Say Yes to the Dress is a reality show on TLC, the same cable network that brings us Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Cake Boss. TLC originally stood for The Learning Channel but now focuses primarily on reality-style series. Say Yes to the Dress, which originated in New York at Kleinfeld’s Bridal, is in season six.
SYTTD is ostensibly all about wedding dresses, choosing one, buying one, the subsequent fitting, and even the occasional wearing of one. A typical episode begins with the introduction of two new brides, each with an entourage. A short interview ensues in which we learn about the potential groom, how they met, and the type of wedding they’re planning. Then we meet the entourage. This might consist of a mother or step-mother or both, a sister or two, a friend or three, an aunt, a mother-in-law to be, Joan Rivers, quite possibly a father or grandfather, a fiancée or baby-daddy, some brothers, and any number of gay men. A brief description of the dream dress follows. We go into the stock room to browse. To my eye, the dresses all look remarkably the same. And from fifty feet I bet they’re indistinguishable. The tops are mostly strapless, but the bottom shapes differ somewhat and it is imperative to learn the lingo of skirts: mermaid, trumpet, ball gown, etc. They all cost a fortune. I think you can probably find a dress for under $2000, but if you have something unique in mind, you can spend up to $30,000. It’s pricey to play princess for a day.
But the real story, the reason I watch, is the subtle way the show reveals the relationships between the bride and the people she loves. We carefully read their facial expressions as she tries on dresses, hoping to understand the differences between what the bride wants and what everyone else wants for the bride. As different body shapes are forced into sample sizes, disaster results. Families focus on the neckline, the skirt shape, the ruching, and the rhinestones. And as they supposedly fixate on the dress, we register their disapproval, expectations, uncertainty, hopes, divisiveness, even contempt—all of which show up in the faces and comments of moms and brothers and sisters and friends within moments of seeing an ill-fitting gown clamped to our bride. It’s a fascinating lesson in family dynamics, and it’s definitely not just about the dress. It’s about every aspect of womanhood. Heartbreaking back stories are tossed in to add texture. But somehow all of life lurks in the subtext of this strange reality program under the auspices of clothes shopping for one of life’s biggest events. What isn’t said in each episode could provide another season. While the show inadvertently focuses on the nature and intricacies of family and weddings provide the context, marriage itself is the elephant in the dressing room. Marriage is, incredibly, irrelevant.
You can’t help but wonder if the search for the perfect wedding dress, despite the declarations of modesty (“I don’t want the girls hanging out!”) or its opposite (“My fiancée has a hot bod and I want everyone to know it!”), hasn’t become the objective correlative of a very different discussion we’re almost having on national television. The dress is a substitute for hope, a hope that is, like most things American, commercialized and available for purchase according to your budget. Televising the process of purchasing hope in the form of a dress you wear once provides obvious revenue for the wedding industry. Lots of people are profiting here! In our nominal summaries of how the couples meet, we learn that grooms are “awesome”, “best friends”. But we don’t actually care about the grooms. All the focus is on the event and the bride as centerpiece (the money parts), not on the couple, not on the marriage. These women aren’t Bridezillas, for the most part. They often just trying to please, trying to lose weight, trying to make the most people happy, or satisfy the one who’s paying. Sometimes they speak of the wedding symbolically, as a gift. It makes you wonder how they arrived at the decision to marry. And then you find yourself studying a bride’s face to see if there’s any indication she might know there’s more to it than a great dress and a party.
In the real world without reality-TV, women worry about the choices they’re making. Moms and Dads worry about their daughters’ choices, brothers and sisters worry about their sisters’ choices. In the non-televised world, women worry more about the men they marry (and vice versa) than what they’re wearing that particular day. That’s the subtext of the show, which has deconstructed the process to simply choosing a gown, as if getting that part right guarantees success in all else. If a decent marriage merely depended on finding the right white dress for five large, I’d fly to Kleinfeld’s in a New York minute.
As my own daughters begin to talk (theoretically) about marriage, the dress issue becomes relevant and SYTTD almost addictive. I see myself in the show as a (albeit unlikely) bride, a mother, a sister, a member of many different wedding parties. I hope I don’t manipulate my daughters in any way and fear I might. I remember my own wedding and my own dress. In late 1981 when I became engaged, I saw an ad for Estée Lauder’s fragrance, Estée. The model wore a white lace gown by Chicago designer Becky Bisoulis, photographed by Skrebneski. I showed it to my mom who thought it looked terrific. Mom was an experienced seamstress, but had never worked with lace. She and I took the picture to a dressmaker in Blue Island who told us how much fabric to buy and where to buy it. She charged us $100 to create the gown. It had no beading and no train. Just lace. I wore flowers and a ribbon in my hair.
A few years after I married, I gave anesthesia to a woman who wore the same gown for her wedding. Later we became friends and are still friends to this day. Only she wore the real Becky Bisoulis gown. I never asked what she paid for it. We’re both divorced now, each after twenty-some years of marriage. While I don’t think the dress had anything to do with our divorces, I suppose it was, in a very small way, a symbol of hope. But maybe not. Maybe it was just a dress which is why I’m glad I only paid a hundred bucks to have it made. In the big scheme of things I think there are better ways to spend money. But in the world of reality TV, it’s nice to know you occasionally get more than you bargain for, and there’s more than what appears on the surface. SYTTD is one of those rare shows that makes you think. How often does that happen?