It’s just a dress, right?

2013-09-18 10:00

When everyone and their imaginary friend has an opinion on your choice of attire.

Not since reading Can Themba’s The Suit all those years ago in high school has an item of clothing been so personified in my life.

I’m talking about the wedding dress.

The plot of Themba’s iconic novella goes something like this: loyal and hard-working husband Philemon catches his beautiful wife Matilda in bed with another man.

The lover hightails it out of there, leaving behind a suit.

This smart suit, this being Sophiatown, is the weapon with which Philemon makes his wife pay for cuckolding him, instructing her to treat the suit as an “honoured guest”, which she does out of shame and a desperate desire for repentance.

She must take it out for a walk. She sets it a chair and plate of food, and is even forced to bring it out in front of partying dinner guests at home.

It’s a beautifully haunting story of revenge and retribution, which drives both of them to the abyss – which is what the process of choosing my wedding dress was threatening to do to me.

And the wedding dress, like the suit, has become a central character in my own life.

I started out as a sensible bride. I thought I could simply walk into a shop, pick out a dress I liked and move on.

Silly me.

Firstly, wedding dresses don’t come cheap. You see those brides at wedding boutiques, calmly trying on puffy dress after puffy dress, some of them sipping sparkling wine (what kind of budget are they working on?).

Inwardly, we’re freaking out, secretly checking the price tag, pretending the R10?000 does not faze us.

That is why brides start speaking nonsensically, like they’re on drugs, saying: “I can’t pay rent now, but it’s fine because after the wedding I’m going to cut this dress short and make it a cocktail dress. So, you see, it pays for itself.”

And friends nod at you sympathetically like you’re crazy, and then pay the lunch bill.

They know this dress will end up hanging next to the fuchsia matric dance frock that’s also never been worn since.

“People come to see the bride,” my friend said early on. I scoffed at this, but remembered the vibrant weddings in Soweto during my childhood.

“Uphi umakoti? Unjani umakoti? Ugqokeni umakoti?” we would ask as we shoved and tiptoed to get a better view of the bride.

The dress is about you?...?sort of. While you’ll be the one wearing it, everyone and their imaginary friend has an opinion on it.

“It must be white.” “It has to be long.” “Where’s the train? You can’t have a wedding dress without a train.”

It can pit mother against daughter, sister against sister, friend against friend and even sister against brother, as I’ve learnt.

My older brother, who will himself admit that he has the fashion sense of an amoeba, called recently to check on me and added that he was puzzled by my choice of dress.

“Is that the dress you want to wear?...?but what’s happening at the back?”

A cousin emailed that she was glad I had finally decided to consult a designer.

I still have to break it to her that I’m not getting it made.

In the end, I did go into a shop, saw a dress I liked and got it.

In a desperate bid to sway my choice, my younger sister resorted to intimidation.

“Haai, man! Haai, man! Haai, man!” she exclaimed.

She was going to go to the wedding expo right now, she said, to find something better.

Then there was the emotional blackmail: “What will happen years from now, when you look at your pictures and this is not the right dress?”

“Years from now,” I answered haughtily, “I’ll be doing other things with my life, and if the dress is ugly I’ll get over it and move on.”

“Well, I won’t!” she shot back.

But she will. We all will, because none of us wants to be held ransom by a dress.

I’m not sure why the wedding dress holds such iconic status or why the bride seems to be the pivot on which it all hangs.

The groom gets none of the pressure, even neglect.

We’ve all been to that wedding where the bride is dripping with jewels and her companion looks like he’s been picked from the street to play the role of groom for the day.

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