November 22, 2005 | I hate strapless wedding dresses. I know that they're the height of nuptial fashion, and that nearly every bride I know of for the past couple of years has been married in one (this image is from the Manolo for the Brides website). The alumnae newsletter for the girls' school I attended carried photos of three young alums, each attired in a white gown with a full satin skirt, a fluttering tulle veil, and nothing at all above the bustline. The brides and their gowns were lovely; the idea was not. This must stop. I beg for the return of the wedding dress with shoulder-coverings.

Strapless wedding dresses are inappropriate for two reasons. The first is that is that a long strapless gown is by definition a ball gown. Its full skirt is ideal for maximum leg movement by a dancer, and its display of absolutely bare shoulders is most flattered by the soft glowing light of a wall sconce or chandelier, not the harsh and merciless light of the daytime sun. By contrast, a wedding dress is by definition a daytime dress, and proper dress during the daytime, unless you are on or near a beach in the heat of the summer, is more covered up. Just as the proper formal attire for a man before five in the evening is a morning coat, proper formal attire for a woman is something on her shoulders, although as the day grows later, that something may grow more minimal. Even after dark a strapless dress is not appropriate for all occasions. In a recent column the venerable etiquette maven Miss Manners pointed out that a properly dressed lady, even a very young lady, does not wear a strapless dress (or top) to a dinner party. That is because, sitting behind the table with the glasses bunched in front of her she might look as though she were wearing nothing at all. That does not mean that Miss Manners—or I—are prudes. A strapless evening gown can be perfectly modest-on the right occasion. There are—or at least there used to be—plenty of occasions when a white strapless gown looks smashingly right: a debutante's coming-out party or one of the formal balls that colleges, professional associations, and fraternal and civic organizations used to and still do hold. But such a gown looks out of place with a wedding veil. Indeed, the more lavish the wedding veil, the sillier the bride looks, as though she had forgotten to put something on between her generous full skirt and her generous full head-covering.

Second, a strapless dress is by definition a party dress (you wouldn't wear one to work or to a funeral), and it is thus too frivolous an item of clothing for the very solemn, although joyous, occasion that is a wedding. Until only a few decades ago, weddings were almost invariably religious ceremonies, and the norms of most religions required that women—and men—conform to certain standards of dress when inside a house of worship, No shorts, no visible underwear, no flapping shirts or micro-minis. When I was growing up our parish priest made it clear that he would marry no bride who appeared before the altar in so much as a plunging neckline or with an unduly generous display of back. The idea was that in a house of God, proper respect was due the Deity. But there was something more: the very fact that the wedding was itself a religious rite signified a belief that something of tremendous, even cosmic, importance was taking place. The couple was binding itself in a public place to cherish and support each other for life. The man and woman were making a solemn vow to bear each other's children and never to desert them, or each other. It was the most momentous undertaking of the couple's life, bringing with it awesome responsibilities. So the custom was for brides to look not only beautiful, elegant, and even lavishly attired with long trains, but also decorous and dignified, as befitting the occasion. Even during World War II, when luxury fabrics were rationed and weddings to servicemen often took place in a hurry, brides typically wore pastel suits, not party dresses.

The archetypal wedding dress of the twentieth century was probably this one (the image is also from the Manolo for the Brides website) worn by Grace Kelly when she married Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956. Although long-sleeved and high-collared, Kelly's gown was far from prudish, for the parts of it that covered her arms and shoulders were form-fitting and constructed of gossamer-fine lace that revealed as much as they covered. It was a genuinely sexy dress, in fact a dress whose bosom-revealing satin underbodice was thoroughly visible, but it was also decorous enough for the cathedral where Kelly was married and their future roles as heads of the Monacan government. That archetype remained viable though many changes of fashion right through the 1990s. There were a few deviations: the barefoot hippie weddings of the late 1960s and a brief dressed-down period during the 1970s when some brides (including Laura Bush and one of my sisters) chose to be married in simple silk tea-dresses rather than elaborate gowns, but most brides even during those tumultuous decades wed in satin-and-lace variants of Grace Kelly's confection.

