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When I was a girl, the only wedding-dress role models I had were my grandmother and my mother. For Grandma’s big day, she wore her best dress. In fact, it was her only dress, the one she wore everyday to her secretarial job. Dark brown plaid, with a jaunty kick pleat, it also carried her through every day of her pregnancy—even her ninth month. And my mother really didn’t advance the cause of nuptial fashion in our family—her dress looked just like the one nurse Julie London wore on Emergency.

It was a tradition worth bucking. In college, my roommate and I decided that getting married on the beach, barefoot and draped in seaweed, was the way to go. In my 20s and living in Manhattan, I wanted to tie the knot at the top of the Empire State Building wearing matching gorilla suits. White, of course. Now, at 31 and about to actually get married, I’d like to find a dress that reflects who I am—unfussy, unassuming, and…well, let’s just say, technically unqualified to wear white.

Entering a bridal shop in D.C. creates a fair amount of dissonance. As buttoned-down as Washington is, when it comes to wedding dresses women go girlie like nobody’s business. Maybe it’s proximity to the South, but frills and parasols seem to go hand in gloved hand. With stores catering to the doily look, would I be able to find a dress more déclassé than debutante?

Steve and I enter Rizik Brothers, the Connecticut Avenue glass-and-chrome bastion of fine ladies apparel, and immediately become disoriented.

“Don’t go into the light,” I warn, pointing to a gleaming spiral staircase.

I’ve come to Rizik’s to find a wedding dress and Steve is along as my extra pair of critical eyes. Fresh off the release of his gay porno movie, Steve thinks a little gown shopping will help him decompress. As we are led past a rack of bridesmaids gowns, he offers to model one of them. “That purple one is so fierce,” he says.

Things aren’t looking very promising in Rizik’s dimly lit bridal room. Everything in the room looks as if it’s been slip-covered in plastic—from the three-way mirror to a couch Steve and I are seated on that’s so lumpy it feels as though Jimmy Hoffa might be buried there. All that’s missing is the hanging David lamp sweating beaded oil down the sides.

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Steve and I are paging through a heavy three-ring binder filled with pages of magazine-swiped wedding gowns when Angela interrupts our lap-shopping with, “You can save me some time if you just tell me what you want.” We are Angela’s last appointment of the day, which is apparently one too many in her book. Because I’m sitting down, Angela looms large, rolled-up sleeves exposing championship tennis forearms, a black miniskirt revealing draft-horse legs.

“Do you have any dresses here that don’t pouf?” I ask. Her face falls. She up-and-downs my 5-foot-11 beanpole body and sniffs, “If you don’t wear a dress with a petticoated underskirt, you’ll look like a big white pencil.” As she heads into the back room, with its conveyor belt of dresses, I notice that Angela’s hips are rather generous and figure she must be working out her own frustrations on my size 6 ass.

Offering neither help nor backless bra—bridal shops always keep multiple bras on-hand, so you can get the full effect of the dress without the distraction of ratty, pilled bra straps—Angela stands back, way back, as I try on the first wedding dress of my life. I look like a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade—I’ve been on ocean liners that felt more maneuverable. Angela notes my distress and hands me an even more massive creation. Its hoop skirt appeals to the antebellum in Steve. “Oh, my. I can see myself in that,” he sighs. I try to find my butt among the bolts of taffeta, searching and patting with both hands with no luck. “Am I allowed to sit in this?” Angela’s frown of disapproval deepens.

After trying on eight more horror shows rendered in blinding white, I am exhausted and discouraged. This is supposed to be a Walt Disney musical, an all-brides-are-beautiful time, but I can’t help feeling like the ugly bridesmaid who corrupts all the wedding photos. As we exit past the peignoir sets and fake pearls, Steve whispers some words of encouragement: “Next time, make sure you shave. And for God’s sake, please see that you wear matching bra and panties.”

A week later at Hannelore’s of Olde Towne, I am standing in a fitting room the size of a two-car garage, wearing nothing but matching black underwear. In rooms to either side of me, I hear strange phrases bandied about—basket point, modified gown, corded-hem, French bustle. Now I know I’m in Virginia.

