You don't have to signal a social conscience by looking like a frump. Lace knickers won't hasten the holocaust, you can ban the bomb in a feather boa just as well as without, and a mild interest in the length of hemlines doesn't necessarily disqualify you from reading Das Kapital and agreeing with every word. --Elizabeth Bibesco

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Wedding Dress Guide for the Modest Bride

I know I've abandoned this blog lately, but there's definitely a dearth of info for modest brides on the web, so I feel like this needs to be said.

I have finally wrapped up my wedding dress shopping, so I thought I'd include a post for anyone out there looking for modest wedding gowns. Be forewarned: it's ridiculous.

So let's start off with this: if you live in a community where your modesty standards are, if not the norm, pretty common, you can probably disregard this entire post. Mormons living in Utah? That's you. Tzniut women in Brooklyn? You too. The only exception is if you walk into your local modest wedding dress shops and find that they all sell the same kind of dress and you don't like it. (I feel like this a lot in tzniut stores, to be honest-- too much my-wedding-cake-ate-my-dress, not enough Grace Kelly.) Then, you should probably stick around.

First thing first, you could try your local modest retailers. Don't limit yourself to just your particular modesty standards. If you're tzniut, you won't look out of place in a hijabi wedding gown (minus the actual headpiece). By the same token, if you're tzniut and you try on a Temple-ready Mormon gown, it will be a lot easier to modify it to tzniut standards. In Chicago, I've found that there aren't a lot of modest wedding dress retailers. I actually ended up driving down to St. Louis to the wonderful Chatfield's to find a modest wedding gown store. (The dresses were beautiful and the service was absolutely wonderful, but they were ultimately not what I was looking for.)

If you find your perfect dress at a modest wedding store, yay!-- you're done. For the rest of us, we move on to the generic wedding retailer. Let me just get started by saying this is a total trip. Wedding dress shops are a totally different world where all the rules you learned about life in modern society go out the window. And not necessarily in a good way.

Now, as a rule, I would stick to small retailers, and here's why. Wedding gown stores are frequently packed to the brim with people. (When it's a small store, it could just be you and your small entourage-- when it's a big store it could be 20 other people and every member of their respective bridal parties.) And most of the assistants at wedding gown stores have lost every sense of modesty they ever had. It's just the nature of the business, I think. The last thing you want (and I speak from experience) is your bridal assistant throwing open the door of your dressing room to show your mother a dress you were wearing when you're as naked as the day you were born (or only slightly less so) and then refusing to close it while you get back in the dress-- while dozens of other brides and their families walk by.

So here's my fabulous guide to not having that happen to you.
  • First, pick a small store that carries a designer who makes modest gowns or gowns that can be made modest. (Note: just because a store carries a designer doesn't mean they carry all their gowns, so if you have one you really want to see, ask about it on the phone before you make your appointment.)
  • When you're making an appointment, mention your modesty requirements if you feel comfortable doing that. (Note: if you do this and they jump down your throat, you can cancel the appointment or you can say, "I know maybe none of your gowns meet this requirement right away, but I'd love to look at some gowns that would be easy to alter to fit my specifications." That usually calms people down.) Now would also be a good time to ask questions like how many brides have appointments at the store at once. A lot of smaller places only see one or two brides at a time and that makes it so much easier to be modest.
  • Before you go to your appointment, get the right clothes. If you're Mormon, absolutely wear your garments-- since you have to cover them anyway, this covers everything you need the gown to cover and it gives you an extra layer of modesty while they're ripping gowns on and off of you faster than you can blink. If you're tzniut or hijabi and you don't have handy underwear that covers everything you expect the dress to cover, you have a couple of options. One, you could find said underwear. Two, you could do some combo of slip and t-shirt. This way, instead of being buck naked under the gown, you have another layer. I ended up borrowing a slip from my mother. The skirt was long enough that I felt reasonably covered and the neckline was as deep as I'd ever want my wedding dress neckline to be. Do remember that this ensemble shouldn't be too bulky.
  • Once you get to the appointment, wearing whatever undergarments you've decided on, remind them of your requirements again. They may direct you to any modest gowns they already have. If they don't have any, they will likely ask you to pick out some samples of gowns you think would work. Go to town. Don't be afraid to ask if they think their seamstress could modify it and HOW. I can't stress that enough. If no one in the store can at least give you a vague idea of how to modify it, you don't want to even try.
  • As you head to your dressing room, see if you feel comfortable with the arrangement. Often in small stores, you'll get a whole real room to yourself. You can always ask for something more private, but they won't always be able to accommodate.
  • Once you get in the dressing room, you undress and the sales assistant helps you put the dress on. Some places will let other people help you with this (your mom or whomever you brought with you) but most won't. Before you tell me you don't need help getting dressed, let me tell you you're wrong. Everyone needs help getting a wedding dress on. Why? Because stores only carry samples in one (or maybe two, if you're very lucky) size-- it's usually what's called a "bridal 10" which fits a lot like a regular American 6 or 8 depending on the designer. If you don't wear a 6 or an 8 regularly, there will be a lot of tugging and pulling and clipping to make it look like it's supposed to look-- or even to get it to stay on. I've had the occasional gown fit perfectly, but most of the time I need anywhere from two to ten clips to keep it on.
I went through a whirlwind of stores and I have a couple quick recommendations near Chicago. First, House of Brides in Aurora, Illinois  has a decent selection of Mormon gowns and a vague appreciation for modesty. I've also heard wonderful things about Jasmine Galleria in Lombard, which does a kind of create-your-own-dress where you select a basic, strapless style and can add sleeves and necklines of your choice. (Check out their Temple Ready selection.) Ultimately, though, I didn't go with gowns from any of these places.

So... what to do when you've gone through all my above steps at a zillion stores and still can't find the gown? Or, alternatively, you don't have the budget for any of that? (Be aware though, Chatfield's is very reasonably as wedding gowns go-- more so even than David's Bridal or the like.) Well, then, on to the next battle.
  • Check out antique stores and second-hand clothing stores. Vintage gowns are much more likely to be modest than modern gowns. They're also often much more reasonable.
    • Now vintage stores may pose an additional problem-- where do you try on your dress? Most stores I've been to don't have a dedicated dressing room. All I can say for this is: wear something made of thin material that you might be able to slide under a dress, if at all possible.
    • Also be aware of your vintage size. Your vintage size is often several sizes bigger than your current size. For example, I'm something like an 8 or 10 American. When I'm looking for vintage dresses, I look at dresses ranging anywhere from size 12 to size 16.
    • Also remember that bigger is always better: if you find the perfect dress, but it's 2 sizes too big, buy it! Taking a dress in is easier and cheaper than letting one out. It also might give you extra material if you need to add to the neckline or sleeves.
      • That brings me to an important point! If you're shopping for a modest wedding dress at vintage stores, those dresses will probably be harder to modify, because you won't be able to contact the designer to get more of the exact fabric. If you have a creative tailor, though, there are often fun ways around this. Just be aware when you go in.
  • Also look online. While going online always carries a huge risk of not seeing what you're ordering beforehand, it also has some great options.
    • You could order a custom gown from one of the wonderful sellers on Etsy.
    • You could order from a department store or wedding boutique. (I ended up getting a Tadishi Shoji dress with long lace sleeves from Nordstrom.)
    • You could also order from one of those cheap copycat retailers based in places like China. No word on whether this actually works out for people, though...
So that's how I did it, at least. And in the end, I ended up with a gorgeous gown that will only need to be tailored a little to meet my modesty standards. Good luck to you and happy shopping! Let me know if you have any suggestions to add!