Event Dress: The Royal Wedding and Emphatic Presence

I have to confess: I couldn’t wait to see who designed Meghan Markle’s wedding dress. The week before the wedding had been rough. I’d had to scramble to finish a rewrite I’d promised my agent, my rheumatologist was concerned about my heart and had ordered several tests for it, and on Friday there was another school shooting in the U.S. I just wanted to see something faultless. Something shamelessly pretty.

I couldn’t give a fig about the royal family, even if Harry and his bride do make an adorable couple. To me, the idea of being whisked off to Windsor Castle to be scrutinized every day for the rest of your life is less fairy tale than jail sentence, and the wedding veil is the gauze to dress the wounds. But what gauze!

I lost hours looking up the betting odds on who would design the wedding dress. Two of my favorite designers, Erdem and Roland Mouret, were thought to be top contenders. I had been convinced that the former would be the chosen one; after all, Erdem Moralioglu is a talented British-Canadian whose lacework is exquisite and whose prints of blurred flowers look like a wet dream from Monet’s final years. By Friday the rumor was that Stella McCartney had prevailed, although it would turn out that she had only designed the ivory halter-neck dress Meghan wore to the post-nuptial reception. When I woke and saw that Clare Waight Kelly of Givenchy was the winner, all seemed right with the world. Meghan is a modern-day Audrey Hepburn, her effortless chic and low chignons balanced by the gamine charm of her freckles. Plus, I’m a sucker for three-quarter sleeves. Wrists should be celebrated.

The guests’ outfits were just as delightful. If a royal wedding is good for one thing, it’s for supporting great millinery houses. Three words on the invitation, Hats are encouraged, turned the event into a vivid fantasy of floating, technicolored nests. The term, “fascinator,” can refer either to a person who fascinates or an ornament on the head, and at this event, many of the latter were concocted by Irish Philip Treacy and British Stephen Jones. Both inject the avant-garde into the beau monde, which is fitting, for when it comes to hats, there is already a series of straddlings involved: between the past and the future; between the demure and the risqué; and above all, between the body and the space adjacent. Treacy’s and Jones’ toppers are the haptic sense in visual form.

Treacy, whose hats often look like birds in flight, found no better model than gorgeous Indian actress Priyanka Chopra, the supreme fascinator du jour in both senses. Arriving in a structured suit by old-guard bad-girl Vivienne Westwood, she was clad head to toe in lavender so delicate the fading lilacs went green with envy. The outfit’s pièce de résistance was the floral burst clinging to the underside of her curving hat. One of Treacy’s signature moves is to adorn the underside rather than topside of the hat with a small adornment—a sexy gesture of undressing, not unlike the back-of-the-neck décolletage of a geisha’s kimono. What could be more erotic than this hint of what is underneath? Maybe one other thing: the reticulated face of a beautiful woman like Chopra, her veil and sunlight hopscotching across it.

Aside from Chopra, Amal Clooney wowed, as she always does. (Does anyone even notice George anymore?) Her Stella McCartney dress and veiled Stephen Jones hat in a matching color boasted the best shade of mustard since Michelle Williams stunned at the 2006 Oscars. Lady Kitty Spencer was a huntress on the Riviera in her forest-green Dolce and Gabbana dress and feathered hat by Treacy, Karen Spencer gained nearly a foot with the help of a gravity-defying candied violet, and Gina Torres was topped with the perfect shade of peach.

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Why do I find comfort in these event hats and dresses? It’s not because they are part of an aristocratic ceremony. Although I adore fashion, I am a proponent of income equality and have never been particularly aspirational. To me, one of the cool things about luxury clothes and accessories is that they have become more accessible over the past decade or two, mostly because of eBay and discount websites like Outnet and Yoox. For those who aren’t wealthy, acquisition is a merry chase, a skill to take pride in.

One of my choicest acquisitions was a white, bias-cut mermaid dress made in the 1990s by John Galliano. He described the process of cutting such gowns on the bias as “like working with liquid, mercurial oil.” The sleek dress was soft as the sin of its daringly draped bodice, and its modest train could be gathered up, with the help of a hidden button, to form a bustle. I vied for it before Galliano’s fall from grace due to an anti-Semitic tirade, so the last-minute, early-hours bidding was fierce. I felt like I had accomplished something by winning it, at a time when I needed wins.

I wore the mermaid gown to a masked ball in San Francisco and to attend the San Francisco Ballet at the War Memorial Opera House. A snapshot from the latter has not faded from my mind’s album. I had let the train down. It looked cheeky hitched up, like a stage curtain pulled back, about to reveal, but I was drinking champagne at intermission and wanted it to breathe behind me. A well-dressed elderly woman and her male companion walk by me and utter a compliment. I feel a part of the surroundings, part of the show. To me, dressing up for the ballet, opera, and theater indicates respect, a way of merging with the event in some small way.

For once, I am looking at my figure in my dream dress but not judging it from the outside. I see myself standing tall. This lack of judgment and pride of presence are rare for me. Surviving trauma has left me with a frequent desire to shrink, collapse, disappear. But in this one instance, at least, I am emphatically present in that body-hugging white chrysalis. What I experience in that moment—of living and reflection—is not quite joie de vivre, but rather the realization that, Yes, I am still alive. After all the pain and wanting to die, the show still goes on. The Galliano gown is not the cause of that realization, but it allowed it.

Looking through the photo galleries of royal wedding guests, it occurred to me that what we seek in event dresses and statement hats is such an emphatic presence. Too often, women have to skulk through the world, dreading attention, predators, censure. Fearing to take up room, to stand out, to talk loudly. Sixteen-foot-long wedding veils, along with statement dresses and the frivolous hats that coordinate with them, defy that fear and claim the space—lots and lots of space.

Which we deserve.


Copyright © Cynthia Gralla, 2018