My housemate and I like to watch Say Yes to the Dress, a TLC reality show about brides shopping for their wedding dresses. There's a New York, NY version and an Atlanta, GA version. Each has the same format: a bridal shop stocked to the rafters with white satin, tulle and lace; a female head of shop with an extravagantly gay male* assistant; various bridal consultants arrayed in black (so as not to compete with the brides, I guess); and brides who come in with their "entourages" and interesting needs/demands. The brides try on different gowns, people react. There's a vignette about whatever part of the bride's past is most likely to raise a tear, fabricated angst about the mom not approving of the daughter's choice... then piano music, the "bridal moment": the girl gets to wear a veil and cry, and she buys the dress. Oh, contrived, first world problems... such a guilty pleasure.
*His gayness is an important part of the formula, since it's more about his fashion acumen and closeness to women than his sexual preferences. A straight man in the bridal shop is always portrayed as a fox in the henhouse.
To make our guilty pleasure more of both, every time someone says the word "princess", my housemate and I can eat a piece of chocolate! That's our rule. "Princess style", "princess seams", "I feel like a princess"... chocolate, chocolate, chocolate! And oddly enough, one woman's "princess dress" is another woman's dowdy nightmare. There seems to be no correspondence between all the different visions of a princess; the only thing everyone agrees on is the desirability of looking like one.
I know what says "princess" to me: a full skirt that rustles (oh, silk taffeta!), a teeny tiny waist, and a train. So the first time I made myself a ball gown, I made this:
It has a sweep train or brush train, the shortest kind. Knowing it would be prone to getting dirty, I made it with a balayeuse, which is a detachable dust-ruffle that goes under the train and protects it from the floor. The balayeuse for this gown is attached with snap-tape. The silk ruffles visible at the hem in front? The rows of cotton ruffles dragging along on the underside of the train? All balayeuse. Every time I was done wearing the dress, I snapped it off and washed it. It was all very clever... and a total pain! The train picked up an amazing amount of dirt, leaves, twigs, and wear and tear. And if you're going to dance (or ride public transit if you're me), you need a bustle. And then you need someone to bustle and un-bustle you. So much hassle!
I am so over trains.
Check out this bridal gown I've been altering recently. It started with a chapel length train, which was shop-worn and draggled. I cut the train off, and the dress instantly looked better, more youthful. What it lost in gravitas it gained in simple elegance.
I read recently (in a summary of Veblen's ideas) that the hallmarks of luxury are conspicuous consumption, conspicuous effort, and conspicuous leisure. A train ticks all those boxes: it consumes material, requires effort to maneuver, and imposes (or implies) leisure since it's easier to deal with it if you don't move at all. Apparently, all those things are essential to being a "princess".
But I beg to differ. Is wastefulness really what we admire in people? Or is it ease, grace, and competence? Trains only look graceful in carefully engineered circumstances, but the first time something unexpected happens and you have to walk over rough ground, turn suddenly, or even go to the bathroom, all that illusion of grace is exposed for the fraud it is. Real grace comes when you can sit, stand, dance, get in and out of a car, or stoop to pick something up without fighting with your clothes. My new perspective on trains is that the longer they are, the more they smack of trying too hard. Unless you're the Queen of England, don't drag your clothing on the floor! And if you are the Queen of England, you probably find the occasions which demand a train rather tedious.
Nowadays, actual princesses rarely wear ball gowns. Mostly they go for couture suits and dresses, or really nice tailor-mades, or expensive but not flashy designers. But they still get ball gowns when they get married! Check out this list of 15 Royal Brides! Scrolling through, I find so much differences of dress, that just about the only thing I can say for sure is that modern princesses like sleeves! Fourteen of the 15 have sleeves, the only exception being traditional Indonesian dress. This is a stark contrast to the majority of off-the-rack wedding dresses seen on Say Yes to the Dress, which are sleeveless. My pet theory is that sleeves are a difficult thing to alter (I've tried--if you take away fabric from the sleeve you need to add it in the armscye and vice versa... it's complicated), and there is so much variety in women's shoulders, arms, posture, et cetera, that RTW designers save time and money by promoting sleeveless. Many very differently shaped women can wear the same sleeveless dress as long as they have the same bra size. In that respect, sleeves might fall into the category of conspicuous effort: a princess can afford a custom made dress, so she doesn't have to settle for sleeveless.
