The Symbol of the Wedding Dress: Letting Go of Singlehood

A few weeks ago, in an interview with Julie Cusmariu of Heartbeat Radio, Julie asked me to comment on a section of “The Conscious Bride” where I talked about the symbolism of the wedding dress. As you can hear in the interview, I wrote the book so long ago that I’d almost forgotten what I had written in that section! After the interview, I re-read it and wanted to include it here, as it’s still one of the few places where you can delve beyond a superficial obsession with finding the perfect dress and understand its symbolic place amongst the rich tapestry of wedding symbols.

Here’s the excerpt that Julie quoted from The Conscious Bride (2000):

“Essentially the wedding dress symbolizes both the untouchable purity of a princess and the regal perfection of a queen. When a woman says, “I want to feel like a princess on my wedding day,” she is expressing an impulse to be exalted into the magnificent beauty of the princess and to exude the impression of an otherworldly goddess. When a woman understands that on her wedding day she is elevated to a spiritual state where her transformation can occur, the wedding dress ceases to be merely an object that will help make her “look perfect” but rather can be utilized as an amulet to assist her during her rite of passage.” (p. 87)

I wrote that in 1996 in the original draft of my Master’s thesis. Years later, after I had counseled thousands of women through the wedding transition, my understanding of the symbolism of the dress drifted out of the mythological realm and down to earth, as I wrote in The Conscious Bride’s Wedding Planner (2003):

“When you envisioned your wedding as a little girl, it was probably the dress that glowed white and luminous in the forefront of the fantasy. When we envision our wedding now, it’s the dress that often assumes a prominent position. The dress leads the processional of objects that comprise the wedding day, with flowers, photographs, and food stepping into line behind her stunning lead. The dress, like any object into which we pour vast amounts of time, money, and energy, is like an inanimate guest on your list. It is important that her presence at your wedding makes sense.

“Many women today reveal that they felt almost ashamed of succumbing to the collective model and wanting to wear a traditional gown. They also reveal an inner conflict about the connotations of the color white as a symbol of virginity, given that most women are no longer virgins when they marry. As Kelsey states,

I’ve always been a feminist and balked at the thought of wearing a big white wedding dress. But when I walked into the store and tried on my long-sleeved, lace and silk gown, it just felt right. It was hard to reconcile the tradition with my feminism. How does this dress make sense in the context and meaning of my life?

“We cannot deny that the dress remains a primary symbol of the wedding, and the urge to wear the white gown is often insistent. In order to avoid feeling hypocritical, we must bring our understanding up to date.

“For most of history, the dress symbolized the end of a woman’s life as an individual and the beginning of her role as a dependent wife. Today the dress no longer symbolizes the death of individuality, but of singlehood. The rebirth is not one of dependent wifehood, but of mature partnership at a new level of commitment. When a woman crosses over the threshold into marriage, she is leaving behind her attachments to an identity that no longer fits. Wearing the white dress on her last day of being single is a profound and archetypal way of acknowledging and saying goodbye to this aspect of her life.

“If we broaden the terms, we can still speak of the dress using the words innocence, maidenhood, and virginity. As we leave behind the innocence of childhood, the white dress comes to represent the most innocent part of ourselves. As we let go of the symbolic maiden, she who is carefree and responsible to no one, the dress comes to represent the most unattached aspects of singlehood. And as we move into the maturity of full partnership, we are stepping into the full blossom and power of our womanhood. Far from being a misogynistic act, marriage today requires that we maximize our intelligence and strength as woman. If we call on Marianne Williamson’s definition of virgin – “a woman unto herself”- then instead of becoming de-virginized on our wedding day, we become re-virginized!

“Marriage today is a spiritual journey toward wholeness. There is a sacrifice involved, but it is not the sacrifice of one’s strength as a separate woman. In fact, a good marriage is dependent upon each partner’s ability to bring a solid self into the partnership and to walk the wavering tightrope of togetherness and separateness. So if the surrendering is not of individuality, then what is it? It is a sacrifice of singlehood, and as you step more fully into your power as a woman during this next phase, you must relinquish the identity that has carried you to this moment in your life. The dress is the symbol of this identity.

“As the symbol of singlehood, the dress carries a high emotional charge, and while it is a main figure of the wedding it is important to recognize the emotional undercurrents so that you can keep its value in perspective. Unless the grief about letting go of singlehood and the fears about marriage are brought to consciousness, the dress can easily become the magnet onto which the iron shards of difficult emotions are attracted. Of course, other aspects of planning also become ways to distract, but the dress, with its profound symbolism, tends to be a focal point of distraction. In fact, when my clients are running off course with obsessions about any planning detail, I bring them back to reality with the phrase, “It’s not about the dress!” In other words, the physical objects are carrying the emotional charge, and as soon as the emotions are processed, sanity is restored and the planning can continue.

“Letting go of attachments to the identity and lifestyle of being single is a very common area where women feel the fear and grief of this transition. Regardless of your age, how long you have been with your partner, and whether or not you have lived together, your identity is still “single.” You check the “single” box at the doctor’s office. You file “single” on your income taxes. You may be more committed to your partner than to anything else in your life, but until you have taken your vows and exchanged your rings, you are still single. The wedding marks the transition from singlehood to wifehood. For the transition to be thorough, the thoughts and emotions connected to the end of an identity need recognition and attention. Otherwise you will enter marriage with your singlehood identity still dangling behind you, impairing your ability to fully embrace your husband and incorporate your new level of commitment.” (pp. 72-74)

3 comments to The Symbol of the Wedding Dress: Letting Go of Singlehood

  • RP

    I was considering over the past few days the reason why choices about what goes on the gift registry, what my flowers look like, what kind of food is going to be served, not to mention that my dress had to be ‘just right’- I have been seeing a level of perfectionism in myself that seems hard to break.

    After spending some time on the forums today a poster commented about low self-esteem and the impact of feeling like ‘Ive picked an awesome partner, that makes me awesome’ and a lightbulb kind of flicked for me.

    It feels like this wedding that I am planning for and all the choices I am making around it are a really public show to others of what my tastes are and who I am.

    So in turn- for me it Ive created this(internal) pressure to make sure these choices give an adequate air of awesomeness….

  • RP

    Ive found this article and a comment from one of the posters on the forum really interesting ahnd poingent for me this afternoon.

    In the lead up to my wedding Ive been struggling with so much indesicion and stress making desicions about gift registry, flowers and of course- the dress. I put it down to perfectionism but that wasnt really shifting anything for me.

    After reading a comment by a poster today about low self-esteem and needing an ‘awesome’ partner to herself feel ‘awsome’ I felt a bit a lightbulb flicker for me.

    For me (or rather my wounded self)- the choices I am making about my wedding feel like extremly public declerations of ‘this is me and my taste.’ My feeling has been- if other people think my wedding dress is awesome then it means Im awesome, like Im pinning my current level of self-esteem on how beautiful my dress, flowers and wedding are….

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