I have been married twice, once at 23 in church, to somebody my own age, and once at 30 in the courthouse, to someone 13 years older. Both outfits were carefully chosen. I was amused to see another bride of my vintage, the Parker Bowles, reiterate the unspoken rules I followed on both occasions when she married Prince Charles — once at the courthouse where they were actually hitched, and later, in a different outfit, for a blessing in the church which would not marry them.
What the mature bride — not a virgin, or married previously, wears is an essay best addressed by the late, wonderful Elizabeth Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton Fortensky.* Except, and this is a huge caveat, that one is not a movie star, whether one is being married in church or at city hall because doing it in church would be over the top. One is a woman taking a serious vow in front of the community to which she is also pledging allegiance. Modesty — humility would be the appropriate response to reality, I think, but is perhaps also over the top — is the semiotic sartorial respect one pays to this vow. One is conferring honorable personhood upon one’s self by standing up for one’s life as a parent, a member of a social and economic unit, and captain of one’s own happiness. You take a stand.
The number one thing wrong with Kate Middleton’s wedding dress, and this is essays too, is that it referred to a movie star, Grace Kelly, and a Catholic one at that. The number two thing wrong with Kate Middleton’s wedding dress was that, as a mature bride, the veil over her face was as impudent as her sister’s butt in another inappropriate dress. What white lace means to a Catholic bride like Grace Kelly, who was more famous for her unvirginal behavior in Hollywood than she was as a Catholic, is essays too, many of them referring to the exquisite handworked lace on priestly vestments and altar cloths. It is a Catholic trope, a most unwise reference for an aspiring Hanoverian, as thoughtless as the veil.
Now me, I hadn’t been shacked up with my boyfriend for eight years before we were married in a church. I’d only been living with him for three years. I knew I couldn’t pull off either an Indian bedspread wedding — the 60s were over — and nor could I wear a veil over my face. Clothing has a meaning; I was taking a vow. To do so pretending to be a virgin, even one so well-known as Grace Kelly, would have been a dishonor to the vow, to the people I was doing it in front of, and to the honorable person I was declaring myself to be by volunteering to undertake such a vow. Repeat after me: I am not a movie star.
I choose Tricia Nixon’s two-tiered wedding veil, in the same spirit I had registered to vote as an independent two years earlier. For ethical reasons. She’d been married three months earlier one block away. The actual Priscilla of Boston hat part was more cloche-like than Tricia’s. It was retro, it was foxy, it was a hat in church, and there was no veil over the face. I read you, Tricia.
Mine. It was a power hat.
Unlike Tricia, I did not choose more lace to go with this very elaborate head dress. I wore a simple, long-sleeved, floor-length linen dress with a modest v-neck, belted just above the natural waist. My many bridesmaids used the same pattern to confect flowered cotton dresses. They wore big straw hats. My bouquet matched their dresses. Theirs matched mine.
I married for a second time seven years later, older if no wiser. This was in the courthouse. It was long-sleeved. It was short, just below the knee. It was white, because it was the groom’s first wedding, if not my own. It was Halston, heavy white silk, with a bias cut skirt which, quite frankly, hugged the boots, and a kimono-esque wrap top, loose, tied with an obi-esque white silk belt, with a gaping V neck, carefully and invisibly pinned together, which required there be not only no veil, but no bra. Over each temple I wore a tiny bunch of orange blossoms. It was foxy, it was not retro but it did allude to another culture rather than another era, it was white, it was armored, it was formal. My shoulders and arms and knees, if not precisely the heart chakra, if that’s what you’d like to call it, were covered. I wasn’t a big cleavage person in those days; there wasn’t any. There was no hat because of the orange blossoms. It was not a cocktail dress, it was a power suit. He was already mine.
Twenty-eight years later, I was interested to see that the Parker Bowles followed the same formula. Short for civil. Long for church. White for the civil. Blue for the blessing. No veil, bien sur
, could hide her diffidence, and the big question for the semioticians was, was the luxurious and remarkably discreet embellishment of the white ensemble impudent, festive, or appropriate to the station to which the Parker Bowles had so long aspired? The hat, as she has proved before and since, was to the Parker Bowles what the lapel pins were to the Queen. The billboard of her status. The Parker Bowles’ hats are always bigger and more assertively embellished than any one else’s in the country, except the Page Three girls vying for photo opps at Ascot in showgirl hats, and Kate Middleton’s. Middleton’s hats are smaller but more agressive, the Queen’s own hats are venturing into the Philip Treacy
realm of assymetrical beefeaters with trimmed coq feathers and spirals.
But the Parker Bowles stated her intention to spend the prince’s money and to take up his space with the I’m-here-get-over-it-Philip-Treacy-launch hat she wore to a 2004 garden party at Holyrood House on her first official appearance as the elderly live-in companion of the elderly Prince. Her civil marriage hat was almost as big, and her civil marriage outfit was almost as white as that first apparition. With this power hat did she stake her claim, to the man, to the plan, to the canal.
The Parker Bowles’ first engagement as the Prince’s live-in, June, 2004, Edinburgh, previous to their engagement.
Her hat will always be bigger than the Queen’s, and Duchess Kate’s.
Still, she observed the rule for all brides, old and young. No knees, no arms, and no shoulders. Short is civil. Long is religious.
Short of it.
Long of it. Check Singer’s A Crown of Feathers for further semiotics if this picture doesn’t say it all.
Now, as we all know, Princess Lilian, duchess of Haland, is the captain of the Old Babes team.
In 1976, the king of Sweden finally gave the faithful Briton, who had been living with Bertil, the king’s uncle, since he was the naval attache in London in World War Two, permission to marry him. For her faithfulness and discretion, the king made her a princess of Sweden over and above the title she acceded to upon her marriage. As you would suspect, this mature bride has the very best wedding dress ever. Were I a betting man, I’d wager the Parker Bowles modeled her church dress on Lilian’s. Blue, armored, long, long-sleeved, with a big whacking diamond brooch and veiled pillbox hat. A power dress, not a sexy dress. She is asserting her personhood, her royalty, her standing to take a vow.
She is not asserting, having hung on to her prince well into her 60s, her seductiveness.
She is not asserting a right to be the cynosure of all eyes. Repeat after me, I am not a movie star.
She humbly covers her arms, chest, and head. The killer? Her sweet and humble bouquet of lilies of the valley.
Bonne chance, Lilian. You are the One.
King Carl Gustav, Princess Liliane, Prince Bertil, Queen Silvia, 1976.
*Hilton, 1950, big poufy white dress and veil.
Wilding, 1952, organza-collared suit, flowered hat.
Todd, 1957, short-sleeved chiffon to the civil, hooded sleeved chiffon to the religious.
Fisher, 1959, long-sleeved, hooded brown chiffon for the religious.
Burton, 1964, 1975, long-sleeved short yellow chiffon with hyacinth hairpiece; caftan
Warner, 1976, matching suit, coat, and turban with fox trim, possibly Halston.
Fortensky, 1991 long-sleeved, floor length yellow lace
There is one constant here. Sleeves. Even at the eighth wedding, where Michael Jackson was the maid of honor, sleeves were worn.