Jane* is a dress designer who owned a shop selling wedding, bridesmaids' and evening dresses in Dublin for 30 years – at one point with 25 people working for her. Here, she reflects on three decades of bad bridesmaids, brides and body image, and how she dealt with the mid '00s fake tan fad...
We were a very practical, down-to-earth and friendly bridal shop. We definitely weren’t snooty – that was my main thing. If you’re going to take two to three grand off someone, you shouldn’t be snooty with them. It’s not like someone is buying a pair of jeans; it’s a very important decision and you really become important in their life. And if you mess up, they’re not going to forget you and you’re not going to forget them because they won’t let you!
Girls organising their weddings can be terrified and, in the run-up to [the big day], they can be wracked with nervousness and it comes out sometimes as aggression. Dealing with [nervous brides] got easier the longer I worked, because I realised how someone behaves when they’re stressed. I had girls stamp on the podium in their dresses; one time I had a girl standing on the podium, she was very stressed and she was on the phone to her would-be husband and she was screaming down the phone at him, and she just hung up on him and said: "You can take this dress off me, I’m not getting married anymore."
They’re often the the nicest of girls, but when you see them with that stress, I swear to God. It gets to a week before their wedding and you’re left thinking, What am I doing here?! But we learned to deal with stress and often, those girls will be the girls who after the wedding will send me pictures of their honeymoon, their husbands would come in with a bottle of wine, and they will say to me: "Oh God, I was an absolute nightmare to deal with." To which I will always say: "No, not at all!"
We had a groom come back with a dress once and he left it on the doorstep. He had called off the wedding and the bride made him return the dress.
The number of bridesmaids people come in with is way more now. Years ago, when I started, it was usually just the mother and the bride-to-be would come in to look [at dresses], but as time went on, it became the whole bridal party – like three or four people – coming along, and it can be hard because sometimes, it’s terrible to say, but we would see bridesmaids who were jealous of the bride and usually the bridesmaid that was going to kick off was the groom’s sister and she was usually older than the groom. Yes, isn’t that a terrible stereotype? But I would say, if I could count all the brides that went through the shop and saw every bridal party that was difficult, it would always be her.
We had a great way to deal with [bad bridesmaids]. If we saw someone being intimidating or being passive-aggressive, one of us would deal with the bride while the other would talk to the bridesmaids on the shop floor. If one person was particularly bad with the bride we would distract her: take her down to the other end of the shop, ask her about being a bridesmaid, whether she would like to try on dresses – keep her busy, basically.
There were always tears – it was the mums usually, and sometimes if the bride had gone through something difficult herself, you did get tears. To be honest with you, in the last few years we’ve got a lot more [crying], and I don’t know whether that’s because they’re watching Say Yes To The Dress and all these wedding shows like Don’t Tell The Bride. But there were many real, genuine tears – some of the [brides] were so happy to see that they could look good. Particularly if they’d had a bad experience [with body image], then it could be quite emotional when they found the right dress. I would always say to staff to never forget how vulnerable these brides are. As a staff member you are actually going in [to the changing room] with someone, getting them undressed and standing there with them. Never, ever, ever forget that. That’s the level of intimacy that you’ve got with a bride.
I don’t think in 30 to 35 years that I ever came across a bride who was completely happy. I’ve never had one person say that they are absolutely gorgeous, beautiful, have the perfect body. Every single person I had through my door has said one thing about themselves that they don’t like. I have had the most beautiful girls come in and they just look so perfect, but they still don’t feel happy when they look in the mirror. As women, it’s just what we do. But then we get to 50 and we just don’t care anymore, it’s great, I love it!
We had a couple of weddings that were called off before the big day. We had a groom come back with a dress once and he left it on the doorstep. He had called off the wedding and the bride made him return the dress. There isn’t a lot that you can do with that because once the dress has been measured, made and altered, it can be difficult to return it. I suppose in the beginning when I was a bit naïve, I would take dresses back and give them a refund, but then after a couple of people tried to return them I had to stop. Unfortunately, it’s a really tricky area when it gets called off – what do you do?
I’ve certainly had girls get pregnant, and oh my gosh, it’s a nightmare! I once had this bridesmaid – I wanted to kill her because she was obviously pregnant when she was made the bridesmaid and I think she had the baby two months after the wedding. The poor bride was crying into the wall – we had designed the whole dress which now didn’t fit her. It was just as well that we had dressmakers on hand in our shop. I just couldn’t understand why she didn’t bow out? But you get all kinds of stuff like that going on – if you take four girls, there is a one in four chance that one will get pregnant by the wedding.
She tried the dress on and fell in love with it, so she said: "That’s it. I’m off to find a man so I can come get that dress."
Also, as this is Ireland, we would have girls who would get pregnant and want to get married very quickly but wouldn’t want anyone to know about it. That was great fun because they would order the dress and then two or three weeks later they would call up, worried that the dress wouldn’t fit but trying not to say why, and I would have to ask how much weight and where they were planning to put the weight on.
The rise in fake tan was the single biggest bane of my life for years. We would have brides ring ahead and book an appointment and they would actually go get a spray tan for the appointment to try on their dresses. The dresses would end up covered in the stuff; we would have to get them cleaned or just use the sample – so I had to say no fake tan. Some [brides] ignored us (with a white dress you would know straightaway) and we’d have to ask them to come back another day. We just couldn’t have it, we couldn’t pay for 10 dresses which were ruined – some fake tan never comes out!
One of the most touching memories I have is of a lovely woman who had a very small baby with her and she was actually looking for something for a christening for this little baby girl and then she said she would like to look at some wedding dresses too. She told me they were inviting all their families to the christening and then once the baby was christened, they would turn around and reveal that they were having a wedding too. The baby was special needs and was very ill, so it was very hard; she told me that they didn’t know how long she was going to live so they wanted to have a big celebration for her. It was really touching. That was about five years ago and she sent me pictures after, she was such a nice girl. They told the priest and no one else knew, and she got married with the baby in her arms, it was really lovely.
I also had one girl whose husband was ill, he died three weeks after the wedding. Those are the ones that you remember. That was very hard, that one.
The funniest story was I had a girl come in with a friend and the two of them were laughing their heads off, very lighthearted, but while the bride was trying on her dress her friend was looking around, saying that she wanted to try on a dress for the craic. I asked her: "Are you getting married?" She said: "No, I’m not even going out with anyone!" But she tried the dress on and fell in love with it, so she said: "That’s it. I’m off to find a man so I can come get that dress." And we were all laughing our heads off at her but, you’ll never believe it, she arrived back one month later and said that she’s getting married in a month’s time. We said that the dress won’t be ready, so she tried on another – it was a beautiful dress – and she bought the dress there and then. In Ireland we have a magazine called VIP, a bit like the Irish version of Hello, and over Christmas I had a look at the magazine's bridal special and there was this girl on the cover, getting married in the fanciest hotel in the country!
When I shut the shop three years ago, I went back to college and I actually qualified to become a mediator – someone who uses negotiation and diplomacy to try and help two sides come to an agreement. Of course, I would never draw on my experiences I had in the bridal shop for what I do at my new job but I will be honest with you – there was a bit of experience there!