drama. I stepped up onto the carpeted platform, looked at my reflection and started to cry. Even at fifty, with wrinkles a-hinting and grey threading through my hair both north and south, I felt like a princess. The skirt billowed around me. It whispered and rustled when I turned. I laughed and pirouetted as if I were on stage. I smiled at the image in the mirror. The girl who was the bride I’d once dreamed of being, smiled back.
I looked cute and gamine. Pretty. I’m a sequin’s breadth under five feet; my stature often pegs me for younger than I am. Even at fifty, I knew I could carry off such a dress. But beautiful as it was, this wasn’t The Dress. I told Lisa it was the one I would have chosen twenty-six years ago This was the dress from my hide-and-seek days.
I took another twirl and headed back to the dressing. If dress number one was Audrey Hepburn, dress number two was Marilyn Monroe. Happy Birthday, Mr. President. Even before Lisa zipped it up I knew it wasn’t for me. My hips looked big, my bust too small. This was a hubba-hubba dress for a woman who broadcasts her sexuality 24/7. Many women can pull off a dress like this. But not me. Back to the dressing room.
Dress number three was made of a kind of silk I’ve never even heard of. Strapless and form fitting it was sexy without drifting into come-and-get-me-boys territory. The dress had a hint of flamenco about it. An asymmetric trail of rosettes began at the bodice and ended in a cascade at the train. Lisa zipped and pinned me into it and once again drew back the curtains.
I stepped up before the wall of mirror and gasped. This was it. I looked gorgeous. Flat out stunning. I’ve attended black tie events feeling plenty glam. But this dress was about something else. The woman in the mirror knew her power in all its permutations. She knew who she was, knew what she wanted, and made no bones about projecting it. She was sexy. She was competent. She was anchored to a well of confidence deep within. How could so much silk and doodads do this? I recalled Lisa’s comment about wedding dresses embodying our image of ourselves and the image we want others to see.
Back in street clothes, the froth and faille returned to the racks, I hugged Lisa and thanked her for her generosity of time and spirit. My afternoon at the bridal salon changed nothing and everything. I’m still going grey. My joints still creak when I rise each morning. But that years-long yearning has been stilled, replaced with pride and affection for my own gumption. I hadn’t only found the dress of my dreams. I came face-to-face with the woman I have become. Gutsy. Sexy. Strong. I love her all the more for daring to rewrite a small but precious piece of her past.