Viewing an exhibit of wedding dresses at the Cincinnati Art Museum prompted unexpected reflection of a theological sort.  More than just “pretty dresses” of the past 200 years, Wedded Perfection challenges our thinking about the way things are.  The opening description, imprinted on a wall panel, points out that today’s fairy tale image for bridal attire only came about after World War II, encouraged by commercial interests.

The Association of Bridal Manufacturers, formed in the early 1940s, promoted the “white wedding” as the only “real” wedding and as something all women deserved because it embodied the values represented by the war effort.  White had been associated with innocence and purity since ancient times, but its use for wedding gowns is attributed to Queen Victoria who, rather than wearing her coronation robes when she married in 1841, opted for a white satin gown trimmed in lace, sparking a new fashion standard.

Despite her influence, in an era when laundering was difficult and production of garments quite labor-intensive, elaborate single-use dresses, especially white, were impractical for many women.  Through the 19th century and into the 20th, many brides-to-be simply made a new dress to wear for the wedding and to be their best dress afterward.

I love the examples of colored wedding dresses in the exhibit.  At one time, blue was a favored shade for brides.  The exhibit includes a brown dress created by a dressmaker for her own wedding; the text notes that it was highly fashionable for the time and afterward she would have worn it when meeting with wealthy clients to showcase her abilities.  Suits were another practical wedding option that provided for future wear.

Against this historical backdrop, greater consciousness of what to wear for the Catholic sacrament of marriage seems warranted.  The bishops are concerned about the state of marriage in American culture generally.  In 2009 they issued Marriage:  Life and Love in the Divine Plan, a pastoral letter addressed to all the faithful as a resource and encouragement to embrace the church’s teachings on the meaning, dignity and sanctity of marriage.  It is very thorough and succeeds as a proclamation, but is so conceptual in its reliance on scripture and church documents that it fails to inspire.

Posing the simple question, “What will you wear for your wedding?” might better invite reflection on the sacrament’s meaning.  What sort of garment is appropriate when making a vow of lifelong love and fidelity?  An alb, connecting with baptism and connoting vocation, would be one possibility.  Or an heirloom gown to evoke continuity and history.  Or perhaps, like women of centuries past, an original design that would serve for ongoing use.  Or maybe just a dress off the rack that looks good and feels right, suggesting that marriage is a day in and day out endeavor, not just one special moment.

When it comes to the sacrament of marriage, the question “What should I wear?” contains much more complexity than we imagined.  Many possibilities can be envisioned beyond the cultural norm.  Perhaps more thoughtful individual variations on wedding attire would contribute to a deeper appreciation of the sacrament.

Copyright Peg Conway 2010