What has happened during the last decade to have turned the classic, distinctively bridal wedding dress into a non-distinctively bridal strapless evening dress? I count three factors:

1. The Charles-and-Diana backlash: The 1981 wedding of the royal pair featured a bride who had let out all the sartorial stops: the dirigible-size sleeves of her gown alone could have clothed an orphanage of children. It was a look that only the tall, slender, coltishly youthful Diana, could have pulled off, but it spawned a decade of fabric overload for overdressed brides. When I myself got married in 1988, I felt I practically had to saw my way through yards of lace in order to find something sleeker and simpler than the layers upon layers of ruffled flounces and puffy sleeves that were de rigeur for 1980s brides. Ironically, Diana's look marked the beginning of the end of the traditional and distinctively bridal wedding gown.

So when Carolyn Bessette rejected Diana-esque furbelows for a sleek, strappy, and and unadorned white Narciso Rodrigues gown for her marriage to John F. Kennedy, Jr., in 1996, relieved brides were only too happy to copy her pared-down style. Bessette, although she donned a shoulder-covering tulle wrap for her church wedding, was essentially wearing an evening gown, not a wedding gown.

2. The non-traditional wedding: Until relatively recently, parents paid for and controlled the style of weddings. Furthermore, until relatively recently, there were essentially only three conceivable venues for a wedding: a house of worship, one's own home, or the offices of the city clerk or a justice of the peace. The oversight of parents and the narrow range of acceptable locales encouraged a traditional style in other respects, including the attire of both bride and groom. Starting in the 1970s, however, it became possible for people to get married just about anywhere: on a beach, aboard a cruise ship, in a hotel ballroom. Furthermore, as people began marrying at ever older ages, they began to plan and pay for their own weddings, banishing their parents and their authority to the sidelines. Couples began to write their own vows and design "theme" weddings centered around their own interests such as surfing or country music. "Emancipated" brides refused to walk to the altar on their fathers' arms. Members of the clergy found themselves unable or unwilling to enforce the old rules. All of this discouraged the wearing of a traditional gown, and many brides went veil-less as well.

3. The increasingly provisional nature of marriage itself: The sexual revolution and the easing of societal sanctions against divorce have had a tremendous effect on the style of weddings. In days of yore, a white gown was considered acceptable only for a first wedding of a fairly youthful bride, partly because white symbolizes virginity and partly because the weddings of older people were deemed to be more sober affairs at which more restrained clothing was supposed to be more suitable. (Even in the old days, many first-time brides did not choose white gowns, which became the paradigm only with Queen Victoria's 1840 marriage to Prince Albert and took decades to catch on thoroughly.) Now, however, every bride wants to look like a bride, no matter how old she is, how many times she has donned the white dress before, or how many years she might have lived with her prospective bridegroom (or other men) before the ceremony. She often does not, however, want to look like the virgin she is probably not. The strapless bridal gown is considered more sophisticated and more suitable for a bride who is older and more sexually experienced in some cases than the brides of yore.

Furthermore, the contingent nature of present-day marriage has reduced the importance of the marriage vows themselves as the center of the celebration. So the focus of the ceremony has shifted from the exchange of promises by both parties to the grand entrance of the bride, resplendent and, nowadays, often alone. Hence the "Bridezilla" phenomenon, in which every detail is obsessively planned by the bride herself, and no one, even the groom, is permitted to distract onlookers' attention from her as the cynosure of the wedding. It is her "big day," with the groom as a tuxedo-clad appendage. The bride must look as glamorous as possible, and an old-fashioned wedding gown simply won't do.

So where does all this leave our postmodern bride? One option is simply not to wear a strapless wedding dress. There are beautiful and elegant wedding dresses that look suitable for solemn and/or religious exchanges of vows. You just may have to make them yourself, that's all. You can also be creative with what's currently on the market. Take this one at the top, from a name designer, again from the Manolo for the Brides site (not the bottom two!). With the right wrap, it could even be modest. The third thing you can do is wait. All strapless white dresses tend to look exactly alike except for tiny details, and no bride wants to look like every other bride. Who would have thought, for example, that the Britney Spears bare midriff would vanish from the fashion scene? But it did, overnight, about a month ago. So too, I predict, will the strapless wedding dress. Or at least it will travel to where it belongs: the formal dance.

Charlotte Allen is Catholicism editor for Beliefnet and co-edits the InkWell blog for the Independent Women's Forum.




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