No Seat in the Fitting Room for Me

Posted May 19, 2018 2:04 a.m. EDT

Sarah is on the other side of a heavy white curtain with Michael, a genial young man with precision stubble. I am not allowed to join them. Mothers are not welcome in wedding-dress fitting rooms, it seems, not even in rooms as large as this one. With a practiced gesture, Michael herded Sarah and a bunch of dresses into the room and pulled the curtain shut behind him. I’m on the exile side before I can open my mouth to protest.

It’s not like I was going to make trouble, you know. I would have sat quietly on that little straight-backed chair, because after all, what is a fitting-room chair for if not to be sat on?

For her tote bag, I guess.

We’re not buying anything no matter how much we love it, but Michael doesn’t need to know that. We are here to do research, and I’d say I earned a seat in the fitting room for having aced my first mother of the bride wardrobe test: When a bride-to-be mentions that there’s a trunk show of dresses that are really beautiful but too expensive, the mother of the bride is supposed to insist we take a look anyhow. Sarah was about to burst from post-proposal adrenaline and needed some way to siphon it off. She wasn’t alone in that.

She meets me for coffee near the dress shop, brimming with opinions based on the numerous online dress sites. I, on the other hand, want to see her in 10 dresses, 12, 20, until she’s adrift in a snow bank of discarded lace and organza.

That isn’t how it works. There is no darting in and out of the fitting room to find another size or style. Michael escorts us along the perimeter of the showroom, wedging himself protectively between us and the racks of dresses; we can look but we cannot touch. If we see something promising, Michael lifts the hanger and turns the dress 90 degrees so that we can decide if the full view lives up to the sidelong glance.

For a moment I bristle at being told what to do by a guy we’ve known for 15 minutes. I could point out that skin oil is skin oil, whether it’s mine or Sarah’s or his. I could joke that he has forgotten to don his museum gloves. Instead, I concentrate on every dress that fails to meet Sarah’s criteria. My mother’s mantra was “It always looks different on you than it does on the hanger,” and I figure that a helpful mother of the bride sees potential in unexpected places.

But it’s too soon for outliers; my few, faint suggestions don’t make the cut. Michael pulls four likelier dresses and sequesters himself with Sarah, while the manager invites me to make myself comfortable in the airy, windowed showroom, which is decorated to resemble a country-chic living room. I smile and explain that I’m fine. I don’t want to sit down. I don’t want a glass of Champagne.

The implication, I think, is that mothers of the bride start fights, and a cushy sofa or a drink will take the edge off. The implication, I think, is that the mother of the bride needs to be made docile. In my paranoid, marginalized state, I forget that girlfriends get offered champagne as well.

I position myself about 2 feet outside of the fitting room, and I wait, which doesn’t come naturally to me. Baby boomers are used to being the center of the universe, the population blip that defined things until our children displaced us. It’s not easy to step to the side, and harder still to be nudged by a stranger.

Not that anyone asked, but I sew well enough to have made the occasional garment for Sarah, back in the day. I can save her from poor construction, a misaligned zipper or the dread polyester. She might need me and not even know it.

As a mother, I’m proud of the autonomous Sarah. As a mother of the bride, I’d like to get a better look at those covered buttons.

Michael pulls the curtain back.

The Big Skirt Lady first appeared in Sarah’s drawings when she was too little to know what a bride was. I was married in a tea-length silk dress, so the inspiration didn’t come from photos she saw of me. But come it did, in drawing after drawing of a woman with stick hair and twig fingers, pin-dot eyes and a teacup smile, in a dress with a tiny bodice and an endless skirt.

One of her final pieces from that era is a little clay statue of a bride with Rapunzel hair, elbow length and more like spaghetti than sticks, wearing a plain white dress with a voluminous skirt. Sarah evaded the challenge of sculpting hands by hiding them behind a colorful bouquet. When it came time to pack up our California home four years ago, I kept the mysterious little bride.

I lurch into that memory and back again in the time it takes for the curtain rings to slide across the rod. As Sarah steps toward me, I understand why moms sit down and have a drink: It’s so that we don’t collapse or have a stroke. They say your entire life flashes in front of your eyes in the moment before you die. How come nobody mentioned that it happens when you’re shopping for your daughter’s wedding dress?

Sarah walks past me to a riser planted in front of a mirror, the dress clamped at the shoulders and waist with big white plastic butterfly clips because it’s two sizes bigger than she is.

Look at her: All grown up and wearing a wedding dress.

I try to stop right there, to register, again: All grown up. And wearing a wedding dress.

The skirt is silk, plain and flowing. The lace bodice has a wide neck and long sleeves, and wait, as I walk around her, who forgot to attach the back? The humble bodice winks at me, rolls over Sarah’s shoulders and plunges straight down to her waist. There is the back I used to tickle as we sang good night to every single person we knew, as well as some horses and dogs.

I wonder if there is any way to get this whiplash under control, even as I wonder if I want to.

Michael and the manager and the designer cluster around Sarah, clearly aware of how close they can get without intruding on a cellphone photo. They have so much to say:

Not everyone can wear long sleeves like that.

It’s so dramatic.

It’s a unique look. Not your standard bride.

Then they stop. There’s a fine line between memorable and weird. Better to let Sarah try on the other, more traditional dresses and hope she comes to the same conclusion they’ve reached.

To sweeten any deal, there’s a 10 percent discount if we place an order this weekend.

I think she looks beautiful. Transcendent. Magical. But I felt that way when special clothes meant a red sequined beret and Dorothy slippers, so I’m not to be trusted. It’s time to shape up, I tell myself. A good mother of the bride is analytical. It’s part of my job to get past the initial swoon and not be swayed by a discount, even as I wonder how realistic our budget is.

The second dress looks good on her, too, but between the beaded bodice and heavy, straight silk skirt, it reminds me of something a singer might wear to perform at one of the smaller Las Vegas hotels. The third one is as flattering as can be when the fabric has the heft of damp Kleenex, and I can tell that Sarah agrees, so I don’t need to find a diplomatic synonym for limp.

And then our hour appointment is up, and we’re packed off with reminders about the discount and the wonderful sleeves.

In the days that follow I study the photos of the long-sleeved dress, looking for a sign that inaction was the smart move — and when I enlarge them I see the deal breaker in the space between Sarah’s waist and her sternum. There’s a heart worked into the lace pattern, a good six inches of symbolism right there on the bodice, as though a happy girl in a pretty dress doesn’t quite convey endless love.

That heart changes everything. Understated now seems precious. Neo-hippie. Faux country. Why not work the words “Just married” inside the heart while you’re at it? I point it out to Sarah, who if anything is more put off than I am. In a smug moment I dub it the Little House on the Prairie dress, right before I start to worry that we misjudged every other dress we saw.

I second-guess because I have one chance to get this right and no idea how to. It’s like having a first child, or a one-and-only like Sarah — everything rides on an utter lack of job experience cut with an abundance of crazy love. It’s a volatile mix. At any given moment things could tip either way.

I want to find the right dress fast and I want to go shopping with Sarah forever, even though you never find the right anything on the first go and we hate to shop, even though it has to be one or the other. In the abstract, both halves of the contradiction are true. I want her to find the dress she ought to have while looking is still wacky fun. And greedy me, I want to wait outside the fitting room again and again and again.