First of all, before everyone freaks out, no. This is not The Dress. Just the first one I tried on.
So as you all know, I've got a wedding to plan. This is a thrilling, emotional, stressful journey in which my money is taken from my wallet in all sorts of new ways.
You see, the wedding industry knows that every bride is secretly irrational. They know that if they push the right buttons, brides will turn to piles of cash before their very eyes. Buttons like, "This is the day you've been dreaming of, ever since you were a little girl!" "Your wedding only happens once!" "It's the happiest day of your life!"
But let me get this straight: It's the happiest day of my life...therefore I should spend $120 per person on dinner? My wedding only happens once...therefore I should pay $6,000 to rent a room? I've been dreaming of this day forever...therefore I should buy $2,000 worth of flowers? Are you people nuts?
These people are not, in fact, nuts. The problem is, they think I am. They think all brides are. And to be honest, many brides ARE nuts. Their standards are raised, their price gauges busted. It's all so expensive, what's another $3,000 for the dress?
Oh, the dress. That marvelous pile of satin and tulle, that giant white cream puff of lace and beads.
That overpriced, overhyped tearjerker that you only wear for ten hours! Of every nuptially-related search that I've gone through so far, shopping for my dress has been by far the most ridiculous. People, if it's been a while since you were married, or if you have yet to go through this crazy time, let me share with you a little transmission from the desperate, manipulative and utterly backwards world of wedding gown shopping.
In order of increasing weirdness:
The appointments. One cannot simply walk into a bridal shop and start trying on dresses. Oh no. One must make an appointment. These relics of the past serve to hammer home the "personal service" point, but man, are they annoying. Mainly because they slow everything down, a la "Our next appointment is two weeks from Tuesday." But also because you walk in, already feeling this big obligation to buy. For that hour, you are the only customer in the store. I don't need any more pressure!
The clamps. Gowns in the store are called "samples," and all samples are a "sample size." If this size is too big for you, which it probably is, stores will clamp the dress together to make it fit. I am not joking when I say that these clamps look like they were recently used to hold the 2x4's on the bandsaw down at Ace Hardware. They are huge and strong, come in all sorts of bridal colors like Home Depot Orange, and are incredibly difficult to squeeze.
Therefore, shop attendants must double as construction workers, complimenting you on your figure, pulling the dress tight, then clamping it tighter with every ounce of strength they've got. The clamps look and feel completely wrong for this environment, which is otherwise all soft and pink and ruffly. Yet every shop I've visited uses them. Could some aspiring wedding entrepreneur please come out with proper dress clips, so stores could stop using this clumsy workaround?
The partial nudity. Dressing rooms in gown stores are HUGE. Plenty of room for your mom, your sister, your friend, your attendant and her assistant. Pretty much the whole store could fit in there, and they sometimes do. But is there another, smaller room for you to get down to your skivvies? Nope. You've got to dress and undress, dress and undress, in front of all those people.
Fortunately for me, I've had a smaller entourage (sometimes even going alone) and been blessed with only one or two employees in my room at a time. But still. If I'd known about all this standing around in a corset and undies, I might have shaved my legs.
The lack of browsing. Wedding stores tout their personal service like they invented it. What this means is that when you arrive, you describe your taste, then THEY choose the dresses you see. It's rare to find a big, open store with racks for browsing. Rather, a woman rushes back and forth from your room to "the back," pulling only dresses that she thinks you will like.
This process may work well in theory (she makes real-time adjustments to her selections based on your reaction to each dress) and has grounding in operations (if customers handled all the dresses, they would get dirty faster) but it still feels really opaque to me. Like I am some rich idiot to be catered to, rather than a consumer with any control over what I see. I often leave thinking, "Man, I only tried 9 dresses and I know she has hundreds back there." How is hiding the product a good way to sell it?
The veil. Right at the end, when you've found a dress that just might be The One, the attendant says, "Oh sweetie, that looks fabulous! Here, let me get you a veil." She slides the comb into your hair, and suddenly your whole head is framed in a halo of white lace.
I must admit, this works a little too well. Even on me, the most skeptical shopper, the most hyper-aware of this type of trickery. Veils are probably Sales Tool Numero Uno at bridal shops, because with a veil on your head, it's no longer dress-up. It's the real deal. It's like HOLY CRAP I AM TOTALLY GETTING MARRIED. It's thrilling and scary and magical. And you know what happens - I just integrate the dress I'm wearing right into that vision. Of course later, when I'm stewing over my options, it's hard to mentally separate the two. So reader, beware the veil and its powers of influence. Keep your focus on the dress.
The lack of information. This is the weirdest of them all. Let's say you've found a dress you like. It fits your style, flatters your figure, makes you feel like a real bride. But let's say your mom isn't there. What might you want to do next? Perhaps get her opinion? How about taking a picture? Many stores say no.
And the reason for it is even weirder. Historically, bridal shops have always had exclusivity agreements with designers. So a particular brand might only be found at one store in all of Illinois. This creates the impression that you can only buy this dress in this store. And stores have ridden the exclusivity wave for years, because a bride in Chicago could only really buy gowns in Chicago.
However, as the internet gains traction as a viable gown resource, the possibility of brides price-comparing and 'buying the same dress somewhere else' becomes even greater. There are discounters and consigners and Craigslist and you can even buy cheap knockoffs from China. So stores are freaked out - after all, they're losing their competitive edge. Their response strategy? Limiting the amount of information that a bride can leave with. If she can't look it up, she can't find it cheaper. Hence, no photos.
But surely you could write down its brand and style name, so you could look it up for future reference? Nope. Many stores literally rip the labels out of sample gowns, so that you cannot even tell which dress you are trying on.
I read about this shocking tactic in a handy book, but found it hard to believe until I experienced it firsthand. I was in a pretty posh store, and I liked a dress by designer Melissa Sweet. But it was pricey, and I wasn't ready to buy. I asked the owner, "Which dress is this again, so I can remember it?" She said, "It's the Melissa Sweet." I said, "I know, but which one? I know they all have style names, or numbers or something." "Nope," she said, looking down at her hands. "That's all you need to know."
Wow! Wow. Well, all I need to know is that I won't be making my purchase here!
Of course, all of these elements serve to make me, the bride-to-be, feel completely helpless. I can't walk in off the street, can't feel comfortable in the dressing room, can't browse a wide selection or pick my samples, can't take pictures, and sometimes, can't even know what I'm trying on. It's retail manipulation at its worst, and I'm getting pretty tired of playing the game.
Now of course, I want a beautiful dress. I want a dress that is as unique as I am. I want a dress that will make my boyfriend cry, that will make the whole room gasp, and that will still look awesome in photos 50 years from now. This is no small request! Therefore, this is already no easy shopping trip.
But I also think that finding the dress is intricately tied to the retail experience surrounding it. I haven't found my dress yet, and I think it might be because I haven't found my store yet. Sure, I am looking for an ivory gown with a mermaid cut, lightweight material, tasteful ruffles, no beads, no sparkles, no lace, and some type of sash or bow. But I am also looking for a low-pressure environment with friendly, honest, forthcoming employees, lots of choice, and the ability to deliberate in private. Oh, and no veils until I say so.
Wish me luck.