The Bingewatch:
It’s Never Just a Dress

Sarah Kessler

My ongoing love affair with TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress began about two months ago, when a close friend prescribed the long-running reality show as a remedy for my encroaching PhD graduation anxiety. It was May, and thus also the cusp of wedding season, making SYTTD a particularly timely recommendation. I’d been beset by pre-commencement angst: my own version of the “cold feet” that might follow a seemingly interminable seven-year engagement. But I wasn’t thinking about actual matrimony. Neither was my friend, who, like me, is a happily partnered queer woman in her 30s with no perceptible desire to get a ring on it. Despite its nuptial emphasis, however, the show proved all too resonant for a gay grad who, too many years ago, forsook the wedding-industrial complex for a different corporate behemoth: the PhD-industrial complex.

SYTTD’s unwavering episodic focus is the nail-biting discovery, creation, and/or alteration of ideal wedding gowns for a phalanx of mostly hetero brides-to-be. But the show’s fixation on “the dress” is only deceptively straight and narrow. As my lesbian bestie intimated, and as I have since observed mid-binge, Say Yes to the Dress expertly confines a vast and swirling world of emotional drama to a single ceremonial gown. On the show, the search for the perfect wedding dress—the symbol of conventionality—exposes dysfunctional personal, romantic, and familial dynamics. It provokes a contradictory mess of feelings and behaviors that makes the normative rituals of marriage seem entirely perverse. The results, for participants and viewers alike, are painfully revealing, potentially therapeutic, and oddly cathartic—if all of the crying is any indication, at least.

In nearly every episode of SYTTD, at least one person cries. That person might be you, dear viewer. I ugly-cried a minimum of twice while watching the show solo at the nadir of my abjection. And mark my words: I will cry again. The waterworks are sprinkled throughout each tightly structured 21-minute episode’s duration, but most often they come cascading forth when a prospective bride obeys the show’s titular imperative and says “yes” to the dress of her dreams. With that “yes” a flood of ambivalent feeling is unleashed, a tide of affect whose face-breaking power has been building since the start of the dress hunt—and long before that. We must ask: why is it so difficult to say “yes” to a wedding gown? What drives a future bride to choose “the dress” in such a public venue, and to spend thousands of dollars doing it? (You want you should get a Pnina Tornai gown for free? Fughetaboutit!) Why would anyone want to watch someone else’s fiancée purchase a wedding dress? Why has Say Yes to the Dress not merely survived, but thrived, for 14 seasons, producing numerous spinoffs in its wake?

Because the dress is never just a dress.

This is something that Randy Fenoli, SYTTD’s resident fabulous homosexual and fashion guru, understands all too well. Randy is the queer guardian angel of every anxiously betrothed woman who passes through the doors of Kleinfeld Bridal, the Lower Manhattan–based salon whose cream-colored showroom, private changing quarters, and hidden labyrinth of dress racks form the show’s set. The Kleinfeld racks are laden with white and off-white gowns that all look the same. This crushing similitude makes the task of finding “the dress” seem even more insurmountable, and thus more in need of Randy’s deft guidance.

Randy and bride-to-be Jenna Pugh.

Openly gay and definitely unmarried (though I’d wager he’s had no shortage of boy toys), Randy got his big break back in 1990, when he won the Miss Gay America drag competition as Brandi Alexander, a crimson-lipped, bed-headed brunette bombshell who could rock a body-hugging gown with a plunging neckline as if she woke up like this. Already self-schooled in “the art of female illusion,” Randy put his pageant earnings toward tuition at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, and from design school onward, it was all bridal wear all the time.

From SYTTD’s launch in 2007 until 2012, Randy held the title of Fashion Director at Kleinfeld; since then, the strength of his personal brand has allowed him to appear on the show as a kind of celebrity consultant. Referred to only by his first name, impeccably manicured, and ritually garbed in a suit-and-tie combo accented by a color-coordinated or artfully clashing pocket square, Randy materializes at key moments of crisis. As if ironing the creases from a freshly unfurled bolt of dress cloth, Randy massages the professional and familial tensions that arise within the bridal parlor. He’s not quite “a bride’s therapist,” for that would imply a deeper level of psychological engagement. He’s more like a life coach, armed with an arsenal of self-empowerment mantras for women on the verge of getting married. “Marriage is all about compromise between husband and wife,” he quips at the close of one episode, “but picking a wedding dress is all about the bride.” Randy is the gay gal pal you want to hag around with, the one who stands up for you when your partner maltreats you, the one who says you look hot as hell in that dress and everyone else can go fuck themselves.

As it turns out, telling judgmental onlookers to fuck off is a highly necessary skill on Say Yes to the Dress, though the language used on the show is more diplomatic. That’s because each fiancée—young, old, previously divorced, tall, dieting, ample, high femme, sartorially sensible, white, black, Latina, Asian, “edgy,” “traditional,” recently cancer-free, military, sweetheart-neckline-loving, “fit ’n’ flare”-obsessed, lace-desiring, bling-craving, self-assured, or wildly overwhelmed—enters the salon accompanied by a cadre of family members and friends who serve as judge, jury, and executioner for each possible wedding dress. Supplemented by one-on-one interviews with the bride-to-be and the bridal consultant, each episode’s core drama centers on the reactions and interactions generated by the bridal fashion show. As future wifey X models a selection of gowns for her mixed audience, the parlor grows pregnant with fear, euphoria, hatred, unbridled ecstasy, ressentiment, guilt, shame, paranoia, and a host of other competing desires and drives. In these scenes, the perversity of normativity—emblematized by its ultimate expression, the wedding—is made manifest.

