A few months ago, I was downsizing my possessions as part of an experiment in minimalism. Like many women, my most copious source of possessions was my wardrobe, complete with its crown jewel—my year-old wedding dress.
While my decision to donate the dress was a relatively easy one, I quickly realized that my desire to reduce my waste was not shared by all of my friends in family. In fact, following a blog post documenting my decision, I received several emotional responses from family and friends Most of them pleaded with me to keep dress. “Anything but the dress!” they cried.
I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised.
The traditional American wedding dress is one of our society’s most iconic guilty pleasures, especially for members of the middle and upper classes. There are very few other items which society tells us we can acceptably spend loads of money on, wear only once and expect to never use again. It is consumerism par excellence.
Weddings as a whole often morph into extravagant shows of status, with costs skyrocketing into the tens of thousands of dollars. Fittingly, the central element of a wedding (the bride) is expected to be clothed in something unique and beautiful—although not necessarily practical for real life.
Indeed, everything about the modern-day wedding dress embodies its impracticality—especially its pure, white color. Whereas brides of the past enjoyed gowns of varied colors, so as to easily reuse them, white is a strict standard today.
Many think that the color choice represents an outdated symbol of the bride’s purity upon marriage. Instead, the historical expense associated with white colored fabrics made a fully white dress an expensive and exclusive possession. To afford a white dress was a status symbol, notes the Smithsonian, one that continues to hold.
Like a good, mindless consumer, I had not put any thought into what I’d be doing with my dress post-wedding. I also did not take advantage of some of the less wasteful opportunities available to brides today, from buying a secondhand wedding or renting one, to making it from scratch or piecing it together from far less pricey off-the-rack gowns.
However, I thought that worse than having wasted hundreds of dollars on a once-used dress would be to not give it a chance to make someone else happy.
The protests to this decision were loud and varied. Many protests centered around the fact that I was denying my hypothetical daughter the chance to wear her mother’s dress. Others centered argued that the sentimental value of the dress could not be quantified.
But the real reason why so many people were shocked I would voluntarily give up my dress has a lot more to do with our cultural reliance on material possession than it does a hypothetical interaction with a hypothetical daughter. Material possessions have become a part of our identity. Brands are the new tribal symbols, monetary value the new measure of our self-worth.
Modern wedding dresses in particular represent a microcosm of consumerist ideals, complete with lace, beading, and perhaps a mermaid train.
The non-profit which ultimately accepted my dress told me it would sell the dress and donate the profits towards cancer research. I felt that this sequence of events was so much more meaningful than the mainstream alternative of buy, keep and dispose. By donating quickly, I also hoped to avoid waiting until the dress was too outdated to be of use to anyone else.
As with so many of our possessions, sharing our wedding dresses would provide so much extra value—if not economic, than environmental value. How nice would it be if we supplanted the need to possess and own with the need to share, to collaborate.
But it’s not all bad news. More and more couples are opting to simplify their weddings, and many are eschewing the expensive white dress model for cheaper, non-traditional colors and designs. Couples are also simplifying their weddings and inviting only a tiny subset of friends and family.
At the same time, a circular wedding dress economy is forming. Websites, such as Once Wed and Preowned Wedding Dresses, are gaining in popularity, selling once or twice loved dresses and other wedding accessories. Online classifieds remain flooded with once-used (and unused) wedding dresses. These are not just vintage styles; in fact, some brides post their dresses up for sale before they are used, hoping to quickly liquefy the dress after the ceremony.
These changes are encouraging. Technology is empowering conscientious humans to find new ways of buying and selling that mitigates consumption. There is no better place to start with these innovations than with weddings industry. Perhaps in the future, weddings will evolve into a highly communal and ecologically sound event of reuse, recycling and, of course, love.