I Dreaded Wedding Dress Shopping. Then The 5 Words I Never Thought I'd Hear Changed Everything.

The author trying on a wedding dress (but not THE dress) in November 2023.
The author trying on a wedding dress (but not THE dress) in November 2023. Courtesy of Elle Warren

When I was a teenager, I tried to picture being married to a man one day. Each time, I saw a man and a woman in their early 30′s standing in a kitchen. The sequence was silent, but the couple’s lips moved, each of their mouths making the shape for either language or laughter. The woman stood hunched over a mixing bowl while the man stood behind her, his hands poised to wrap around her midriff. It must have been an amalgamation of scenes I’d watched in movies.

The woman never looked like me — she was brunette. I never saw the man’s face.


The night before my appointment to try on wedding dresses at a local boutique, I got a call from the sales assistant, Haley. She had three things to say.

There would be champagne flutes in case I wanted to bring champagne (I didn’t). How many people would be coming with me (none)? And: What dress styles did I like?

I panicked.

The store had already sent me their entire inventory via a Pinterest board, and per their instructions, I screenshotted the ones I liked and texted them.

I did not know the names of the styles I’d sent, and I resented the idea that I was supposed to.

Haley told me she’d seen the screenshots.

“So, more of sweetheart necklines and A-line silhouettes?” she asked.

“Um, yeah, I don’t know,” I said, “I think I just like what I like...”

I felt the implication of a question hovering between us: What kind of woman doesn’t know what a sweetheart neckline is? and a statement I’d felt the echoes of since childhood: You are not part of The Club.


At the appointment, Haley asked, “So, did you grow up thinking about your wedding?”

“No,” I laughed. “Not at all.”

“Really?!” she responded, surprised. “That’s so interesting!”

I didn’t tell Haley I grew up kissing my friend Julia who lived across the street. I played “the boy” because she fought harder to be the girl than I did. I knew I didn’t want to be a boy, but I also knew I wanted to kiss more than I wanted to be “the girl.”

Just before Julia’s 6th birthday she informed me, “I’m about to turn six, so we can’t kiss anymore.”

This was soon after her mom caught us pressed together in Julia’s bedroom — or at least we thought she had. We’d immediately flung ourselves to opposite sides of Julia’s twin mattress when we heard the doorknob turning.

“What’re you doing?” her mom laughed as she walked through the door, not having seen what we were up to after all. She was just teasing us, but shame wasn’t in on the joke — it was how we knew to separate ourselves, fast. Maybe it’s how Julia also knew she needed to put an end to what we’d been doing.


Part of my dread of wedding dress shopping came from the ways I believed I would be rendered invisible by the blinding brightness of heteronormativity.

I expected many things would be assumed of me, including: I was a specific kind of woman (one who’d grown up thinking about her wedding and not being the boy); I was straight (Haley had asked, “How’d you know this was your dude?” but did, to her credit, seamlessly adjust to the use of “she” pronouns when I mentioned Rachael, my fiancée); I needed to be told how beautiful I was (I could just imagine a perky stylist saying, “Oh my gosh, you look gorgeous!” and that made me cringe); and that this was going to be The Most Important Day of My Life and The Most Important Dress of My Life and that of course I’d always been impatiently careening toward this moment.


My appointment with Haley was not my first attempt at finding a dress. I’d previously dipped my toe into the hunt more nonchalantly. I looked on Etsy before admitting to myself that I didn’t want to deal with the hassle that could come with purchasing something off the internet. I shopped some non-wedding dress stores at the mall, including a chain that sells prom dresses, and flipped through the racks at a thrift store.

Who cares? I thought. Does it really matter what kind of dress I get or from where? I’d even agreed to a low-stakes trial at David’s Bridal one afternoon while Rachael and I were out running other errands and she had asked, “Do you want to just go in and look? Maybe even try a few on?”

So we did. I hated all of them.


I wasn’t sure I’d even wear a dress at my wedding. I am a woman, but my gender expression sometimes wants to be “boy,” sometimes wants to be “girl,” and sometimes wants to be neither. How was I supposed to know what it’d want to be on a day that was months and months away?

Ultimately, because I’d been on a “girl”streak lately — and because it felt right to be in a dress when I was at David’s Bridal — the answer became clear. I’d wear a dress, and I’d find one quickly.

But can any decision steeped in so much tradition and ascribed so much meaning be that simple? The more I thought about buying a wedding dress, the more I asked myself why I wanted one. Did it have something to do with Rachael’s decision to wear a suit? Perhaps part of me liked the contrast. Maybe I wanted our love to be instantly recognizable to other people — to our wedding guests — some of which were family members that almost certainly had never been to a queer wedding (or known a queer couple, for that matter). Or maybe I was grasping for something familiar — an easy and reliably classic trope — so I could just stop thinking about it.

A Polaroid of the author (right) and Rachael.
A Polaroid of the author (right) and Rachael. "This was taken at a little gathering we had a few days afterward we got engaged in February 2023," she writes. Courtesy of Elle Warren


Despite my angst over The Dress, I do want to get married. I’m the one who proposed. When I met Rachael, love became clear — logical even. We want to be together, and we figure we might as well make it legal (taxes, health insurance, etc.). We also like the idea of a big party where love is celebrated. We’ve even decided to call it a celebration of love, not a wedding. This shift denoted something more aligned with what marriage means to us.