Hannelore’s is hosting a Lila Broudrie trunk show, and I am lucky enough to be in the hands of Lila herself, a 20-year veteran of the bridal industry. My sales consultant Eubie gives me a backless bra and helps me into my gown. (I was told that the staff here is incredibly rude, but my “helper” is charming.) And like the little mice who fashion Cinderella’s gown, Lila, Eubie, and a seamstress dance around me, humming and chirping, their mouths bursting with pins. As Lila pushes a straight-edge dangerously close to my bikini line (newly shaved), she stops in horror: “Make sure you don’t wear those black panties on your wedding day, my dear.”

Because I’ve asked for something simple, I’m outfitted in Lila’s “Audrey Hepburn” gown. What it lacks in beading and lace it makes up in sheer circumference. I feel like the ghost of Christmas present. I’m afraid if I lift my dress I’ll see hungry children huddled at my knees. I make my way across the floor to the three-way mirror, dragging my huge train like a gator’s tail—it takes two women and a forklift to fold my train into an elaborate origamiesque bustle, a trick that could not be duplicated by human hands, especially those of my mother.

On my way back to the fitting room, I look around the store at the rest of the newly engaged. The bus from Middle America must have just pulled up. One mother-and-daughter team wearing identical acid-wash jeans and penny loafers beleaguer their consultant with a list of “I wants.” A chick with one too many blond streaks and a guy with a bad hiphop fade march around, literally slapping the dresses they think are too expensive. “Two thousand five? Fuck that polyester shit.” A group of five marauders, each clutching pictures torn from Modern Bride, zooms in on the same empire-waist Emma dress. A saleswoman has to step in and referee. Fiancés, fathers, and other roped-in men sit scattered about on faux-tapestry chairs—most wear a look that is a weave of doom and surrender.

Store after store runs the gamut of big bad taste. The dresses at Vera Wang would be perfect if I were getting married on the Love Boat. A woman at Georgetown’s Pronuptia literally laughs at me when I ask her if she has anything without sequins and bows. I even try the evening-wear department at Saks Jandel. There the couture buyer shows me just one option, an Ophelia-style nightgown with tiny embedded crystals. It costs almost as much as my entire wedding.

The February issue of Town and Country lists Claire Dratch as the bridal salon of D.C. blue-blooded choice. A complete throwback, Claire Dratch is the kind of place where Lucy and Ethel might have gotten into trouble. I work my way to the back, where I find a flight of stained carpeted stairs that leads up to the bridal department. Halfway up, a mannequin in a white dress leans helter-skelter on a landing; dustballs decorate her nylon hair like baby’s breath. At the top of the stairs, a hyperbolic train, like a Beverly Semmes art installation, laps out at me. I see the bride to be is even bigger. Like Moby Dick in a veil.

I recite my well-rehearsed wish list to a middle-aged woman who could care less.

“Do you have anything that doesn’t pouf, have sequins, or lots of lace?” My consultant Ana walks me over to a sale rack. “We have only this,” she says, holding out a simple, form-fitting gown. The dress has been passed over

so many times there are palm prints

on its back.

Because it’s a sale dress, an unloved castoff, I am treated like a leper. I am left alone to change in a room the size of a handicapped bathroom stall. Instead of being led to the three-way mirror, I am ushered to one in a dark corner.

And when I turn to Ana in the orphan gown I have adopted as my own, I am met with a blank stare. In my shining hour, no one is there to tell me if it fits OK, if I look pretty, or if I’m a big white pencil. So I whip out my camera and make her take a picture of me to send to my mother.

Ana begrudgingly complies, and two weeks later I’m back with the cash. Seemingly unimpressed with her commission, Ana makes one final attempt to pawn off a nonsale item. When I refuse to try on a veil the size of a hammock, she has the balls to ask if I’m on my second marriage. She doesn’t even try to push the peau de soie shoes.CP