Relationships

The Accidental Wedding Dress

The Accidental Wedding Dress

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.

P.S. On living alone, and things that should exist for single people.

(Illustration by Alessandra Olanow for Cup of Jo.)

  1. Tara says...

    This is a great read and soooo much needed right now!!

  2. Allison says...

    Caroline is back!!!!!!! <3 <3 <3

  3. Katherine says...

    Beautiful story and insights. Also… is Caroline back…!??

  4. Greta says...

    Caroline, are you back? Yeeeeey!

  5. Allison says...

    I have tears in my eyes. Thank you for saying what I have felt and have wrestled to find the words to communicate. Living as a single woman in a world of primarily young families, I find myself straddling the line between, “I love my life as a single woman!” and, “But, will I have done it ‘wrong’ if I’m single forever?” and don’t have many single female friends to say, “You’re doing just fine!”

    So here I am, nodding along to this post. Thank you for being an example of feeling settled–and not forced to *settle*.

  6. Ginny says...

    CAROLINE! CAROLINE! CAROLINE!

    Been waiting for this day, was not disappointed. More, please!!

  7. Franzi says...

    I have missed your writing so much, Caroline! Although I have been a reader of Cup of Jo before you came aboard and long after, nothing written on here has resonated to much with me as the articles you have shared (also on your personal blog). I’m feeling rather emotional right now reading this, because I can relate SO much. So, thank you!

    PS: I bet that dress was gorgeous.

  8. Yay Caroline is back!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  9. Stella says...

    We want to see the dress! Picture, please…

    • Carly says...

      yes, my thoughts exactly! Picture, please please!

  10. Emily says...

    Caroline, so nice to read your writing again!! hope to see more here. x

  11. Heather Milks says...

    Missed you Caroline!

  12. Debbie says...

    I need to see this dress asap. Link please?

  13. Bernadette says...

    My eyes lit up when I saw Caroline’s byline~more words please!

  14. Marge says...

    Love Caroline’s voice! So glad she’s writing here again!

  15. Lauren B says...

    YES! Ditto to all the above. We missed you Caroline!

  16. Oh my gosh Caroline, where did you get this dress? I’m getting married in August and can’t find anything in the designated bridal shops. I keep hoping my dress will find me like this one did you.

  17. Charlotte says...

    When is a sequined tube top NOT a sound sartorial choice?!

  18. C B says...

    Girl, welcome back, good to hear that narrative voice again

  19. ceciel says...

    Love having your voice on COJ, Caroline. And your perspective on singledom is needed here in this space of lots of mama talk. xoxo

    • Rosie says...

      Yes this!! So nice to have another voice, I love the mama stuff, but if you’re not in that life neighbourhood, it can feel a little like you’re on the outside staring in, which sometimes makes me a little sad.

    • Jessica says...

      Yes, I agree! I love this blog so much, but especially since all the primary writers are coupled up, I always get so excited when I see a contributor who is a fellow single woman. For me, this also applies to beauty uniforms, outfit posts, and especially the house tours.

  20. What a lovely surprise! I miss you, Caroline!
    So glad to read your writing here again :)

  21. Laura says...

    Just gotta say, anyone who’s ever seen Caroline’s home tour or instagram knows, girl is already living a fabulous life :)

  22. Yosep María says...

    This story put me to think about my single life and the expectations that we have.
    Thank you so much.

  23. Kathleen says...

    I was silently ugly laughing at my desk while reading this. Your writing is like my internal monologue in written word. I so loved this and the message. You go, castle-owning girl :)

  24. Cici says...

    Caroline, did you receive the dress in black and wear it?? Though you are already the fabulous, imaginary person you imagined!

  25. katie says...

    Love this, Caroline! I am so hungry for more versions of happily-ever-after. So hopeful to see more versions of all of us on screens, in books, and over the sound system. I read the other day that more of us are spending our lives independently than ever – yes, even inside of marriages – and I can’t wait for the culture to catch up & better reflect our reality.

  26. Elisha says...

    Thanks for sharing this, loved this piece!!

  27. Anna says...

    SO glad Caroline is back!!! Love this piece.

  28. Another Caroline says...

    How’s Caroline’s book coming? I’ll be first in line to pre-order ;)

    • Meghan says...

      yes to Caroline’s book!!! What an amazing read that would be!

  29. Delightful story!

  30. Alice says...

    Caroline is back!? Hooray! Please tell us what’s new! We’ve missed you :)

  31. Bethany says...

    Even though I’ve worn the dress, met the milestones, and done the traditional things at mostly traditional times, all of this still resonates. I, too, want a lot more examples of the cornucopia of happily-ever-afters and all the different outfits for those occasions.