A bride before her panel.

What’s so twisted about the unending hunt for the perfect wedding dress isn’t just the endeavor’s obvious futility. (The ideal dress doesn’t exist! Neither does the ideal husband!) What’s truly perverse, and thus utterly compelling, is the fiancée’s compulsion to run the bridal gauntlet regardless—to stand on a nonmetaphorical pedestal squirming under the torturous collective gaze of the panel of frenemies she’s assembled to aid her in the search. What’s gnarly, yet also disturbingly “relatable,” is the bride-to-be’s implicit conviction that finding “the dress” will somehow also resolve a multitude of likely irresolvable personal, romantic, and familial problems. Indeed, just when a happy ending begins to seem possible, the entourage disses the dress and the appointment goes to shit.

At this point Randy often emerges to spearhead the work of reparation, to break the cycle of violence by fluffing a hem, holding an overbearing Jewish or Italian matriarch at bay, and reiterating that “it’s all about the bride” at the end of the day. When the spent fiancée weepily utters her consent to drop between $1,500 and $15,000 on a dress that’s, well, basic, it’s hard not to see her tears as tears of relief, resignation, settling. And when her mother, or father, or sister, or BFF, or gay boyfriend blubbers, “that dress is just so her,” or “I can just see her walking down the aisle in that dress,” or “her face just lights up when she wears that dress,” or “she just glows in that dress,” it’s hard not to see the outpouring as a temporary release of the financial anxiety, or jealousy, or discomfiting sense of vulnerability that plagued the appointment.

Yet these are also, I like to imagine, tears of acceptance, of letting go. They come from the feeling of seeing a beloved person as a separate being. These tears, I fantasize, are about loving someone so much that you’re willing to “set her free” (at the price of your retirement fund).

The search for the perfect wedding dress—the symbol of conventionality—exposes dysfunctional personal, romantic, and familial dynamics.

With each episode propelled by the promise of emotional release, the SYTTD series can and does operate endlessly. Though its procedural repetition makes it hard to distinguish among episodes, there are certain plotlines that lodge themselves in one’s memory—perhaps because they’re emblematic, perhaps because they’re exceptional. In an episode entitled “Daddy Daughter Dilemma,” a future bride is made to suffer the indignity of sharing a double appointment with her father’s fiancée. From the get-go, Randy is sensitive to the toxic levels of female competition engendered by this triangular scenario. “It’s almost as if they’re competing,” he remarks in a taped aside. “Not a good idea.” After the dad, whose skeeviness is equaled only by his thoughtlessness, remarks that he “want[s] something hot and sexy” for his future wife and “something really, really inexpensive” for his daughter (who emits a pained laugh), things go from bad to worse. As the two women take turns modeling gowns, the Father smiles and sanctions every look tried out by his fiancée, rejecting his daughter’s choices one by one. The first dress, he says, looks “plain Jane”; the second’s skirt “reminds [him] of like chicken feathers or something.” Increasingly flushed and dewy-eyed, the younger bride-to-be descends into a quiet panic and refuses to leave her dressing room. Observes Randy in another aside, “I don’t know whether he’s clueless about wedding dresses or his daughter’s feelings.” When the bridal consultant finally manages to get the daughter to model a third gown for the entourage, Randy exhorts Dad to consider his child’s body language—to think about what might actually make her happy. By the story’s closing segment, the wrinkles have been smoothed out. The older bride-to-be has chosen her unremarkable dress. The daughter has put the chicken-feather dress back on and somehow now everyone likes it. The fiancées say “yes” to their dresses in unison. Everyone cries—for different reasons.

In another episode, “Second Time Around,” an already married woman seeks a dress for her upcoming second wedding ceremony. Her spouse is a soldier whom she met online while he was stationed in Afghanistan. The visibly traumatized repeat bride-to-be says that she “hated” her first wedding ceremony, describing it as “horrible” and “disappointing,” though she stops short of detailing the events that provoked such angry language. Her husband, who attends the appointment, is attuned to her fragility but lacks the resources to soothe her. Perhaps the poor man can’t relate to his wife’s post-wedding shellshock, having experienced the real thing himself. Either way, the veteran spouse simply wants his anguished partner to find the dress that will make her feel better. Randy is determined to make this happen. (“When I hear that they hated their wedding, it kills me,” he moans, amplifying the irony of the situation’s life-or-death tone.) The angst-ridden future bride tries on several gowns, unable to make a decision under the deadweight of self-imposed pressure. “I like it but I’m wondering, … do I like it today? Will I like it a year from now?” she asks uneasily, before avowing, “I know how important it is for me to get it right this time.” Honoring, but also easing, their client’s desperate struggle with ambivalence, Randy and the bridal consultant have her test out a few more dresses before coaxing her back into the one she seems to favor most. When the repeat bride-to-be puts the gown on for the second time, the walls come down. “I like how I feel,” she weeps. “I could see myself in it.” As she models the gown for the entourage once again, everyone, Kleinfeld employees included, gets verklempt. An unusually choked up Randy affirms, “You really deserve to feel beautiful on your wedding day.” And even though I don’t much care about dresses or weddings, I cry tears of recognition and relief, knowing full well that it’s not about the dress. Knowing full well that it will all happen again.

 

This piece is dedicated to Samantha Cohen, who taught me how to Say Yes to the Dress. May we continue to binge (and write) in each other’s company.