Together we shop for a wedding dress, and right before my eyes my daughter grows up.
I'm sitting outside the dressing room watching brides-to-be parade before full-length mirrors. I see dresses that are strapless and backless, with plummeting necklines and slits up the thigh. I see gowns with froufrou, decorated with bustles and crinoline and oceans of lace. My 27-year-old daughter's getting married next summer, and we're shopping for wedding dresses with my mother and younger daughter.
We've witnessed this scene countless times before at the movies. Now here we are, at the real rite of passage, and it feels a lot like shopping for a prom dress. But the stakes are higher, and so are the sticker prices. We've got our work cut out for us.
No piece of clothing is as cloaked in history and dreams as the wedding dress. When else do women get to be center stage for a day, decked out in all white looking pure as a princess? On what other item of clothing do you spend a fortune, only to wear it once? Even second- and third-time brides break the bank to start over again in the perfect new dress. Mothers and grandmothers hope their daughters might one day wear the dress they wore, though few brides do today. My mother was married in 1949 and wore a fitted blue suit -- out of the question for me or my girls.
The wedding dress is steeped not only in tradition and fantasy but also in a good deal of superstition. It's always been thought unlucky for the groom to see the bride in her dress before she walks down the aisle -- a notion that dates back to the days of arranged marriages, when the man wasn't allowed to see the bride until the wedding, because if he did and found her unattractive, he might call it off. Many young couples today couldn't care less about this custom and go shopping together for a dress and even take pictures before the wedding. Making your own wedding dress is also thought to bring bad luck. No worry there, as my daughter doesn't even own a sewing kit.
She has just emerged from the dressing room in a stunning strapless sheath, and she's beaming. I tear up, not only because she has transformed in an instant from daughter to wife-to-be, but also because I can see time flying right before my eyes.
I'm remembering, too, the story of a friend who died in his early 50s not so long ago. Barry had only weeks left and knew he wouldn't be walking his daughters down the aisle. A close friend had been shopping for a wedding dress with her own daughter, and Barry asked her to visit his bedside and recount all the details of that shopping trip. What had her daughter looked like in each gown she'd tried on? How had the father of the bride, who had gone on the trip, felt when he saw her? What did he say? Barry wasn't a shopper, and he had little interest in silk and chiffon. But he was picturing his own girls at their weddings, imagining the day when they would be joined to another in love. He closed his eyes and could almost see it.
"What do you think?" my daughter asks. "Do you like it?" She says we should like it. It costs a fortune. We've been to a discount shop and a small boutique, and today we're at a higher-end salon where most of the dresses cost thousands. It's one of those shops where there's no merchandise on display. The saleswoman consults with her customer about budgets and bodices and then disappears into a back room and emerges with several dresses in hand. She squeezes into the dressing room with the bride-to-be to help with the fitting. We're all in agreement -- our girl looks gorgeous in the classic sheath. We've only been at it for an hour, but my daughter has already reached her limit for the day. She needs space, time to think.
We leave the shop without a gown. The wedding's still a ways away, so I'm not concerned. I can tell now that my daughter knows what she's after, and I'm sure she'll find it: a dress that's beautiful and unique and also affordable. She'll feel calm and sure and at peace in it -- like in a great marriage.
Marianne Jacobbi is a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. She lives in Cambridge. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.