And About That Dress

by Ann Gundlach

While the annual Wedding Issue of Family Foundations is often one of the most enjoyable ones to put together, it also brings the completely unenjoyable search for photos of wedding dresses that do not offend anyone. After many years of doing this, I’m still batting zero on this one, because every issue has prompted at least one email, phone call or letter about a supposedly immodest dress.

This year – after numerous consultations with staff, board members (including clergy), couples in our target audience (twenty- and thirty-somethings) – we took a deep breath and chose a cover photo in which the bride is wearing a strapless gown. As we do not have the funds to spend hundreds of dollars to create our own photo or to use stock photography, we have relied on images graciously shared with us by our members. We put out the call to our volunteers to send in photos for us to consider, and tapped a few other sources. While we did get a few images with dresses that were not strapless, by far the majority of them were.

Our ideal image for the cover is a beautiful snapshot that captures the unique joy of the moment, that initial wonder and awe of the couple over actually now being man and wife. This year’s image clearly does that, and I love the warm interaction between this couple. But I am sure we will draw the criticism of some readers who believe such a dress is always and without exception immodest. From what I can tell, such readers seem to be a small minority. The vast majority of those we consulted – nearly 95 percent – did not believe there was anything wrong with the dress on our cover bride.

A unique perspective this year

Out of all of the years I have helped produce this annual issue, I am in a unique position this year because my own daughter recently wed and … yes, she too wore a strapless gown. Part of me is surprised by this, as I told myself for years that no daughter of mine would do such a thing. But I also found my thoughts subtlety changing in ways I didn’t anticipate.

For the record, we raised our daughter to dress modestly, and only rarely had to step in and direct her to other clothing choices. I do remember taking a stand against strapless dresses for dances in high school, as we didn’t think that was appropriate, and we sort of settled into the guideline that if an outfit needed anything other than a standard bra (i.e., strapless, halter, etc.) it was to be avoided. She is now 26 years old, and I am regularly impressed at how polished, classy, and nicely she dresses. Going beyond clothes, in her mannerisms and the way she carries and expresses herself, Michelle is respectful, mature and refined. This is not an immodest girl.

Despite this, she saw no reason to rule out all strapless gowns and doesn’t view them as automatically immodest. She tried on several styles, and her goal was finding a dress in which she felt beautiful, period.

I watched her put on dress after dress, and to be honest I thought she looked great in every one, but the minute she put on the one she ultimately chose, there was an immediate reaction. She just glowed, and turned right to me with a cautious smile and wanted to know if I thought Mike would like it. Not, will this impress my guests…or does this make me look thin…but, will I look beautiful to Mike?

There is much not to like about the TLC show “Say Yes to the Dress,” but if you’ve ever watched it you have seen that almost every bride has an emotional reaction to the dress that they ultimately select. So I was a little surprised to see this actually happen with Michelle. Once she had that dress on, that was it. She fell in love with it because she felt beautiful wearing it. She felt lovely. Feminine. Womanly. Like a bride.

It occurred to me that while I didn’t want her wearing strapless dresses as an unattached teenager, I surprisingly did not feel the same way as she dressed for her groom. As a teen we warned her about the sometimes unintended messages her clothing choices could send, but as a bride, I saw her dress reveal her femininity and womanliness in what seemed to me to be all the right contexts. We have been very proud of how Mike and Michelle have handled their relationship, and were more than ready to see them finally become husband and wife. A wedding does, after all, celebrate all the goodness of marital love; dare I say it, even sexuality as God designed it.

Art exhibit insights

Because the whole question of what constitutes a modest wedding dress comes up every year as we compile our January-February issue, I was very intrigued last year when the Cincinnati Museum of Art featured an exhibit of wedding dresses through the years. I found it fascinating because, while I hear the complaints about today’s trend of strapless wedding gowns, after seeing this exhibit I think those who view strapless gowns as immodest wouldn’t necessarily be happy about dresses from decades ago either.

The exhibit featured dresses from just about every decade back to the mid 1800s, and while many of them were a bit more covered than today’s strapless styles, gowns have long been designed to highlight the woman’s femininity. There were dresses from the 1920s and 1930s that completely covered the woman, but with material that was extremely clingy and revealing, precisely to accentuate the womanly figure. Dresses from the era of England’s Queen Victoria followed her preference for a very low-cut bodice with the bosom practically spilling out. Then there was the trend of shortening the hem to show the ankle, precisely because it was considered alluring.

Something else that intrigued me was the tendency to decorate wedding gowns with orange blossoms, which symbolized fertility. And I began to view wedding gowns in a broader context than the narrow confines of what some consider modest.

And then there was the wedding last year of Prince William and Kate Middleton, whose gown was probably the most anticipated wedding dress since that of William’s mother, Princess Diana. It was indeed lovely, but then I saw it: a blog post by a conservative Catholic women who praised Kate for her modest dress, given its covered shoulders, long sleeves, and traditional feel. She triumphantly expressed that she hoped this dress would helped bring sense back into current wedding gown styles.

Really, I thought?! Even though this supposedly modest dress was worn by a woman who had been living with William out of wedlock for years? It really struck me then that a conservatively styled dress is not necessarily the magic bullet that some would want us to believe, and that true modesty involves much, much more than hemlines and the cut of a bodice.

I realize there is a range of opinions on this, and I would love to hear your thoughts.