If 2020 was a normal year, we’d be taking advantage of the summer season to write a whole lot about weddings and wedding dresses. But, with a global pandemic canceling almost everything about life as we knew it, we’re not. Instead, our carts are filled with bike shorts, WFH-friendly office chairs, and face masks (of both the beauty and PPE varieties). We do know, however, that people are still getting married — and that means they’re still finding ways to browse, try on, and ultimately purchase nuptial-ready frocks. Which begs the question: how exactly are they accomplishing this? We started asking around and as we talked to different women across the country, we learned a lot more than how they wedding-dress shopped during such strange times. The women whose weddings were derailed by COVID-19 still managed to have them and, although different, their ceremonies were just as special as what was planned pre-pandemic. Ultimately, we decided to tell the stories not only of their dresses but of the marriages themselves and the unique ways that their unions took shape in the face of one particularly un-celebratory year.
The Show Must Go On
“I was planning what I wanted to look like long before there was any engagement,” explained healthcare project coordinator Bri Hodges of her wedding dress, but as she browsed bridal salons in advance of her March 27th ceremony, she saw a lot of “bling and tulle” that didn’t match the timeless gown she was envisioning. She enlisted bespoke bridal atelier Anomalie to create a shimmering, all-satin number that would make her “feel classically beautiful and regal.” When the dress that Hodges had customized online arrived at her home in Syracuse, NY, and she put it on for the first time, she had “the experience I’d been waiting for with a wedding dress. My mom was sitting on the couch and immediately burst into tears. I felt like Belle from Beauty and the Beast.” Her dress-bliss, however, soon gave way to panic as the pandemic threatened to derail her ceremony. As she waited on final alterations, “Everything started shutting down — and I literally had to go pick up my dress a day early for fear I wouldn’t be able to get it at all.”
We had so many phones going for FaceTime. You could hear my sister sobbing hysterically in the background.
Bri was determined to get married on the day after the 6th anniversary of making it official with her then-boyfriend: “it was the only date that was significant to us,” she explained. As the pandemic loomed larger and larger, she told us, the guest list “kept dwindling and dwindling,” until it was whittled down to an essential roster that consisted only of Bri’s parents and daughter and her fiancee’s mother and grandmother. The remainder of the 70-person guest list tuned in via video. “We had so many phones going for FaceTime,” Bri said. “You could hear my sister sobbing hysterically in the background.” The wedding party was diverted from the ballroom of the brand-new hotel that had been booked for the nuptials to a fireplace-lit lounge, where the hotel staff surprised Bri’s family with a celebratory, celestial staging of the intimate space. “I thought they were going to do what I asked, which was just to set up some chairs. But they put up twinkle lights, lanterns, and garlands, and set up a cake station and champagne toasting station. I got overwhelmed walking in and not only seeing my husband but seeing how they’d decorated it.”
Post-ceremony, say Bri, “we’re hoping to grow our family, so we’re holding off” on re-scheduling the large, proper celebration that she’d originally planned. “I am definitely getting a second dress when we re-do this again in five years,” she says. “I already got the regal look, so I might be a little more adventurous and colorful next time.”
The Grand (Wedding) Tour
After City Harvest volunteer director Erin Butler’s plans to hit the standard circuit of New York City wedding-dress purveyors (Kleinfeld, BHLDN, and Lovely Bride) were cut short by citywide closings of non-essential businesses in mid-March, it became clear that she’d have to try another route if she wanted to get a dress in time for her late summer wedding. At the suggestion of a coworker, Butler reached out to womenswear label Carleen about re-creating a dress from the brand’s archive that she’d seen online. “It was long and flowy and really beautiful — it’s completely my style.” With early-pandemic uncertainly at its height, Carleen designer Kelsy Parkhouse “was so happy to have something positive and uplighting to think about, and work on,” said Erin. Parkhouse sent a sample to her in-laws in Minneapolis (where she and her fiancee were sheltering in place) to be worn during a Zoom fitting. “We had no idea what we were doing,” said Erin, “but Kelsy was really creative and thoughtful — she sent a beautiful package of fabric swatches along with a measuring tape,” and Ben used painter’s tape to mark changes to the garment’s pattern. “It’s not really my thing to be on display,” Erin explained. “The fact that we could do [the fitting] from the comfort of my own home — I did not feel nearly as stressed about it as I did about going to Kleinfeld.”
We had no idea what we were doing, but Kelsy was really creative and thoughtful — she sent a beautiful package of fabric swatches along with a measuring tape.
