Last year, I bought a wedding dress. No, I did not get married. No, I was not engaged. (And no, I was not crazy.) It was an accident…
The story begins with a wedding — someone else’s. I am a lowly guest, and I need something to wear.
So, one Saturday, I wander into a tiny, intimidating boutique on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It’s the kind of place where everything, including the floorboards, is painted white, save for one spindly cactus chilling in the corner. Dresses are suspended on hooks from the ceiling. The vibe is like an art gallery, with gowns instead of paintings.
“Are you shopping for a DRESS?” asks a salesman. This seems like a foregone conclusion in a place where dresses are the only thing for sale. Still, I tell him I am. He seems excited about this.
I hold up a dramatic black lace gown. It’s something a more fabulous version of me would wear. The me who wears this dress owns a very impressive home, maybe even a castle. She is mysterious, alluring, self-assured. She knows what she wants and also how to get it. I would like to be this imaginary person, which seems like a logical reason to purchase this dress. The salesman says he will fetch one in my size and flounces away, disappearing behind a white velvet curtain.
“Here we are!” he trills, emerging moments later. I look up to see him holding the fabulous dress… in white. It is, for all intents and purposes, a wedding dress. I shudder. I am not here for a wedding dress.
“We don’t have the black one in your size,” he explains. “But try on the white, and if you like it, we can order it in black!”
This is how I find myself gazing at my own reflection, wearing the world’s most perfect wedding dress. I want to set it on fire. I want to never take it off. Most disturbingly of all, I am ready to say yes to this dress. But I am not getting married. So that would be insane.
“I want to see how it fits!” calls the salesman.
I tentatively emerge from the dressing room.
“Oooooooooh! Are you a BRIIIIDE?” asks another salesperson, clapping her hands together.
“No,” I respond.
“Are you ENGAGED?” she asks.
“No,” I reply.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” she asks.
Why do I feel like it is Christmas Eve and my aunt just backed me into a corner?
“Sort of?” I say. “I’m seeing someone, but we haven’t really, uh, defined what’s going on with us yet.”
“Oh,” she says. My answer has disappointed her. “Well, you could wear it to a black and white ball?”
My chances of going to a black and white ball anytime soon are about as good as my chances of getting engaged, which is to say, slim to none. So I order the dress — in black — and begrudgingly leave the store.
Two weeks later, a box arrives at my home. I am ready to transform into the black-dress-wearing, castle-owning version of me. I open the box to discover… the dress, in white. Very funny, universe, I think. Obviously, I will have to return it.
Yet I cannot ignore its siren song. Later that day, I put the dress on, just for fun. I sit at my desk and rattle off a few emails. I discover how it feels to watch Netflix in a bridal gown. (The answer, in case you’re wondering, is weird.)
The dress hangs in my room for a week.
After much soul searching, I realize what I want isn’t the dress itself. What I want is an answer. A milestone. A conclusion. The “white dress” story has been told to me ever since I was young enough to hear. It is a fairytale handed down for generations, tumbled through the ages until it emerged smooth and shiny as a pebble. We all know how it goes: “One day, your time will come…”
But what if it doesn’t?
The truth is, I am okay with being single. I like the shape of my life. Still, I don’t know what a happily single woman wears to symbolically commit to the rest of her life. I suppose the optimistic answer is, anything she wants. Yet with such a wide array of options comes many decisions, many questions, many doubts. There is no prescription. No fairytale that ends with a phenomenal pantsuit or a faux fur coat that the princess dons as she boards the jet to her life full of solo adventures.
What I want are more examples, a cornucopia of happily-ever-afters. Because no matter where we find ourselves (single, dating, engaged, married, divorced, separated, confused, complicated…) there are never any guarantees. So why don’t our stories of settling down — and more importantly, feeling settled — reflect all the ways that might look?
One day, while giving the dress the side-eye, I am reminded of my prom. My high school boyfriend and I had broken up days beforehand, and I was left without a date. And so, I went alone, wearing a women’s tuxedo with a sequin tube top underneath. (It was the early aughts, so a sequin tube top was actually a sound sartorial choice at the time.) Perhaps, I realize with a start, I’ve never subscribed to the expected wardrobe. Perhaps this is just the latest chapter in a very long tale I’m writing for myself.
In the end, I did what any self-respecting person who’s trying not to tempt fate (or waste fabric) would do. I said goodbye to the dress and sent it on its way.
But if anyone wants to invite me to a black and white ball, well, you know where to find me.
And I know what I’ll wear.
(Illustration by Alessandra Olanow for Cup of Jo.)