“But do you feel like a bride?”
The saleswoman’s question stopped me in my tracks, even more than the 30-lb beaded gown that was ever-so-elegantly pinning me to the pedestal in the bridal boutique. As soft music played and the attendant fussed over buttons, I was left to contemplate this new, odd question: What did it mean to feel like a bride, and moreover, how was I supposed to know?! And deep in my gut, I knew something was off.
I’m not talking about cold feet–I was thrilled to have met the person I’d been waiting for after 15 ridiculous, hard, confusing, occasionally blissful years of dating in New York. But one part of my life that’s pretty non-negotiable is my commitment to low-impact shopping. The morning after the Rana Plaza factory disaster, I headed to work as an editor at ELLE, and realized my heart was no longer in the cycle of shop, shop more, repeat. Seven years later, I still primarily shop secondhand, and make careful choices when I do need to buy something new. “87% of the total fiber input used for clothing is incinerated or sent to a landfill,” says Nicole Loher, a fashion industry veteran and climate change communications consultant. “We can make sustainable or climate-conscious swaps, but I think the biggest task at hand is to consume less overall [and] do it more intentionally, with just a tiny bit of personal research.”
For years, fast fashion has asked us to put short-term desires over long-term needs as citizens of the Earth. Even though wedding dresses aren’t usually a cheap whim, they manage to take that idea even further, encouraging you to put aside the truths of your life–your normal budget, style, and preferences–and shop not for you-the-person, but for You-The-Bride. Looking at the rack of silk and lace and beading created in mystery factories, I knew the best I could feel in these gowns was…not good. To find a wedding gown I could feel good about, it would need to have as little impact as possible on the planet.
Before I even got back to my apartment, I downloaded the app for Stillwhite, one of the largest players in the pre-owned wedding dress game. What I saw while browsing shifted my whole approach. I made a new appointment to try on dresses with my mom and my best friends at the most mass retailer I could find, thinking that the higher the volume of dresses being sold, the likelier I’d be to find the exact dresses on a secondhand site. (Surprise! While I have some deeply crunchy beliefs, I don’t have a particularly crunchy aesthetic.) During my appointments, I immediately gravitated to one form-fitting lace sheath… and spotted that exact dress on Stillwhite, in my size and unshortened.
The owner, Beth, immediately made me smile–she told me about her Italian elopement (jealous!) and I felt more like I was borrowing a dress from a friend than shopping online. “I have my memories, photographs and video of our wedding day. I didn't feel selling my dress would diminish how I felt and remember that day,” said Beth, who describes herself as ‘fairly minimalist.’ “I was very happy that someone else was going to have an amazing dress for their wedding day. I could tell through the messages that you were excited, which made my heart happy.” Connecting with someone who had a similar attitude to mine about consumption–that things are just things–made me feel good about taking on the karma of her dress, and Beth assured me that their wedding had been beautiful, and that she and her husband were happily enjoying newlywed life just like I hoped to. And anyway, there is nothing “cursed” about a dress, not even one worn by a bride who isn’t happy, if eventually that dress can help do some good.
I clicked “Purchase.”
When the dress arrived a few days later, I asked my fiancé if he had any concerns about a pre-owned gown. He was completely supportive. I told a few sympathetic friends, too, but I also felt a weird pressure to keep it a secret! Despite how happy I was with my choice, I knew there would be people—even some in my family—who didn’t understand. (In the words of my editor, “That sounds like a them problem.”) As for my mom, when she came in to button my dress on the wedding day, she told me she couldn’t believe I’d bought it pre-owned, and that it looked exactly the way she remembered it from when I tried it on for her in the store. And during the wedding itself, nobody knew anything except that I looked beautiful, and that the dress looked like it had been made for me.
The rest of our wedding was low-key sustainable, too. We made decisions that kept our wedding simple and lowered our impact, including choosing local vendors and nixing anything destined to be trashed like paper invites, programs, and menus. What we couldn’t eliminate, we bought secondhand wherever possible, scouring Facebook Marketplace and local wedding resale groups. “Choosing the location to be as central as possible to all the guests and vendors is probably the highest impact decision one can make,” says Loher. “This means less travel for all, which means less overall carbon footprint. Second to that, choosing local vendors and asking the venue and partners about their sustainability practices is also high-impact. Ensuring items are locally sourced, won't be tossed, or can be composted is key.”
Every person has to create the wedding that’s right for them, but for me, making reuse our priority meant that everywhere I looked on my wedding day, I saw things that I could feel good about. I saw our seating chart hand-painted on a beautiful thrifted mirror that’s now hanging in my parents’ home. I saw sparkling glassware and crisp white linens, with no plastic in sight. I saw my bouquet accented with peonies cut from my florist’s own garden just down the street. And when I looked in the mirror, I saw myself, in my wedding gown, and I felt like a bride.
And if you want to feel like one too? Well, after I got the back from the cleaners, I listed it for sale myself. It has now been part of two happy marriages, after all, and it’s only just getting started.
STORY BY KATE WINICK
IMAGES BY TATI & ROMAN