Two months after getting engaged, I started the process that is supposed to thrill every bride-to-be: the hunt for a wedding dress. I scoped out some modestly priced New York boutiques and a few places that offer discounts on sample dresses, knowing that I didn’t want the full Kleinfeld experience—an elaborate and expensive process, often involving crying and clouds of tulle, that is meticulously documented on the TLC reality show Say Yes to the Dress. I just wasn’t willing to spend thousands of dollars on a gown I’d wear once.
For my first appointment, I brought along a wise and fashion-savvy friend and began digging through the shockingly heavy bags on hangers containing beaded, fluffy frocks. For fun, I tried on a peach Vera Wang strapless number with a billowing skirt. I felt like a double-wide cupcake. Spying my lack of cleavage in the mirror cemented one certainty for me: I didn’t want a strapless gown.
This decision turned out to be a problem. Strapless wedding gowns are by far the most common style. Kate Berry, the style director for Martha Stewart Weddings, estimates that while alternative necklines are starting to become more popular, about 75 percent of wedding dresses are strapless. Kim Forrest, the editor of WeddingWire, an online marketplace for engaged couples, says strapless “is the standard for wedding dresses and that won’t change anytime soon.”
All of which left me in a bind. Spurning strapless styles eliminated most of the looks in that first store. The only dress I liked was a simple floor length gown with a V-neck and a touch of lace. It turned out it was a white bridesmaid’s dress.
Why didn’t I want a strapless wedding gown? The truth is, I’ve always avoided strapless styles. I’m 5-foot-7 and a size 6. I normally don’t have much trouble finding clothes that fit well, but strapless dresses don’t do me any favors. They accentuate my broad shoulders. They make me look flat-chested. They make my arms look bloblike and undefined. Plus, they are uncomfortable. “Wearing a strapless dress” might be more accurately described as “worrying that your strapless dress is about to fall off.” Not a recipe for bridal peace of mind. Why would I get married in a style that hasn’t ever worked for me? And why are strapless wedding gowns so popular anyway?
Dan Rentillo, design director for David’s Bridal, has a hypothesis about why strapless gowns are so dominant. Because ball gowns and big, long skirts are so popular, women prefer to show more skin on top as not to seem too covered up, which can make them look conservative and older. Even women who don’t wear strapless dresses in civilian life often feel drawn to them for their weddings. “A lot of women want to feel like a princess,” Rentillo says, “and this is their chance to wow everyone.”
But it may not be just the preferences of brides that are driving the strapless trend. Rentillo admits that strapless gowns also much easier for wedding-dress designers to construct. “Adding different necklines and sleeves lead to more design challenges. It’s easy for [fashion designers] to design strapless gowns all day long.” Kate Berry concurs that strapless dresses are easier to make, and that sleeves can present more alteration challenges. Call me high maintenance, but if I’m going to spend more on a wedding dress than I ever have on an outfit before, I don’t mind making a designer work a little harder to put together a flattering neckline.
More diversity in wedding dress styles wouldn’t just help sleeve-loving shoppers like me. At the risk of alienating virtually every married woman I know, I maintain that pulling off a strapless dress is no easy feat. Other common problems that the strapless dress presents? Visible tan lines. Spillover cleavage. Pouches of skin that bunch around the armpits. Stick-figure arms. Uniboobs. Generalized sagginess. And having a good figure alone doesn’t guarantee you’ll look great in a strapless style. One colleague, already thin and in shape when she got engaged, detailed the extensive workout regime she underwent to ensure her arms were strapless-ready. While I have known gorgeous brides who’ve pulled off their bare shoulders with flair, why does the bridal industry expect women to fawn at the chance to wear the one style of neckline that is far from universally flattering?
Given all the hoopla a woman hears about how her wedding is supposed to be her special day, a bold expression of her beautiful uniqueness, it’s ironic that by and large the fashion choices presented by the industry are so, well, uniform.
So what did I do about my own dress? Due to the lack of appealing nonstrapless options from traditional bridal lines within my price range, the wedding industry lost my business entirely. I decided to get an eccentric dressmaker in SoHo who specializes in cocktail and eveningwear to make me a dress in cream. It’s more affordable than many wedding dresses I looked at, and it has an appealing, round neckline—with cute, flattering little sleeves.
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