27: Hand-Me-Down Bride

27: Hand-Me-Down Bride

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Here Comes the Bride

Hand-Me-Down Bride

He who does not economize will have to agonize.


By the time I got married in 1995, there weren’t many taboos left in Western dating and courtship. In the mainstream of society, the spirit of the times seemed to be that, as long as everyone was of legal age and happy, just about anything was permissible.

For instance, none of the saleswomen unlocking the glass cases of diamond rings for my future husband and me cared whether we were already having sex or not. But there was something about us that did make them raise their eyebrows. At ages twenty-one and twenty-two, we were fairly young to be getting married, and the four-month engagement we had planned was oddly short. Even so, it wasn’t our sense of timing that made us stand out among most of the other couples shopping for wedding jewelry. It was our budget.

My future husband and I were both university students when we met and realized we were the same person. Our lives were simple and happy, but not prosperous. I was on track to finish my degree later in the year, but my husband was in a much longer program and wouldn’t complete his training for another six years. His career path would turn out to be one of those inspirational stories about a gifted young man who rises above the poverty of the small-town, welfare-dependent family he was raised in to make a successful life for the family he fathered himself. But in 1995, dreams like those were still just goals and plans.

Financially, we had nothing but student loans the day we got engaged. Our parents were dealing with financial struggles much more serious than ours, and, despite their generous natures, they could offer us very little. I’d never wanted a lavish extravaganza wedding. Yet I was still surprised at how expensive a modest wedding could be.

Clearly, costs had to be cut — even slashed. It made sense to me to start economizing with myself first. In search of a three-figure price tag for my wedding dress, I went to a store that sold “gently used” prom and wedding dresses. Deep in the racks of rumpled white and white-ish gowns, I found nothing like the ultra-traditional dress I wanted for my mid-winter wedding in a cold climate. I wasn’t particularly fussy, but I was sure I’d rather not end up looking like a bad wedding cake in a heap of outdated ruffles.

Then I noticed the corner of the store marked with a sign that read “Clearance.” Here were the very cheapest-of-the-cheap wedding dresses. I held my nose and started sorting through the wire hangers. And there it was — a long, full skirt, a classic, fitted bodice, and long, elegant sleeves all in pure white. The dress wasn’t perfect. It would need alterations and the tacky, sheer netting on the shoulders would have to go. But I had found my dress — and it was only going to cost me $300 instead of the $1,300 many of my fellow brides of the day were paying for their brand-new dresses.

Sometimes, when a shopper comes home with a fantastic deal, she’ll brag about it to her friends — especially if those friends are in the market for the same kinds of items. My childhood best friend was shopping for her own wedding gear at the same time. But bragging to her about my clearance-rack find was the last thing I intended. She had already ordered her dress a year in advance. It was going to be custom-made out of ivory silk, fresh off the bolt, just for her.

I was a bit flustered the next time the topic of wedding dresses came up between us, and I was forced to admit what I’d done.

“What? You bought a used wedding dress?” My friend was livid.

“It’s only been used once and for just one day,” I defended myself.

“Yeah, but — it’s a wedding dress.”

“So?” I knew what she was suggesting, but I pretended I was so above caring that I didn’t even understand her.

“So?” she repeated like an incredulous echo. “What would make someone sell off her wedding dress? I mean something must have gone terribly wrong. You don’t even know. Those people might not even be married anymore.”

She was probably right. I had nothing to say.

My friend went on, “You don’t want to start your own marriage in a dress that comes with that kind of baggage. Do you?”

I’d known this girl almost all of my life. I didn’t doubt that she loved me and wanted me to be happy. And I knew she was far more romantic than me — and maybe a little more superstitious than me, too. She really did see the cast-off wedding dress as a bad omen for my future. And that scared her. There was no way I could be angry with her for caring about me. To her, my cheap, secondhand wedding dress was taboo — an even bigger taboo than my teeny, tiny diamond solitaire engagement ring had been under the twinkly lights of the jewelry store.

But I wasn’t just pretending I didn’t care about where my dress came from. I answered my friend with an easy laugh as I told her not to worry. “Everything will be fine,” I promised.

Our bargain-priced wedding went ahead as planned right after Christmas in the final days of the university’s semester break. We didn’t wait until my parents got their finances in order. We didn’t keep dating for six years while my husband-to-be made his way through school. Instead, we pasted together a shabby little wedding and started our life together as a family. The romantics may have recoiled and the hipsters might have sneered, but we made the choice that was right for us.

I was still a young wife when a song was released called “Polyester Bride.” I’m not sure exactly what the songwriter means when she asks, in every chorus, “Do you want to be a polyester bride?” It probably has something to do with a warning about settling for less. Whatever it means, I’m confident of my answer. Yes. Yes, I do want to be a clearance-rack, dry-cleaned, secondhand, and ridiculously happy polyester bride.

~Jennifer Quist

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