Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Problem with 'Wedding Style'

Dear Readers,

As you well know, I enjoy good quality style and follow a number of different sources. Probably my best source of inspiration is pinterest, where I follow about 985 people at the moment. As a result, I get to see a lot of content that people are posting in what is effectively a social cross-section, ranging from ordinary people, to businesses selling their products, to magazines and fashion editors.

One trend I've observed is that we have created a special category of clothing for weddings. What exactly is it that makes something a wedding dress, bridesmaid's dress, or attire specifically reserved for the best men? As far as I can tell, these are artificial inventions. This is why I do not have a specifically 'wedding' pinterest board.

Style is infinitely subjective, of course, but my gripe is twofold: the limitations on what weddings look like and secondly, the limiting of clothing appropriate for ordinary life. Just a few generations ago, most of the dresses available in wedding ranges would have been considered insufficiently formal and with good reason--most clothing sold under the guise of 'wedding' is not actually formalwear... most of it is cocktail attire or badly put together semi-formal attire.

Additionally, I personally find the whole bachelor/bachelorette party and excess wedding attendants as highly obnoxious, especially when they all wear matching clothes that often look clownish during the wedding ceremony.

Our first problem with understanding the situation is to recognize the traditional functioning of formalwear. The second problem is to understand the purpose of the wedding industry.

Formalwear descends from historic royal courts and people of visionary fashion design. Throughout the last few hundred years, seamstresses and tailors worked to improve their craft, producing elaborate and elegant attire for full court dress. Over the years, partly due to a shift in power from monarchies to democratic regimes, the goal of making life more elegant and beautiful was set aside in favor of the practical. Whereas dressing nicely in the royal system was seen as an honor, today it is considered by most as a burden, regardless of comfort. This has contributed over the last two centuries to a decline in formalwear. Additionally, if anyone has watched Downton Abbey, you would know that formalwear was eventually codified so that certain codes of dress could be adhered to in order to create a well ordered look. These dress codes have come to the present day in multiple forms that relate to the level of formality and/or the time of day. As a result, we have Morning dress until 6pm and Evening dress after 6pm. Additionally, we find that we have semi-formal and formal. Semi-formal does not mean cocktail, incidentally--it means black-tie. Formal similarly actually relates to white-tie and full court dress.

When a person goes to a wedding shop, they are confronted with a myriad of decisions. There are entire magazines and plenty of blogs online with an equal number of opinions. When you walk into a store, you are confronted with even more options, and a sales staff whose main goal is to sell you a product--which is usually whatever trends are being parroted by the industry. My goal here is to sort out what is what from a high level in order to create the opportunity to take a step back and rethink the whole concept. Why do people need to know what the industry expects them to buy? I personally believe, it is due to our overly casual lifestyles. In most circles, you will find that the overall majority of people have no clue how to put together a formal outfit. When people are instructed to dress up, with their experience often primarily in the jeans and t-shirt area, we find ill-fitting suits, shirts that have collars that don't lay flat, ties that look cheap, and all manner of other problems. You will usually notice certain executives, lawyers, and a few informed people as being the exception. (However, I believe that it is possible to dress well on a lower budget, as well.)

I therefore theorize that the wedding industry exists to inform the uninformed and collect their money. Because people usually don't know the first thing about dress, the wedding industry has the bar set fairly low. As a result, it is basically selling people a slightly upgraded version of prom wear and/or cocktail attire. Prom wear is not true formalwear: it is a modern mashup of things that were never meant to be put together. A man's formal waistcoat should never have 5+ buttons: this belongs on a lounge suit, which most people would know under the name of a 'business suit'. Formal waistcoats since the late 1800's have been supposed to be low-cut, in order to daringly show off the man's well-pressed and well-starched formal shirt. Additionally, these jackets, since the end of the Victorian era have been generally intended to be of a quiet color in order to crisply show off the black and white uniformity of men in a social gathering. Now of course, there is room to discuss ways to reintroduce color in formalwear for men, something that was the norm up until the mid 1800's. Unfortunately, I find the way the wedding industry has done it is completely cheesy.

As for women, we have decided somehow that white dresses are only for weddings (white used to be one of the most popular colors for dresses in all situations in the early 1800's) and that bridesmaids should all wear identical dresses, often shorter than the bride. This actually makes no sense. Dress length is directly related to the formality of an event... if your wedding is a formal event in the evening, why ever would anyone wear a gown that wasn't the proper length? It just looks awkward. When the maid of honor wears a floor length gown and the rest of the bridesmaids wear short ones, I find this especially tacky. While I agree it has become customary for wedding dresses to be the longest, there is no real reason why if the wedding is intended to be formal that the rest cannot also be full length. Continuing this, I believe there should be no such thing as a bridesmaid's dress. How is this any different than any other dress? Why would you only buy such a thing to participate in a wedding?

Why have we let an industry tell us that a particular set of garments are only for weddings? Why is it that we only dress up for weddings nowadays? Why can't we choose to enjoy elegance everyday and have more events that are capable of using these same clothes? Personally, I feel it is a huge waste to only wear nice clothing during weddings, since we could reuse many formal items if we held more balls and formal parties. I would also add that if we regained a habit of formal events, no one would put up with the rubbish that the wedding industry sells, because people with taste would want things that are actually worth wearing.

Moving on, if a wedding is a certain level of formality, why does the wedding party subscribe to an entirely different dress code oftentimes? I assume this is because it is more cost effective, but it actually doesn't make much sense. If the wedding party is wearing white-tie, why are the guests attending in cocktail attire? Cocktail attire isn't even actually formalwear. This happens regularly!

Returning to the definitions of formalwear... does anyone in North America know what Morning dress is? Most formal weddings in the United States wear tuxedos during the daytime. A tuxedo should NEVER be worn before 6pm. Instead, if the wedding is formal and during the day, the guests and wedding party should be informed to dress in Morning Dress. For men, this means wearing striped grey trousers, morning coat (aka cutaway coat), waistcoat (often double-breasted), and a necktie or formal ascot. Of course there are plenty of stylish variations on this, color being something that is celebrated in Morning Dress waistcoats and ties.

The reason I bring up these points, is not as much to offer a specific prescription to rigidly fix wedding dress. Instead, I write this because I want everyone to take a step back and think about the look they are trying to achieve. Don't fall for a cheesy stereotype, rather allow weddings to be natural and beautiful. Additionally, I think finding ways to make clothing useful for events throughout the year is important because it creates ownership, sustainability, and provides constant practice to help everyone improve their taste and understanding of clothing.

I want a world in which people are better dressed, more elegant, and better understanding of each other. Beauty is not something to be afraid of, instead it is something we learn and become through our practice of its principles. I encourage people to be more tastefully creative in putting together outfits when creating new/unique looks, or alternatively to stick with the models that have stood the test of time across the last 150 years: Morning Dress, Black-Tie, and White-Tie. Don't rent your formalwear: research and buy it so that you feel comfortable in it, find or create events to use it throughout the year, and in doing so you will make life here on earth more beautiful and glorious in the process.

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