Wed in Red: One bride bypasses traditional wedding white for her own signature hue
I’m not a particularly girly girl. I wear mascara, sometimes, and I do have a pretty impressive collection of lip balm. But I’ve never been a high-heels, sparkle-tiara, fairy-princess type. I’m more of a glasses-and-unkempt hair, geeky-reader, wish-I-could-be-more-girly type. You know, one of those nerdy girls who secretly wishes that Disney would make her the subject of a princess makeover show.
So it might surprise you that in my collection of photos snapped from all over the world throughout my lifetime, I have dozens of shots of wedding gowns in shop windows. I swooned over a pink satin ball gown silhouette when I was no more than 15 years old. As I got older, my tastes progressed. I recorded a three-minute clip from the film Giant featuring a white ball gown coming down the stairs, clipped magazine ads for a Herrera wedding gown, and when I moved to Europe after college, I snapped photos of fabulous laces and veils in little shops on cobblestone streets in Belgium and photos of trains and bustles on dresses in Paris.
But a recurring love of mine is the color red. Red is the color of love, of passion, of the heart. And red gowns figure boldly in my formal obsession. My all-time favorite? The red party dress that Rhett Butler makes Scarlett wear after he finds out she’s fancied Ashley all those years.
Yes, white dresses are lovely. There’s something magical and whimsical that typifies a wedding day in the tiny white buttons lining the spine of a woman cinched into a bouffant-and-chiffon dream in white lace. But in my imagined weddings, I never wore white. I paraded down the varied aisles of my dreams in canary yellow, passion pink, robin’s egg blue, and, on occasion, red. I was hardly material for a Disney princess makeover — princesses simply did not wear red wedding gowns. In my wildest dreams, I married someone who didn’t liken my love of red to the fashion tastes of a bordello proprietress.
So when I was riding my bike to graduate school one morning in January of 2004 and I saw a red wedding dress in the window of a little wedding shop, you can imagine that I nearly crashed into the car parked out front. Red? On my wedding day? Could I possibly dare to dream?
My boyfriend was, in fact, amazing. He was kind and smart and ridiculously funny. He chased me all the way across the Atlantic to Ireland when I moved there after graduation, and he certainly wasn’t hung up on tradition. As I stood there in the drizzling rain, admiring the red roses and valentines in the window around that most lovely of all dresses, my heart swelled. Somewhere in the world was another person who thought red and weddings were a perfect match. I snapped a picture on my camera phone before I headed to the library and my very real and solitary life of wading through stacks of academic research.
But oh, did I dance in my dreams. And when I dream-danced, I was wearing that red dress.
A full six months later, that funny, brilliant, handsome man proposed. It was a lovely summer day beside the little river that ran through campus. We were sitting under a willow tree as he showed me a scrapbook he’d made of our five-year courtship. On the last page, he’d tied an engagement ring in a little satin bag. I cried. And said yes.
Immediately, my mind raced to the red dress in the window of the tiny shop all those months ago. I grabbed my momma and we scampered off to shop.
The little shop held very few gowns, and the very old ladies who worked there were happy to fuss over me. They cooed over my ring and showed me the newest gowns, along with their ridiculous price tags. And then I said, off the cuff, “you know, you had this dress once. A red one in the window.”
“Oh, we still do!” said one old lady, rushing into the back room.
Then, there it was. My dress. And it was my size.
I pranced around the tiny shop in borrowed shoes in front of too-little mirrors for nearly an hour. And then my mother said, “I can’t believe you had one in her size!”
“Oh, love, we only ever had one,” said the other old lady. “Sure, there was only ever one made.” And she recounted the tale of a Belgian designer living in Paris who made this dress — this very dress — as a prototype. And how the public hadn’t taken to the idea of red for a day typified by white.
And that was it. I knew he had sewn those tiny stitches along the sweetheart neckline just for me.
I didn’t even try on another dress.
And the best part? Because it was a sample and had been in the back room for so long, they sold it to me for a song. I didn’t even need an alteration.
A year later, when my funny, brilliant, and handsome boyfriend became my husband, I got an even better surprise. This time, from my grandmother. She came into the room where I was fussing with my veil and said, “Oh, Kristen Ann. Look at you!” And while most people looked at my bright red bodice with a bit of shock and awe before they shook off their disapproval and congratulated me on looking fabulous, my grandmother sported a knowing smile.
“You and me are the only two hussies in the world who’d get married in a red dress,” she said, kissing my cheek. My jaw dropped.
I listened as she told me about eloping to marry my granddad on a three-day leave in New York City before he shipped off to fight in World War II. This was the part of the story in which I was well versed. And then she told me how she decided to wear a red dress as the two of them stood, alone, in front of a judge 800 miles away from their homes in Lebanon, Kentucky, and promised to love each other through thick and thin.
“They say ‘Marry in Red, wish you were dead,’” she told me. She laughed a little and patted my shoulder, and said, “I don’t think either of us wished we were dead. So I hope you and Andrew have 61 wonderful years, just like your granddaddy and I did.”
And in that moment, my dress became not only my something new, but also my something old and something borrowed. It made me over in the image of myself, independent of any Disney intervention. I felt connected to my grandmother, her past, and my own stubborn personality so much more than if I’d followed a traditional route, garbed myself in white, and ignored all the impulses that had driven me along my obsessive quest for my perfect dress.
That night, I danced and danced and danced up a passionate red storm. I danced with my wonderful new husband. I danced with my momma. I danced with my grandmother. I danced with friends and family and strangers who crashed our wedding. And best of all, I felt like I was dancing in my own skin, with my heart on my sleeve.
And it was red.