Had we been able to make a trip to India before our wedding, things would have turned out very differently. We both like and are comfortable in Indian clothing, and would have been happy to buy (or have made) something Indian, probably a lehnga for me (I have not worn saris enough to be able to wear them gracefully – it’s an art). Brendan looks very sharp in a long kurta, and could definitely rock an achkan.
But this was all happening on a short timeline. We couldn’t go to India before the wedding (we’d be going there in September, after the wedding), and I was not able to find anything Indian readily available and to our taste in the US.
On the other hand, I was not going to wear a traditional western wedding dress – at my age and our stage in life (second marriage for both, already lived together for years) the “virgin bride” symbolism of a white dress would be wildly inappropriate.
By mid-May, with wedding plans well underway, I was still not sure what I was going to wear. I knew I wanted to dress up (something I do rarely), but had no clear ideas on any particular style.
Meanwhile, something else was percolating in my mind. As you know if you’ve ever seen me, I have disproportionately large breasts on a narrow torso and shoulders. Yes, the boobs happened naturally and, frankly, if there was a way to make them smaller without major surgery, I’d take it. (The lumpectomy to remove a tumor took a chunk out of my right breast, but not enough to make much difference.)
Large breasts are heavy. A good, well-fit bra will support them, and I’ve been investing in good bras for years, but at best you have a tight band and metal underwires cutting into you all day, and some of the weight is nonetheless suspended from your shoulders. I have deep grooves in my shoulders from bra straps, and frequent shoulder and neck pain.
I had begun to wonder whether a corset might be a good alternative, but I didn’t know enough about them. Corsets are complicated. I had no idea how to buy or fit one, but I did know where to look for information: Cora Harrington’s The Lingerie Addict. And there I found a beginner’s guide by Marianne Faulkner, a corset designer at Dark Garden in San Francisco.
I had been aware of Dark Garden – perhaps the premiere corsetiere in the US – for many years, and always had an idea in the back of my mind that someday I’d have something made for a very special occasion (the SF Symphony’s Black and White ball, maybe?). So, on a day in late May when I had other business in San Francisco, I stopped by. Just to try something on. Really.
With very necessary help, I tried an off-the-rack overbust corset. The attendant got me all laced in, stepped back, and said: “You’re crooked.” I could see in the mirror that she was right. Like many other girls, as a schoolchild I had been diagnosed with a mild scoliosis, then never thought about it again. But, with the multiple vertical lines of the corset fitted tightly against me, it was easy to see that my right shoulder and hip were slightly higher, so the verticals weren’t quite vertical. And, of course, one breast is noticeably larger than the other since the lumpectomy.
The solution would be a custom corset, made to fit me precisely and balance the unbalanced. And, if I was going that far, I might as well have a skirt made and turn this into my wedding dress, right? Of course right. At that point, I was talking with Marianne Faulkner herself, and getting very excited about the whole idea. Back when I was in school in India, I had quite a lot of clothing made – that was almost the only way to obtain clothing in that time and place. But I’d never done anything like this.
What about color? Dark Garden’s off-the-rack collection runs to dark colors, which much of their clientele prefers as part of a steampunk or Edward Gorey esthetic, and of course there’s the BDSM crowd with their black and leather. But the talents at Dark Garden can certainly handle color.
What color, exactly? That was easy. Brendan likes to wear and looks very good in pink.
And it suits me, too. I looked through Dark Garden’s samples of satins and silks, and quickly zoomed in on a double-faced satin in a warm, hearty pink which subsequently proved difficult to name or describe (or photograph). It’s not orange enough to be salmon, but it’s not the typical pale color that people think of when they hear “pink.” Anyway, here it is:
This would be the fabric on the outside of the corset, but it wouldn’t be suitable for a skirt, especially in summer. Marianne and I discussed doing an overskirt in lace, with a pencil skirt underneath for modesty. She happened to be heading to LA on a fabric buying trip, and said she would look for some possibilities there and bring back swatches.
In the meantime, she took lots of measurements to begin work on my corset, and we made an appointment for a month later for my first fitting.
