Monday, July 19, 2010

Are we all white, there?

The bride wore white and the groom wore a proud grin from ear to ear.

The photograph of Brian O'Driscoll and Amy Huberman in the porch of a church in Leitrim in their finery is shaping up to be the most reproduced wedding pic of the year.

The image of a beloved sportsman and his beautiful bride subscribes to all the fantasies. It's easy to imagine this generation of Irish girls studying the picture of Amy in a princess-skirted dress, and vowing: one day, my prince too shall come.

It's not entirely about pulling Prince Charming: for girls, little and not-so-little, it's mostly about The Dress. We know that the wedding has not gone out of fashion. More than 19,000 couples will tie the knot in Ireland this year. One might assume, however, that the traditional white frock might be going the same way as the dowry.

After all, our society has changed immeasurably in the past 20 years. Many people have cohabited before marriage. Some have bought houses or already have children. Certainly, it's a given that there are not too many virgins walking down the aisle these days, any more than there's a virgin groom waiting for them at the altar. Yet the big white/ivory/cream/any-shade-of-pale dress is still the focus of the big day for the majority of brides.

Even Sarah Jessica Parker has admitted that she regrets wearing a black dress to wed husband Matthew Broderick. "I would white it up," she said in 2008. "I'd wear a beautiful, proper wedding dress, like I should have that day." Ciara Elliott, editor of bridal magazine Confetti, says: "The big, white dress endures as the key element for most Irish brides. You can wear a beautiful dress for any nice occasion, but you only get to put on the white dress once and I think people feel special when they put it on."

It's this transformative effect that relationship counsellor David Kavanagh says is key to why most Irish women live modern, unfussy lives -- but have no problem becoming Princess Di for their wedding day. In his experience in running pre-marriage guidance courses, Kavanagh has noticed that Irish women are still very much influenced by traditional expectations of what 'looking like a bride' will do for them.

"Wearing that white dress conforms to the fantastical notion of beauty we would have had from when we had fairy tales told to us as children by our parents," he says. "When people put these dresses on, they feel a sense of joy because endorphins are released as they tap back into those good memories of being told that this is the happy ending." For some brides, the psychology of wearing the white dress is simple: it's easier to wear,

than not to. "Some people wear alternatives but they are a small percentage," says Ciara. "We are a traditional country and when it comes down to it, people feel pressure to do the traditional thing. I knew a woman who was going to wear a pink dress, but her mum was horrified and she buckled."

It's not just pushy mums who are at it. Celebrity PR agent Joanne Byrne said in an interview last month that when her client Cecelia Ahern had her secret wedding, the media were obsessed with one detail. "The only question I asked the couple was who did Cecelia's dress, as I was being inundated with that question," she said. (Oscar de la Renta, if you're interested.)

The irony is that the white wedding dress might be seen as a tradition -- but it's not as time-honoured as we think. Blue was traditionally associated with purity, but, in fact, the earliest wedding gowns tended to be in plush, luxurious colours, like purple and red. In the Middle Ages, such expensive coloured dyes showed that the bride was coming from a family with money. The value of her purity was second to her value in cash.

Social media agony aunt Amanda Brown wore a strapless, linen two-piece to her civil wedding. "I couldn't wear the traditional white dress," she says. "I find that convention oppressive. You are dressing yourself up as chattel: it's a tradition I could do without being a part of."

There are some changes afoot in the world of bridalwear, however. Some cash-conscious ladies are steering away from the dressing-up box clearly marked 'Bridal'.

"The special dress has retained its value in the same way as the engagement ring has," says Tanya Grimson, stylist and fashion editor at Irish Brides. "But I am being asked a lot by readers: 'Who could make me something bespoke?' Designers who are not bridal designers are being asked to create something because people want to be able to wear it again.

"There will always be the die-hard traditionalist who wants the tiara, the veil, the pearls and the Gina shoes. But the long veil is gone for most brides. The idea of unveiling yourself to your husband, as if there is no sex before marriage ... oh, please."

Meet some brides who chose an alternative to the big, white wedding dress.

BARBARA SCULLY Home-maker, writer and blogger

"I was 34 when I married, so I felt I was quite old -- well, relatively. I also already had a daughter. I didn't go for subtle, though: I wore a Grecian-style traffic-light-red dress. I'm 6ft tall and when I came down the stairs at home that morning, my two brothers said, 'Jesus, you're Mighty Aphrodite'. It must run in the family. My mother got married in a red suit in the 1960s."
PRISCILLA DIAMOND Financial controller

"Being from Galway but getting married in Kildare, I thought it would be nice to bring the Galway colours with me. I didn't try on any all-white dresses, but I did have a few panic attacks as the big day got closer, wondering if people would wonder, 'What was she thinking with that dress?' But I loved it and it was the dress for me."


"I didn't go for the traditional white dress because I'm not a 'traditional' person. I got married in a cave (Wookey Hole in Somerset, England), in November. I also think the whole white dress thing is a bit dated. It's meant to symbolise purity, and I think it's quite safe to say that nowadays most brides are not still virgins by their wedding day."

SOOZI HADJ LAZIB Project co-ordinator

"As I married my husband in his family home in Algeria, I wore traditional dress -- but it was a traditional Berber dress, as his family are of Berber [original ethnic group of North Africa] stock. I have definitely loved having more colourful pictures to look back on and show friends."

AISLING McGRANE PRO for Project Arts Theatre

"I love well-tailored clothes and have always loved the '40s look, so I guess it was inevitable I would be drawn to this dress. I saw it in Costume and I also thought that champagne was more flattering on the skin than traditional white. I chose a dress that I was comfortable in and can wear again, if I choose to."

ANNIE WEST Illustrator

"I just wasn't into the thought of a meringue, so, exasperated with trying to find something, I ended up spending a cool 40 quid on a lovely dress from an Indian shop and dressed up a very plain hat. I bought two dresses in Marks and Spencer for the bridesmaids Anna and my daughter Amy [also in the picture and now 19]. They were a bit too new-looking, so I soaked them in tea overnight to get a nice sepia effect."

-Susan Daly


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