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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

I Said Yes to the Dress

By Dr. Caron Ann Cioffi

I Said Yes to the Dress and Got on CBS:  The Wedding Gown Featured with Those of Caroline Kennedy and Princess Diana 
“People tell stories about themselves with their clothing.
There are lots of clues in how people dress.”
                                                Julianne Moore, actress 

Behind every great woman is a great dress.  Yet a dress is so much more than just a sketch executed in fabric.  It’s an expression of one’s soul in the quest for eternal beauty.  It is a dream waiting to become a memory.  As Oscar Wilde put it:  “Fashion is that by which the fantastic becomes for a moment the universal.”  A dress is only as powerful as its designer and its wearer, who form a symbiotic relationship centered in the imagination and based on originality.  As that perpetual iconoclast Coco Chanel knew, to be irreplaceable one must always be different.  Stylish women don’t just appreciate clothes; like Carrie Bradshaw and her real-life counterpart, they adore them.  It is a case of fashionista fate that Sarah Jessica Parker and I were both born on March 25th.
The dress one chooses for her wedding day reflects both the desire to be beautiful and the passion between two people.  It is a double love story and the stuff of fairy tales—Cinderella shedding her rags and waltzing in a ball gown with her Prince.  In my case, I followed Coco’s advice and broke with tradition.  That meant convincing my family that a big, fat Italian wedding dress was out of the question.  They wanted me to resemble a doughnut-shaped zeppoli; I was hoping for a streamlined cannoli instead.  Citing Diana Vreeland, legendary Vogue editor, I argued that elegance is refusal, and that a chic, fitted silhouette would flatter my body more than acres of bubble-shaped tulle.  “This is between me and my mirror,” I said to my weeping mother and hysterical godmother.  I made two concessions: the dress had to have beadwork to honor my late grandmother, who learned the craft in Italy and used it to save our immigrant family during the Great Depression, and a piece of my mom’s lace bridal gown would be sewn into my own.

The next step was a visit to Kleinfeld’s Bridal, now the setting for The Learning Channel’s show “Say Yes to the Dress.”  I met the owner, Hedda K., and got my first surprise “wedding gift”: an interview with CBS news for a feature-length story titled “Big Weddings Are Back.”  The premise was that all economic classes desire to lead a life of style, if only on that one blissful day.  I would implicitly be compared to several high society icons:  Caroline Kennedy (whose nuptials would include Jackie and California’s current first lady Maria Shriver) and Princess Diana.  Two royal families, one American, one British, and moi.  Letitia Baldridge, Jackie’s White House Social Secretary, would also be consulted regarding impeccable taste.  Wishing for an Excedrin the size of a hockey puck, I nonetheless agreed to have my entire wedding filmed and viewed on national TV.  Finding that special dress now took on a whole new meaning.

Thankfully, I knew what look I wanted.  My muses were Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca and Grace Kelly in anything.  I imagined myself as the star of my own movie—dramatic, softly feminine, subtly seductive, as elegant and mysterious as a swan.  Striking images came to mind:  floating clouds, angel wings, classical goddesses wrapped in sea-foam, Paris’s Cathedral of Notre Dame, The Mona Lisa, the poetry of Keats.  From that flood of metaphors, I realized that clothes are symbols that gather moments of life into an autobiography, and that they are poems of form and color to be enjoyed and revisited forever in the stream of history.  My wedding dress would be catapulted beyond the realm of family and friends and into the archives of a far vaster audience.

To say that the pressure was on is an understatement.  I began to tear through the racks at Kleinfeld’s with the ferocity of a Viking warrior.  And suddenly, magically, there was the dress.  It was by the then-unknown Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto, whose avant-garde fashions now appear in Vogue, etc.  I was drawn to the Zen-like way that the weight and textures of the luxurious fabrics harmonized.  The shape was modified mermaid, consisting of body-hugging Alençon lace embroidered with seed pearls and columns of rich taffeta ruffles down the sides and around the hem.  The neckline was face-framingly high and elegant, while the upper bodice was peek-a-boo lace that added some sensuality.  The sleeves were demurely long but of sheer lace, with set-in, slightly padded shoulders.  (The latter detail remains the hallmark of a Yamamoto design.)  The back consisted of a perfect line of silk-covered buttons that cascaded into a chapel length train to be bustled into a bow for dancing.  It was my dream dress, superbly made, objectified on a hanger, and I hardly needed to try it on.
When I did try on the sample, it fit perfectly.  As I watched my mom and godmother dissolve into happy tears, I knew that they experienced it too—the power of an unforgettable, sophisticated, breathtaking work of art.  In that dress, I felt like a Michelangelo sculpture come to life, like my best, most true, most beautiful self made visible.  We are what we wear, and how we wear it.  I was ready for my Warholian 15 minutes of fame; I was ready for the CBS cameras and the Kennedys and the Princess of Wales.  I said yes to the dress that I loved and that would carry me to the man whom I idolized.  Two life-long romances came together at Kleinfeld’s that day, because what is true of passion is also true of fashion—they are matters not of common sense but of uncommon sense.  I envision our son’s bride gliding down the aisle in my gown, because a great dress, like a great woman, never goes out of style.

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