I did consider having a suit custom made for Brendan at a nearby bespoke tailor, and stopped by there to discuss fabrics. But I knew that, in the throes of finishing a book, there was no chance he would make the multiple trips to San Francisco that would be necessary. I put off the question of what Brendan would wear to… later.
The dress was going to cost a lot – a bespoke corset on its own is expensive due to the time, materials, and highly skilled work that go into it. I rationalized the expense (to myself) as follows:
- I’ll be able to wear it again, either skirt and corset separately, or together for some other fancy occasion since it’s not a white wedding dress. The corset will look great with, say, black velvet or black leather pants.
- I was seven months pregnant at my first wedding, so I wore a white elastic-waisted embroidered skirt and shirt combo from Bali – definitely not the princess-waisted, full-skirted dress I had pictured for myself (not that I could or would have spent a lot of money on a dress at that stage in my life, even without pregnancy). I had missed out on having a fun wedding dress then.
- I can afford it now.
- I’d be supporting artisanal couture.
- On average, I spend little on clothing, especially now that I work from home a lot and, when I do go to the office, I don’t need to dress up – jeans are just fine at Amazon.
But, to be honest, this was all just rationalizing a decision I’d already made. I wanted to look beautiful. I wanted my groom to be knocked off his feet and proud that he was marrying me.
Building a custom corset is expensive in part because the process requires several wearable mockups. This was my first:
As you can see under my left armpit, Marianne pinned the mockup to show where it needed to be adjusted to fit better. You can also see yellow chalk marks on the front where more adjustments would be made. Wearing it felt… fine. A bit of a shock when they tightened it the first time, but I quickly got accustomed to it and felt comfortable, contained and supported rather than constrained or constricted.
Marianne had, as promised, brought some swatches of lace, but I ended up not liking any of them. This one was a candidate (the color matched the corset fabric far better than appears in this photo), but I decided it was too gaudy.
We discussed instead using a solid fabric for the skirt, probably a darker color, in silk. Dark Garden had some options in stock.
But Marianne also recommended that I look at silkbaron.com for a wide choice of silk types and colors. Oooh, yes – my kind of website! (Though I would have been even happier to see all these beautiful fabrics in real life.)
I ordered swatches of silk in a dozen different shades and, when they arrived, tried them out one by one against the corset fabric.
It was impossible to show in a photograph what I was seeing in real life, in artificial or natural lighting, I suppose due to the contrasting textures and reflectivity of the fabrics. I was sending photos to a friend or two to get opinions, but ultimately had to decide based on what my own eyes were seeing. I settled on “rhubarb,” which was the same shade of pink as the corset fabric, but a completely different texture in dupioni silk – what we used to call “raw” silk.
Here are the two swatches together against my skin:
I was carrying fabric swatches with me everywhere, obsessively matching colors…
In late June I was back at Dark Garden for another fitting, in corset mockup #2, with an off-the-rack skirt in the same style that would be used for my own pink silk skirt. At this fitting Autumn, the proprietor of Dark Garden (a woman-owned business in San Francisco for 30 years!) brought her experience to bear in adjusting the corset to compensate for my tilted torso.
Mockup #3 was ready in mid-July (I was wearing dark glasses because I’d had my eyes dilated that day for an eye exam):
At this point, the fit was just about perfect: close-fitting with no “muffin top” bulges, supportive and comfortable. Yes, still a bit of a shock when first laced tight but, in the few minutes I was able to wear it in the shop, I quickly got used to it
My friend Melinda came with me for one of the fittings because, as a former theater person, she had experience lacing corsets, and I was going to need her help on the wedding day (and before then)
I did not show any of the photos to Brendan – I wanted the dress to be a surprise. He knew the color and had figured out that there was a corset involved. He kept saying that he “wasn’t that turned on” by corsets, which was a bit deflating. But my friends and everyone at Dark Garden just smiled knowingly and said: “He’ll change his mind when he sees you in it.”
I went back to Dark Garden on August 9th to try on the final corset and skirt. It was magnificent, exactly what I wanted. I felt like a queen, and like Wonder Woman in her armored bustier.
But there was a lot more involved in pulling together my wedding “look”…