  32. E says...

    Just a thought – if you kept the dress, buy a fabulous wig and come to Mardi Gras next year in New Orleans. Add body glitter, maybe a feather boa, and declare yourself queen for the day. And wear the hell out of the dress.

  33. K says...

    Caroline with the words!

  34. Denise Brown says...

    Great Valentine’s day reading for this old single lady.

  35. MM says...

    Oh! So glad you are back!

  36. Tabby says...

    Better than buying the dress, buy yourself a beautiful ring. Not an as-advertised right hand ring, but a real, made of out precious metals and stones (or whatever your style is) ring to wear every day. When I was single I realized that a ring was the part of the cultural pressure that made me feel like I was missing out. I bought myself one as a reminder that I could create my own fairytale ending and to wait for the right relationship instead of feeling pressured into something just to have an ending. And I’m so glad I waited.

    • rachel says...

      LOVE THIS!

  37. D says...

    We ALL missed you, Caroline!

  38. Rue says...

    A friend’s pregnancy photos (seen on social media, of course) recently gave me all kinds of “adult milestone FOMO” as a single woman. I find that what tends to induce that for me is when men are really committed to their partners and enthusiastic about those milestones. That, to me, feels like the fairy tale ending that I worry will forever elude me.

    I appreciate “the shape of my life” as a single woman. I dated someone for a few weeks recently and realized that I find it straight-up *annoying* to reshape my single life unless it’s for/with a guy who really feels worth it to me. I deeply value my hard-earned freedom, strength, structure, and control.

    As much as I am unwilling to change my life for just anyone, I yearn for the kind of partnership that will be worth making adjustments for. At my best friend’s wedding, I was chatting with the groom and referred to “his wife,” expecting a happy-but-freaked-out reaction. He just grinned and said confidently and contently, “yeah, my wife, she’s amazing.” It gutted me, my friends.

    As a straight woman I feel like I’m told to expect men who are flighty and afraid of commitment. My own deep fear around dating is that men will look at me and think, “she’s not enough,” and back away. The mean gremlin in my head can easily twist my own dating history to corroborate that story, even though I’m the one who has ended relationships that weren’t right for me. But still, when I see men enthusiastically diving into the next stage of partnership with women, I wonder whether I’ll ever find someone who wants those things with me.

    • Rue, thank you for writing this. I’m only 28 and just went through a heart breaking breakup, so I don’t feel I have words of wisdom to offer. But I can totally relate!! Even though it’s an irrational, anxious fear, I too worry that I’m somehow not good enough, but we can’t believe that. Sometimes we’re just not a match with someone and he’s not a match with us. For the right person or person(s) bc I don’t believe there’s just one, “the one” out there, we will be enough and more than enough! :)

    • Moo says...

      You sound amazing and I don’t doubt you’ll find someone right for you. I’m in my mid 30’s and only just found my guy a little over a year ago. Before him, I was in a long term relationship that just never really felt right. It broke my heart to end it but I knew that if I didn’t and we went on to marry, I’d resent it and him. Neither one of deserves that. And as difficult it was to end it with him, it was absolutely the right choice. I’m glad I waited and found happiness being single first and only committing myself to someone who would add to my life and I would add to his. I hope you find someone but know you are absolutely complete as you are.

  39. Yes, Caroline!! Please more from you! Your storywriting is the best!!

  40. Mona says...

    Caroline! Never leave us again <3

    • Kelli says...

      So wonderful to see your words back here Caroline! You have been missed!

  41. Ricky says...

    Lovely story <3 Mine is slightly related, although in the opposite situation: I was ordering my wedding shoes online and settled on a pair of white shoes, thinking to my self "If only this model existed in silver…". As the order arrived, there I had the pair of my wedding pumps, in SILVER color, and they fit perfectly :) I checked the order form once again, and it still said white, but there I was, having my Cinderella moment…

    • Those silver shoes were meant to be!

  42. Kato says...

    Yay Caroline! I agree with so many here that it is so great to have your lovely writing and voice back here! And now I’m curious what this dress looked like… bet you looked stunning in it!

  43. Caroline! I missed your writing so much. Thank you for another lovely article! Sending lots of love from Hong Kong. Xx

  44. Katherine says...

    Caroliiiiiine. Man alive I didn’t realize how much I’d missed you til I read this. Please can we keep you, Caroline?!

    • Rachel says...

      Yes, pleeeeeeeeeease!