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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