We also feel getting married is an act of gratitude to our queer elders and allies who lobbied and organized and suffered for us to have this right. And it’s an act of gratitude to my 18-year-old self, who sat in church the Sunday after the federal legalization of marriage equality and listened as the priest said, “Despite recent legislation, I want to make clear that we will not be conducting same-sex ‘marriages’ here.” It’s a gift to that girl who, with no other choice, kept listening as the congregation stood and applauded and applauded and applauded — and who could not imagine queerness as a possibility for herself.


When I got to the boutique, Haley was waiting for me behind the receptionist’s desk with an open mouth smile, revealing her perfect teeth.

She showed me which fitting room we’d be using and the gallery where all the dresses hung.

“Go ahead and look around and pick some!” she said brightly.

Panic set in again.

I had assumed the dresses I’d screenshotted would already be waiting for me. The appointment slot was an hour and a half long, and in my appointment notes, I wrote, “I doubt I’ll need an hour and a half.”I was convinced I’d be in and out without any fanfare. I wanted to take the path of least resistance.

Alas, I was disarmed — I would have to play the part of bride and leaf through white after cream after white dress, amid swirls of silks and laces and sweetheart necklines (I finally Googled it). 

I selected eight dresses, which Haley said was a good number for the “first batch,” and we took them back to the fitting room. She took one off its hanger and made a donut shape out of it on the floor, so I could step inside and pull it up without tripping. She told me to let her know when I had it on so she could come put a row of clips down its back to make it fit to my body.  Once I was adequately clipped, I stepped out of the fitting room and onto a platform in front of a trifold mirror.

This dress wasn’t one I imagined myself liking. I had only picked it off the rack because Haley said I should “grab a wild card!” It was pure white with a vaguely floral pattern stitched across it.

I felt beautiful — sexy, even. I loved my strapless shoulders. I loved the shape that the A-line made of my body. It felt special. I’d never worn something like this, and when would I ever again?

“Wow, I like this more than I thought I would,” I said, embarrassed.

“Wow, really?!” Haley replied. “So you do like the A-line fit!”

“Um, I guess so...”

“Okay, let’s try the next one!”

A voice in my head spoke five words I didn’t know I had been waiting to hear: I can have this too.


Haley looked up at me as I tried on my favorite dress for the third time.

“I have one question for you,” she beamed.

“What?” I mimicked her facial expression. I was trying to play it cool, humiliated by the genuine excitement I felt.

“Are you saying yes to the dress?”

Her tone was half joking — she knew by now that I wasn’t in The Club — but half earnest.

“Um...” I said. “Yes? I think so?”

I wondered if I should think about it for a few days or get some other opinions. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just being convinced of something. I wanted to be certain this was my choice and one I was making because I really wanted to be making it.

Still, among all of the thoughts running around in my head at that moment, the one I heard loudest was I love this dress.

After Haley measured my hips, belly, and bust, I bought the dress.

She asked me if I’d like to take a picture with the “say yes to the dress” sign.

“Sure,” I laughed. “My sister will get a kick out of it.”

I held the silly wooden sign and smiled as Haley took photos with my phone and the shop’s phone.

I got in my car and sent the “I said yes to the dress” photo and a photo of me in The Dress, to my sister and soon-to-be mother-in-law. I sat in there smiling. I couldn’t wait to tell Rachael I’d picked my dress. I imagined her seeing me in it and me seeing her in the custom suit that a queer designer in Brooklyn was making for her.

We were dressing for love.

"This is one of our engagement photos taken in April 2023," the author writes. <span class="copyright">Photo by Celena Riley</span>
"This is one of our engagement photos taken in April 2023," the author writes. Photo by Celena Riley


One day I might regret my choice. Maybe I’ll think I was clinging to or caving into some ridiculous notion of gender roles. Maybe not. I don’t think it really matters. No matter what happens, Rachael and I will look at each other on our wedding day — and every day after — and see love. 

Maybe it gets to be not-that-serious. 


Shame is like whack-a-mole, isn’t it? You smash it once and it pops up again somewhere else. Sometimes, I feel ashamed of choosing the wedding, the marriage, the dress. Should I be boycotting it all? Should I be more evolved than taking part in this patriarchal, heteronormative institution? Am I doing queerness wrong? Who’s to say?

The fact that none of this was built for or by people like me is a huge part of why I want it. I guess it’s a little spiteful. I want to say, take that. Take that, priest from my childhood church. Take that, media that showed me queerness was an absurd joke or a dangerous choice or worse. Take that, shame that made two five-year-olds afraid and kept at least one of them feeling that way for years and years and years.

You couldn’t stop me. None of you. And those things I thought I heard Haley implying about my being the wrong kind of woman and not part of The Club? I’ve realized I was really hearing them from myself. I assumed what could and could not be true of and for me. And I was wrong.

I now know that to wear my beautiful dress is to say take that to the stories I’ve told myself. 

On our wedding day Rachael and I will dress for love. Our garments, no matter what they may or may not mean or signal or share about us, will celebrate it. And when we behold each other — and are beholden by everyone around us — we will see nothing but radiance. 

Note: Some names and details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals mentioned in this essay.

Elle Warren is a writer from Michigan based in Chicago. She is working on a memoir about the intersections between OCD, queerness, grief, and a culture of silence. By day, she works as a mental health content writer. Find her at@ellewarrenwrites on Instagram.

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