When I first met Annette, she was testing out a mother-of-the-bride dress in front of her coworkers. It was a two-piece ensemble with a matching blazer. It was maroon, shiny, and bejeweled. Annette’s not a fan of trying things on, but there she is, decked in red, reporting she’s “pissed,” but smiling. “We all do it for Lisa,” she says of her twin sister. “We’re family.” Annette is standing in Harold’s Formal Wear of New Haven, CT, where she works among a sisterhood of employees. Lisa, Lee, Luisa, Anette, Anita, Alicia, Sue, Connie, and Meghan call themselves a family. Lisa and Annette are twin sisters and Meghan’s their niece, but the rest, genetically unrelated, belong nevertheless.
Lisa is older than Annette by just a few minutes but shorter by quite a few inches. Though small, she is authoritative, with perky hair and a focused gaze. She wears heels, but trades catwalk delicacy for a determined, getting–somewhere clack that sounds with every step. As a young employee years ago, Lisa became quite close with Harold himself, and went on to run the shop after he passed. The women cheer and Annette scowls. She shuffles back to the dressing room and returns wearing a silver taffeta ensemble. Annette stands in the silver dress as if it itches.
“You look good in anything, Annette,” squeals Lee, another Harold’s employee. “You ass,” Annette responds, smiles, and marches back to put on her jeans. Lee remains beaming when her friend goes away.
Lee is the doll of the bunch. It’s easy to see why the Harold’s family adopted her. She glows you in her big lined eyes and has a vocal tone that harkens secrets, counsel, and admiration all at once. She loves you. And you, instantly, love her. Lee has well-styled blonde hair and wears clothes that Oprah would love: thick beaded necklaces, lots of muted tones and simple sweaters with flowing sleeves. Lee loves her job, and she’s happy to tell you why. “I think it’s the relationship that you form with brides. You hope that they send you pictures; you become best friends. It makes you cry, there’s such a deep connection. I get teary-eyed just saying it!” Her voice trembles.
The women laugh, moaning, “She’s our crier!”
Lee is unashamed. “When I put a dress on a girl, I get the chills and teary eyes and if the mother cries, God forbid….” There are nods all around.
Allison Valentine, bride-to-be, arrives at Harold’s with her sister, Laura, and her mother, Susan. The three women wear matching Burberry jackets and dark, pressed jeans. They’re instantly chatty with the staff. The traffic was bad. It took double the time they expected. And can you believe the rain? Annette receives them smilingly, and Lee asks them if they want to meet me, standing with a notebook in the corner. Allison skips over to stand by my side. Her face is round, like a girl’s. Do I want to see her inspiration page? Before I can answer, she whips out a computer print–out hued in greens, yellows, and white. There are sunflowers everywhere – they’re Allison’s favorite. Pictures of Stewartesque table settings, unfrazzled wedding parties of sexy twenty-somethings, and green high heels are arranged on the page like a yearbook collage. Allison points out small details –– green shoes, hemmed napkins. The bridesmaids will wear emerald. She, of course, will wear white.
Allison leads her family towards the sales floor. Were Harold’s bridal shop a woman, it would look great in a clingy silk gown; the dresses hang in cliques on racks below round skylights, within curved wall nooks, next to gently rounded couches. Allison stops along one of the curves and points to a silk tafetta gown. Annette later explains this fabric as breathable and substantive, festive and elegant. Merriam Webster describes both silk and taffeta as “lustrous” fabrics. And lustrous the dress surely is.
“But it’s kind of prommish,” Laura suggests. “So much Taffety.” “The fabric is kinda prommy,” Allison agrees, and the sisters leave the lusterbust and move onto other, better dresses. Better, perhaps, but not good enough. The next dress is white and puffy like a popover bathed in icing, designed for the queen of fru–fru herself. “It’s got a big tutu, but you can’t sit down in it!” Allison reports. She won’t settle for anything she can’t dance in at the reception. “Yes, you’ll need to sit down in it,” her mother, Susan, provides. “There’s just too much!” Laura gets excited. “Too much! Too much!” Allison adds, “Too much!” Laura chants, “Too much! TM! TM!”
The spunkburst dies down and the group continues looking. Susan sees the strappy heels towards the front of the store, and rushes off, with declarations that she “LOVES FUN SHOES!” Allison spots a dress in the corner and heads in the opposite direction. Clutching it, she calls for her sister. “Laura. Look at this! Look at the back!” “It reminds me of rock candy. Is it too rock candy?” “Mmhmm, too much rock candy.” “But I love rock candy!” Allison giggles. “It’s rock candy and mom will hate it.”
Though Allison and Laura both lament that their mother is “so picky,” they admit to being very close, the three of them. They did, after all, just spend an hour and half in traffic, and no heads have been visibly bitten off. “We’re all like, the same,” Allison admits alongside Laura’s ardent nodding.
After some more browsing, they’re sent to the dressing room, where Annette has picked out some special gowns for Allison to try. The back room gowns are special; all priced at over eight hundred dollars, they’re accessible to patrons only at an employee’s suggestion. After a brief interview with Allison about her “vision”—“I’ll try anything,” the bride-to-be admits—Annette has come back with a wide selection. The dressing room is so large it could fit three queen-sized beds inside. There’s a pedestal, a wall-hugging couch, and a many-faced mirror that folds in and out. The lights can be switched to “evening” or “day.” We keep it bright.