Now, in lieu of what she and her fiancee had previously planned — “a very fancy, 300-person banger in Minneapolis”, they’re taking their show on the road — and of course, wearing the sweeping, floor-length gown at every stop. Not only will she don it on her original August wedding date during an intimate ceremony in her in-laws’ backyard but the frock will also make an appearance in Florida, where she and her partner will have “the beach wedding that [my mother] always dreamed of for me. My goal is to wear this dress to as many ceremonies as possible, and perhaps every anniversary thereafter.”
Erin is happy to have gone this route and ended up with a dress that she can herself wearing over and over again; “Everything is aligning with the way I feel about textiles and waste,” she said. “I couldn’t see myself wearing a Kleinfeld dress ever again.”
A Virtual Affair
“We all remember the last thing we did before shelter in place,” says Elisa Benson, manager of lifestyle partnerships at Instagram, “and the last normal thing I did was go wedding-dress shopping.” The Brooklyn-based bride-to-be made the rite-of-passage pilgrimage to Kleinfeld, she told us, “and it was kind of a surreal experience — it was empty.” Two days after that mid-March visit, New York City went into lockdown mode and it quickly became clear that her planned June nuptials were off the table. So, she and her fiancee moved the wedding up a month and decided to live-stream the whole thing from their apartment. This meant finding something to wear ASAP — and circumventing the restrictions making it impossible to shop for a dress IRL. Benson devised a plan to buy, try on, and return as many dresses as she could order, all within the standard 14-day return window that most stores offer. “I basically looked at every white dress that was available on the internet,” she explained. “I kept doing a thing where I was panic-ordering more and more dresses, and obsessively checking the return policies.” She converted her office into a shopping svengali’s war room, hauling in a garment rack and an oversized mirror, and creating a Google spreadsheet to track all of her purchases.
My grandmother is 90 years old and never would have been able to join in person, but she was able to tune in and see all the dresses.
Once her “virtual bridal salon” was fully staged, she streamed a virtual try-on via Zoom for her family. “When I was changing, I would turn off the video on my camera, and then would be like, surprise!” While it wasn’t the in-person experience that many of us have watched unfold on Say Yes To The Dress, Elisa took advantage of the dial-in to expand the audience. “My grandmother is 90 years old and never would have been able to join in person, but she was able to tune in and see all the dresses,” Elisa explained. “My three-year-old niece watched from her laptop at home surrounded by all of her dino and stuffies.”
Elisa was thrilled with the results of her digital shopping trip and ended up with a balloon-sleeved sheath from Moda Operandi. “I could see the virtual bridal salon being a trend that outlasts the pandemic. You get to include more people, you get to try stuff on at home, you get to drink good champagne instead of free warm champagne.”
Marriage, Dinner, & A Movie
In late February, freelance designer Theresa Deckner encountered a major hiccup as she prepared for her August 2nd destination wedding in Heidelberg, Germany: a package containing the vintage wedding dress she’d ordered from Etsy had been stolen from the courtyard of her Los Angeles apartment building. This hiccup, however, was soon dwarfed by a much larger one and, by May, Deckner had postponed her wedding indefinitely and made plans to move with her fiancee to North Carolina. Two weeks before their departure, the couple decided that a courthouse elopement would be the perfect sendoff.
I bought it at the Silverlake flea market for $15 dollars and I had it cleaned three times but never wore it because I had a feeling I would wear it to my wedding. I’m kind of superstitious in that way.
With the tiered, floor-length lace number that she’d originally chosen no longer an option — “It’s such a specific thing,” she said of the pilfered gown, “I feel like not that many people would enjoy it” — Theresa wore a dress that had actually been hanging in her closet for a year. “I bought it at the Silverlake flea market for $15 dollars,” she explained, “and I had it cleaned three times but never wore it because I had a feeling I would wear it to my wedding. I’m kind of superstitious in that way.” (The white Prada heels she wore — a clothing swap score — had actually been waiting in the wings even longer.) With a cotton eyelet fabrication and a go-go-worthy hemline, the mini-dress was too informal for the destination family affair they’d originally planned, but it was perfect for an impromptu visit to the marriage bureau.
“The Los Angeles County courts were all closed, but Orange County is super Republican — it was the one time that worked in our favor,” said Theresa. Outside the Santa Ana Court House, she and her partner snuck away from the crowds waiting outside and privately recited vows they’d written to each other. “I started crying,” she said. “It was really cute. And embarrassing.” Inside, an officiant sat on the other side of a plexiglass barrier (“like a bank teller,” Theresa explained) and took them through their vows. After picking up takeout and having a congratulatory Zoom call with their parents, they watched The Royal Tenenbaums. “I’m still excited to maybe have a wedding next summer, but I don’t want to force it,” says Theresa. “We already had a really nice wedding, just the two of us. And that is also ok.”
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