Victoria’s Secret

My brother was my “best man” at my wedding, and his son Haruki Holden wore a kimono. I carried no flowers and wore no jewelry, although I did teeter on lofty pink satin slingbacks. It was not black tie. It was in a Frank Lloyd Wright building, never before used as a wedding site. There was no wedding cake, no color coordination, no garter, no table‑top favors, though there was security to protect the art on the walls. It was not a traditional affair. As I am not a “traditional” woman, no one expected it to be. Except when it came to the dress.

I found this curious. Well into my thirties, I had a distinct fashion sensibility, which had nothing to do with tulle or lace or hoop skirts, or girlish innocence. Or much to do with convention either. I favored esoteric, conceptual designers, designers with a sense of humor and distance — the Japanese, the Belgians, pre‑acquisition Helmut Lang. My closet was full of texture, if not color: black and white garments that I treasured, even sometimes named, and wore to work, helping defend Death Row inmates. My friends and colleagues had learned to accept this apparent hiccup in the otherwise integrated fabric of my life; my simultaneous loves for virtue and style, my finding deep meaning in justice, as well as the beauty of a perfect fit.

Imagine, then, my amazement, when no one wondered what I would be wearing to my nuptial festivities. There were a few questions of dress detail: would it be really long or merely long? Would it have a train? Was I considering beading? Even my husband‑to‑be, Bobby, who embraced my idiosyncratic wardrobe and all the attention it garnered; the man who had learned to ask whether my dress’s seams were exposed according to the designer’s genius or my inattention; the man who eschews ties at his corporate job, who put himself through law school fishing for Alaskan salmon, rather than toiling in corporate offices; who initially wanted to get married at the beach with a barbecue and keg, assumed, indeed requested, that I wear white. I was stunned. I had to investigate. What was the meaning behind this tradition that clings to weddings, even as the institution they celebrate has shifted and bucked?

Wearing White

I was relieved to find that wearing white is not a vestige of Victorian corporeal squeamishness; bridal whites do not represent virginity. I would not be betraying, or commenting in any way, on my sexual history if I wore a white dress. Nor, I found, does it arise from religious stricture. What I learned is that Western brides wear white because of class — that is to say, because they want to look like royalty. Before 1840, when the British monarch Victoria wed her cousin, Albert of Saxe‑Coburg, it was the custom in the West for a bride to wear her best dress, no matter its color. This was practical, as the Industrial Revolution had not yet made fabric, or manufacturing, easily accessible. Clothing was handmade, of handmade cloth, and was expected to last and endure lives of strenuous manual labor. It was not until American ready‑to‑wear, made possible only by industrialization, that middle‑class, working‑class women could afford to shop for clothing at all, let alone white wedding frocks. Queen Victoria, however, was a queen in a crumbling empire; she selected white for her couture bridal gown. As queen, she could afford not only to have a gown sewn for the sole purpose of dazzling her subjects on her wedding day, she could also afford to have a white one preserved, tended to, and protected. Thus, her gesture was one of exclusivity and affluence. She was flexing her royal sartorial muscle.

This was rich stuff! All of those princess fantasies fluttering about weddings, the ones that I had vigorously resisted, were more literal than I had ever imagined. Like so much in America, wedding traditions reflect something of our ambivalence about class. Explicitly, we don’t believe in it. Our country was founded on a conviction that all are created equal, that merit rather than lineage should determine a life’s value. And I love this about the country where I was born. It is one of the reasons that I work for social justice: fighting against a system that values the haves more than the have‑nots, the wellborn over the virtuous.

But this is not the whole story. Even as we denounce class, we cleave to it. Witness our celebrity culture, our love for dynasties of “American royalty,” especially those that work to even out the playing field for the worst-off among us. We reject class; no one is less than anyone else. But we want it for ourselves. Consider my own designer wardrobe that allows me to obscure my background, to work for the poor, but look like the rich.

It was true, I realized. I wanted to feel like royalty. Every day, but especially at my wedding. But I didn’t want to recede into a sea of generic wedding rituals: I wanted my celebration to reflect me, and my life with my husband, in particular. I wanted to be The Bride, not a bride. I wanted to rule the day, to lay down the laws, as well as invite my friends and family to feast and drink with royal abandon. And so, the dress was white. It was cut from sublime Italian charmeuse, hemmed asymmetrically, with a modest front and plunging back. No train. No beading. No tulle. And as I looked out at my madcap wedding party — my husband’s college football team, my collection of artist and activists friends, my Japanese‑born sister‑in‑law, Bobby’s brother and his French Canadian boyfriend, his parents, married for 45 years all the way from rural New Jersey, and my own divorced Californian mother and father — I felt so traditional, so overcome with gratitude and love, so whole, as if all the disparate parts of me, and of our life, had exquisitely come together.

The wedding was classy. And I felt like a queen.

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