My mother and I got up on Saturday morning, swung by Starbucks, and drove for 150 empty, wintry miles. When we pulled into the shopping center parking lot and glanced up at the hot pink sign, we both took a deep breath, the same thought in our heads.
Bridalmart. Wedding dress shopping. What on earth are we getting ourselves into?
Mom will forever be my number one shopping partner. She knows that my regular clothes-buying tends to amount to one yearly trip to H&M with Christmas money in hand. And she knows that on those sporadic trips, I have about 3 good shopping hours in me. After that, it's quite likely that I'll whine, snap, refuse to try on another thing, and demand that we go to the food court. So Lord knows what we would encounter on this Very Significant Shopping Excursion.
I'd never heard of Bridalmart until a co-worker told me that she got her dress there. It's largely self-serve and not overly expensive - which, in this case, is such a relative term that it makes me feel a touch lightheaded. But still: Given my lack of shopping enthusiasm, both independence and affordability appealed to me enough that it was worth driving two hours. Mom and I figured it would be a place to begin, to get a sense of the whole experience. So we pushed the doors wide open.
And guess what? We had fun.
A sweet young woman took us on a quick tour of the 15,000 square feet of silk, lace, taffeta, etc. in varying shades of white. On one side of the store, three carpeted platforms stood in front of wall-length mirrors. Brides-to-be of all sorts stood on the platforms, turning in circles, examining their reflections, surrounded by mothers and friends snapping photos.
Suddenly there was a ringing sound, and everyone in the store stopped and applauded the beaming bride holding the brass bell - she had chosen her dress! No way, I muttered in my head. No way am I ringing a bell in front of all these people. I'm not a "Say Yes to the Dress" kind of gal.
After our tour, Mom and I roamed through the racks, searching for the right size range, price range and style. So! Many! Dresses! We discovered a few lonely gowns with sleeves - my preference - in the midst of the strapless forest, and held on to them for dear life. When we got back to the dressing room, we found several women working to help brides into and out of the bountiful amounts of fabric. Once properly buttoned, zipped and clipped, the brides would make their way out to the platforms and big mirrors, and the oohs and ahhs of their friends.
There was such a grace to the women who helped us. Not only did they zip and button, they laughed easily, asked questions, offered suggestions and knowledge, complimented, called us "babe" and "hon" and "darling." They have that certain elegance that blooms in women of the South, women of North Carolina. Their beauty lies in simplicity and honesty and humor. They've seen it all. They'll say what they think, and they'll be right. They're not demeaning, not stuck up. They moved through the slew of brides and mothers with genuine calm and compassion, stalwart forces in the storm. They'll bless your heart until you feel that blessing pounding through your very own veins - which, when you're trying on wedding dresses, is a big confidence boost.
These women know good and well what makes them who they are. And they know that the biggest part of this task - of wading through row upon row of white and ivory and cream - is finding the one that makes you feel like you.
I bought the first dress I tried on.
Not without some indecision, mind you, and about two hours of switching between two gowns back and forth, back and forth. I took a deep breath and stood on that platform, trying to ignore all the shoppers milling around in the background, while Mom took pictures from all angles. Who did this before smartphones?
Are you around? Can I text two dress pics? I hurriedly typed to my Maid of Honor in Texas. It was like she was suddenly there, thank goodness - Take a picture of the back, she instructed. You look lovely in both, she said (kindly!)... You should definitely choose the one you feel best in.
That's the desire and the challenge and the fun in this whole wedding thing, isn't it? In the midst of society's sickening push for extravagance, in the midst of the suggestions (and sometimes demands) of so many people, in the midst of logistics and budgeting and dates and times... Choose what you feel best in.
I feel best in this dress. I feel best with these people. I feel best in this relationship, with you, always. And that's why I'm here.
On the drive home, Mom and I were triumphant and relieved as we watched the sun slip through the clouds and sparkle. Just for fun, she read from a regional bridal magazine they'd given me with my receipt. A quiz: What's Your Bridal Style? The Southern Bride? The Garden Party Bride? The Urban Bride? The Traditional Bride? The Down-Home Bride?
After chuckling through all the descriptions, I said, "I think I'm just the Claire Bride."
And my dear mama, my best friend, who gave me so much of her personality, smiled and agreed.
We got home and ate bread and cheese, drank tea and wine, we watched Midnight In Paris and looked again and again at pictures of that lovely dress. It was a special day.
Oh, and by the way, I did end up ringing the Bridalmart bell.
When I found what felt best, you see, I figured it warranted a celebration.