The simplest dress on the list belongs to Sayako Kuroda. I think it has a futuristic look to it, perhaps because of the thickness and body of that fabric. Odd that she should choose white, a color traditionally used for funerals in Japan. Maybe she was acknowledging that by marrying a commoner she was losing her princess-hood? Another simple dress is Victoria Czervenyak's. It has a somewhat 1970's look to me, but I find it flattering and unfussy, if not royal. I want to know what the embellishment on the hem is...! Grace Kelly's is interesting, but the close-fitting bodice makes me think of a naked department store manikin, and the skirt is odd. I'm sure it's gorgeously made, but I wouldn't want to wear it. Princess Di's dress is a monstrous marshmallow monster that looks like it is eating her. It's a shame that the princess couldn't wear something pretty on her big day. I loved Kate Middleton's dress, which managed to look easy to move in and yet regal. The lace around the shoulders was an inspired way to camouflage her thinness. But not everyone seeks to hide their "flaws": Charlene of Monaco, a former Olympic swimmer, does nothing to disguise her inverted triangle shape: in fact, she wears dramatic sleeves to accentuate her broad shoulders, and I say good on her! She worked for them!
Now that Prince Harry is engaged, there's a new royal wedding coming up. I will enjoy looking at Meghan Markle's dress (I know, she won't be a princess!), and kind of hope that I either love of hate it. The worst would be boring.
Movie princesses generally have better clothes than real life princesses. Maybe movie studios have bigger budgets than royalty? Or maybe the costume departments can go way overboard in the knowledge that they're selling a dream, while real life clothing designers are constrained by the fact that they're designing for real life people who don't want to be someone's dream. My favorite movie princess dress is the gown Audrey Hepburn wears in the opening ball of Roman Holiday. I know the gown is used to represent her formal, regimented, constricted life as a princess, and we're supposed to prefer the clothing she chooses for herself later, but it's just so beautiful! The drop waist with petal shape, the off-the shoulder grace of those sleeves, all that sparkly brocade in the skirt. And the lacy petticoats are so pretty.
On the occasions where I did get all "princessed" up with impractical train, corset, big skirt--the whole shebang--I looked like a picture, and didn't enjoy the actual experience that much!
I can't help thinking this contributes to the post-wedding let-down many women experience, when they've spent months planning for the special day, bought a dress for the perfect pictures, bought the princess dream...and then looked perfect and felt uncomfortable. That "perfect" dress became a hot, itchy prison. My sister once pointed out to her associate who was a wedding DJ that at every reception there's usually a moment when the bride and all her attendants leave the room at the same time: that's because the bride needs to use the bathroom, and the attendants need to help her either undress completely or hold the frothy skirts out of the way! And I've been to weddings where afterward, at the reception, the bride begged to be unzipped and given a shawl to cover her back, so she could at least breathe! There must be a way to look and feel good on your wedding day, surely!
Which brings me to the thought of vintage wedding gowns, and how light they are in comparison to modern ones. They were designed to be worn over the bride's regular underwear (bra, girdle, whatever) and perhaps a separate petticoat, so they take up less room in storage. They also exert less force on the wearer, since they're not trying to sculpt you. They were not fantasy confections at odds with the prevailing fashions, they were stylish dresses that made sense to wear. Sometimes the bride could even dress herself... I know, right? But people got dressed up more often in the past, so they knew what worked.
I think I have that advantage over most women when it comes to formal gowns, be they wedding gowns or other formal dresses: since I enjoy cosplay, dressing up, and making clothes, I have had plenty of experience with the "princess" aesthetic... and I'm confident and well informed now about what really makes me feel like a princess: fine fabrics, flattering colors, and a style that has beauty and comfort.
Quilting, dressmaking, and history plied with the needle...
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