All That a Mother-of-Bride Dress Reveals, Inside and Out

If the first set of wedding dresses was beyond our budget, the second set is beyond belief, and we take refuge in ridicule to keep from getting depressed. In a single store in a single hour, Sarah tries on the Downton Abbey dress, the Roaring Twenties dress, and a cupcake number I dub the Operation Petticoat dress.

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If the first set of wedding dresses was beyond our budget, the second set is beyond belief, and we take refuge in ridicule to keep from getting depressed. In a single store in a single hour, Sarah tries on the Downton Abbey dress, the Roaring Twenties dress, and a cupcake number I dub the Operation Petticoat dress.

Doubt has sneaked into the fitting room even if I cannot, so I smile the confident smile that parents paste on when we assure our kids about things we can’t possibly yet know. Of course you’ll like the new school, the math teacher, Latin, your college roommate, college in general, sushi.

I hide behind a comforting logical fallacy: Sarah has to have the right dress, so the right dress has to exist. In the meantime, we are having a perverse kind of fun, aren’t we?

The next morning we trudge up a flight of stairs to a small, second-floor shop Sarah found in her online search. Same maternal exile from the fitting room as at the other places we’ve been to, same muffled sounds of clothes coming off and going on, same offer of couch and beverage, all of it tinged by a worry hangover from the day before.

And then the curtain parts and I understand what I’ve been missing. The right wedding dress is not a dress at all, not in the normal sense, not a set of options in terms of fabric, neckline, sleeves, waist, skirt, train. The right dress is the bride reimagined in another medium. It’s Sarah in ivory silk. Graceful and strong. Frank but with a mischievous edge. Lissome, which is not a word I toss around because its popularity peaked around the time Elizabeth Bennet said “I do.”

Neither of us loves the way the zipper peeks through the lace at the back, but within the bounds of physics, Sarah can swap this bodice for a laceless one, or replace this skirt with a slightly fuller version, because the designer likes to give her clients some flexibility.

Yesterday we had no choice. Today we have more choice than we can process, with the now-familiar discount if we buy within 48 hours.

We don’t, but this time it feels different. We stand at the calm shore of bridal-gown certainty: If Sarah had to buy a dress today, she could, so she can relax and enjoy the process of making absolutely sure. She considers a few other dresses that suffer by comparison. She drinks Champagne with her two best friends while I congratulate myself for not crashing their shopping expedition, because every bride ought to try on dresses with her friends without a parent present. We even have a vivid, blocks-long debate about a strong last-minute contender, the Audrey Hepburn dress.

And then she circles back to purchase the front-runner (no lace, the fuller of two skirts) with the discount because I take the blame for the delay and make generational allies of Sarah and the store manager. I have never had such fun reciting my credit card number. Say it proud, any of you who belong to my temporary club: I bought my daughter her wedding dress.

Now It’s My Turn

Now picture this: I am so sick that I crave antibiotics the way healthy people crave avocado toast. I slog the three blocks to the drugstore in a toxic haze of germs, and halfway there my rheumy eyes focus on a dress in a shop window.

“I’m sicker than a dog,” I tell the soigne woman in charge, in case she thought this was my normal look, “but if that dress comes in anything but pink with flowers I want to try it on.”

It does, and she has a white one I can try on to see if it fits. Ten sniffling, coughing minutes later I consider my reflection in the mirror, in an almost off-the-shoulder, almost sleeveless sheath, and I have to wonder: Where have I been all my life?

Buried, that’s where. Working women of my generation compensated for our gender by embracing what I’ll call serious clothes, dressing to disappear behind our impressive qualifications. Think tailored, think monochrome, and think, quite often, just a bit too large. The uniform may have changed from one decade to the next, yet the dynamic lingers to this day.

Sarah endorses the dress right off, which matters to me — but I lack courage, lost, for the moment, at the intersection of propriety and fun. I want to escape my sartorial past and yet not make a fool of myself, an elusive destination for someone who was bred to distrust color and pattern and considers anything that clings anywhere, even slightly, the province of people in a more fan-driven profession. I send photos to two friends whose sense of style has nothing to do with fashion, and they agree: I must buy the dress immediately.

Buoyed by their enthusiasm, I make a tactical error and expand to a second circle of advisers. Forget polls and demographics. If you want a barometer of gender identity among older women in 21st century America, ask a bunch of them for their opinions on a mother of the bride dress.

I get:

Wear black. Wear anything but black.

Spend big because your great-grandchildren will only know you from these photos.

Cheap out because honestly, you won’t get another chance to dress up like this, and it’s crazy to spend a lot for something that’ll hang in the closet.

But my favorite, by a long shot, is, “You might want to keep looking.” Fool that I am, I bite and ask why.

“You don’t have 30-year-old arms, you know.” For weeks I visit the dress as though it were an old friend, even as I search for a more practical alternative. And I wonder: What is the bandwidth for a woman who’s old enough to have a bride for a daughter and yet feels oddly young at heart. The answer comes after I try on a dress that recalls both of my grandmothers, not on their best days, and I finally tire of my self-imposed constraints.

There is no limit on what to wear except the one inside our heads. OK, I don’t want to know who bought the “bondage jersey” mother of the bride dress that popped up in one of my online searches, but beyond that kind of excess, anything goes.

The point, simply, is to avoid the straitjacket of should.

A bride buys prospectively, anticipating the adult life she will lead. A mother of the bride buys retrospectively, with an eye toward who she’s been all these years, and whether some part of her got stifled in the telling. The best thing to wear, I come to think, is a celebratory air.

I buy the dress. I buy shoes with heels and flowers and bows and tell myself they can go up on eBay the day after the wedding. I loan Sarah a pair of platforms she’s always coveted and I never should have bought, not so secretly pleased that she prefers them to anything that looks like a wedding shoe.

Relief washes over me, though I must remember not to chat with students when my laptop is open because of all the shapewear ads that have clustered like gnats since I searched “full slip.”

I am ready to party.

A Little Give and Take

Don’t get me wrong; I like my capable self. I just want to give my identity a little breathing room.

I relish the jobs I get as the wedding gets closer. I visit hotels that offer blocks of wedding rooms at a discount and come home with swag that ranges from self-care products to chocolates for when the products don’t suffice. I visit both the places where we’re ordering food for the morning after, having convinced Sarah and Jesse that I will be more effective face to face than they would be online. None of us can say what more effective means when ordering lox and bagels or babka, but they let me do it, probably because they can hear the steam building up between my ears.

When it comes to alterations I am unrelenting and only borderline impolite. I see what I call the burbles just below the waist on Sarah’s dress, and I see through the explanation that the fabric is too delicate and light to sit just so. For that matter, I’d like a half-inch adjustment on the waist of my dress.

Yes, I know that no one will notice either detail, but internal standards have nothing to do with an audience.

To my happy surprise, though, I know when to abandon practicality. Sarah and Jesse plan to stay at a hotel in Brooklyn, where Sarah and I will get ready together on the morning of the wedding, and it sounds so much nicer to get in an elevator rather than a cab to do so. The besuited me sees no reason to spend money and time packing when I have a perfectly good apartment. The gal in the lilting dress and the crazy shoes prevails, and books a room.

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