Monday, March 8, 2010

A dress by any other color...

I spent the weekend in my home state, Connecticut, and I am glad to be back even if it means school and work and stressing out about what to do for the summer. My motivation for the trip was a visit to several bridal salons with Ren and her mom and sister, and we had two experiences: 1 at that chain that rhymes with Shmavid's Shmidal and another at a smaller, local boutique. She ended up purchasing a [beautiful!] dress at the boutique, and we had good experiences at both stores, but somehow seeing that all gone down has made me want to put off the dress-shopping thing even further.

It's not about the attention (okay, it's kind of about the attention) or the cost (oh wait, it's definitely about the cost) or any of those things, it's the way that the symbolism of the wedding gown seems to play out.   It becomes this, like, giant thing, this symbol of weddingness that sets the tone for your entire wedding, more than the venue seems to, more than the food or the drinks or the words you say at the ceremony. The dress, and other bridal accessories, are one giant symbol of what's Important about your Wedding Day (caps required). Your dude's in a suit like always, your guests are eating delicious things and drinking intoxicating things, and there's dancing involved. Even though this combination of things seems to be confined mostly to the wedding experience these days, if you were to take out the ceremony and, importantly, that big white beacon of light of a dress, you'd just have a party.

Women's clothed bodies -- and their bodies in and of themselves -- have long been places of regulation of social norms and controls, and despite the leaps that the women's movement has made, we still see this at play every day. Women are put in more restricting, uncomfortable clothes, forced to teeter around on high heels and wear constricting undergarments, mostly in an attempt to render their bodies less usable for themselves and more easily consumable by men. Additionally, you see gender dynamics play out in women's clothing in ways that you simply don't in men's: if a woman wears pants, she's just looking out for her own comfort/ease of movement/etc.; if a man wears a dress, he is emasculated, rendered powerless, and -- importantly -- rendered female. In the former case, the woman is aspiring to the status of the man by co-opting his clothing. In the latter, the man is devaluing himself by dressing like a woman.

None of that is news to anyone. And, I firmly believe that a woman can be comfortable with her femininity and still be a feminist. I myself love dresses and heels and do my makeup and hair on a daily basis, and I identify myself as a radical feminist. I don't feel like those loves (for dresses and for women's rights) are in conflict.  Womanhood is the cornerstone of my identity, and I am lucky to have never felt conflicted in my gender. The whole key to the women's movement is giving women the choice to have a career outside the home or raise children within it, to have doors held open for them and to hold doors open for others, and, yes, to wear pants or wear dresses with reckless abandon.

But for some reason, this giant, messy, outdated symbolism related to courtship and marriage and weddings as transitional moments is very problematic for me. I want to feel beautiful on my wedding day, and I know I will, but I also want to mediate the symbols as I intend them, and as my guests are conditioned to interpret them.  What I mean is, I want to be able to wear a white dress, and not have it mean that I am somehow pure, or virginal, or an unsullied woman submitting myself to the will of my husband. I want to say vows with language that does not imply gender roles, or is possibly even gender neutral. If I decide to wear a veil (which I won't), I'd want to wear it without that weird implication that I am, again, pure, or that by unveiling me my husband is taking possession of me.  Eventually, I want to become a wife without all of the linguistic or societal baggage that goes along with that word, and I want E to be a husband in the same vein.

This is something I've been negotiating since long before I got engaged. I didn't want to be marked by an engagement ring before E was, so I proposed back to him with a ring. I don't want to deal with the white dress syndrome, so I am trying hard to find an appropriate colored dress I love.  However, all along I have found that it's hard to convey the difference between what I mean and what people interpret from these symbols. For instance, I felt immediately when I got engaged that people suddenly felt that all I wanted to talk about was my nuptials. One of my new professors asked me when I was getting married at an advisory meeting when I barely knew her and we had no reason to be discussing my personal life.  When I met E's friends for the first time, they fired off question after question about our wedding, even though at that point we had nothing planned. E said later that they hadn't asked him about it.  These people are well-intentioned, but I felt that pressure from very early on to be that BRIDE in capital letters. I will not define my life based on my relationship, no matter how successful (or unsuccessful). I am not a BRIDE, just like I will not be a WIFE. I am, however, a WOMAN, and I am trying to mediate the expectations of others with my own.

For instance, I was talking to a friend about the whole tradition of the dad giving the bride away. My own father passed away when I was young, so I don't have to worry about this, but even if he were alive I don't think I'd be comfortable with the practice. My friend is very close to her father and wants to honor that relationship with this practice, but she was concerned that her guests would interpret it simply as the father passing ownership of the daughter onto the new husband. Do I think anyone will be consciously thinking that at her wedding? No. But these symbols are perpetuated because in some corner of our patriarchal society's group memory, we think it makes sense. The husband will now provide for the woman, as the father provided for her until then. We have sassy, independent, self-reliant women being put into these molds because they think it's the right thing to do, or because they genuinely want to honor their fathers this way but their guests interpret these symbols as they were written to be interpreted.

This has gotten off topic, but I am speaking generally to the system of symbolism around weddings and how it is essentially impossible to operate outside of that system of meaning. Every action we take at these highly culturally mediated events has meaning, and often a meaning that most people probably don't intend these days (I hope). But is there a solution? Do we just buck any and all tradition and make it up as we go along? Our guests have their own culturally mediated views on the world that will regulate the way they interpret your totally original wedding as well. Do we practice every tradition just because it's the way things are done? Or can we pick and choose traditions to follow and to leave behind based on the vision we have of the world, and our relationship with our partners and those around us?

I am nervous about trying on wedding dresses, but not because I'm scared of a white dress. I am nervous about the symbolism of that white dress, the meaning we have placed on it in the last 150 years of its use in weddings.  And yet, I am also a product of my culture, so that even as I look at grey and champagne and gold and peach dresses, I am still drawn to white/ivory ones, and concerned I won't feel like a bride if I don't marry in a white dress. I know it's silly, but that's the conflict between the bridal and the feminist parts of my brain.

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