“She wants a nice shape,” Susan declares upon seeing the selection. When I first met Allison’s mother, she insisted she would play only supportive spectator to her daughters. Now, she explains to “her girls” (among whom I am now generously included) that the ideal dress would look like something Grace Kelly would wear – beautiful, elegant, classy. Allison’s face sprouts into a grin. With an honest “I’m not shy!” she slips off all her clothes and jumps into her first gown in front of the group.
The dress has a deep back and a huge bottom. There’s a rosebud pinned at the fabric stretched behind her hips. “You’ve got a flower on your butt!” Laura giggles, and Allison shimmies a little. “I’ve got enough junk in my trunk already,” Allison says, rushing to unzip. The next dress is rouched on the bottom in elegant “pick up” folds, the type of skirt Allison and Laura have taken to calling “the cupcake.” It’s bright white and regal. “I feel holy in this dress,” Allison remarks. “Yea, that’s too holy for you,” Laura says. The dress is unzipped.
Allison puts on more dresses. Through it, Susan struggles to restrain herself. “I don’t love it,” she says at one gown. “I want to love it.” The dresses keep coming and coming off. The women have stamina, moving through dresses too big to wear, dresses “too fun” or too expensive, even dresses deemed “perfect,” then discarded. It has been over an hour. The Valentines, luckily, have a year before the big day. They’ll have a dress before the wedding. Allison’s got an image in her head, and she’ll find it.
“When they find the right dress, their face lights up,” Lee explains. Anita Anastasio has been watching faces light up for forty years. She is Harold’s oldest employee. Anita is a frail woman, short, wrinkle–faced and ruddy–cheeked. Her posture is bent just slightly, as if she is hoping to hug you, but a shade too timid to try. She spends conversation nodding and clasping her hands, resting her cheek in her palm, and sighing. Gazing back at memories of when she first came to Harold’s, she speaks of the good old days. “It was different. It was quiet.” They used to have cookie tables after the wedding. They used to have special honeymoon outfits and the men wore fresh suits as they drove away. Everything was more ceremonial.
Despite these sepia memories, Anita is grounded in today’s world. When she pauses to think back forty years, the shades of wistfulness she carries are outweighed by an accurate appraisal of “girls today.” They’ve gained confidence. They simply know more about what they want —“the computer tells them so much” she explains, then revises: “the internet tells them so much.” Internet or not, however, love remains blind, the heart stays fickle, and Anita assures me that “the basic bride stays the same. Her enthusiasm, her excitement, her fright is there no matter what.” Anita insists that even modern-day professional women change when they become brides. Some are giddy and irrational. Others bask in the limelight. The wedding bug spares no woman. “It’s because of the television,” she adds.
When Anita began working at Harold’s, the average girl got married when she was twenty-one years old. Today, women tie the knot, on average, when they’re twenty-six. (Men, on average, are at least two years older than their wives.) Anita knows that modern girls are different. She knows that probably haven’t been hostesses at a dinner party. She knows they’ve been shacked up with their fiancées since long before engagement. They’re managing their money for themselves. They are gainfully employed. They’re less likely to comply with their mother’s vision of a perfect dress, or honor her by wearing the same one she wore. “You can listen to the bride and take in what everyone else is saying to her, but she’ll never feel beautiful in what I think and what her mother thinks is beautiful,” she explains.
To help a girl find a dress, you’ve got to let your feminine intuition take over as your inner fashion judge, because it’s her day. The women at Harold’s chime in as Anita tells stories of bride’s she has known, but when I ask of their own special days, the employees at Harold’s have little to say. Nobody jumps to detail their walk down the aisle, their veil, their bridesmaids dresses. Nobody gets choked up talking about the engagement or the giving away of the bride. Perhaps their business buffers them from classic nuptial nostalgia. They live it every day; if they got stuck in their own memories, they’d have no time to create anyone else’s.
Lisa bought the first wedding dress she tried on. She saw it in a magazine, got it shipped to the store, and was satisfied. It was good. She had a big reception, but doesn’t have much tell about it. It was good. Lee had a “small wedding” in her home, with just a few people. She wore a white cocktail dress. They lit candles for decoration. It was intimate, but it wasn’t lavish and it wasn’t all that grand.
Anita doesn’t talk about a marriage. At her age, I’m afraid to ask. An unmarried woman of her generation is either a spinster or a widow. I figure if she’s either, I wouldn’t want to prod. The women of Harold’s speak so warmly to me of their customers and their lives that I half expect them to invite me over for dinner. Instead, they invite me to the Bridal Extravaganza, where they’re having the Fashion Show. It’s at the Woodwinds, a social events space in Branford, and Annette will be modeling.
I couldn’t miss it.
The Woodwinds stands bricked and pillared, like a country club or a spa. It sits wreathed in a parking lot, dotted with three photogenic gazebos and embellished with red oaks. I gain entrance with a postcard Lee had given me the week before: “TWO FREE ADMISSIONS: A TWENTY DOLLAR VALUE!” The paper is soft and ragged; I’d been clutching it nervously the whole taxi ride over. Inside, I am greeted by a giant, estrogen pumped pageant. It is as though I’ve stepped into the mind of a woman who listened to soft rock and browsed bridal catalogs all day while eating cheese. A wedding singer and a little band had set up by the door, where they treated the crowds to “I’m walking on Sunshine!” and other cheery hits. There are tables with cheddar and gouda cubes piled high next to cut vegetables.
There are women everywhere. Some wear a telltale “BRIDE” sticker, letting vendors know who among the masses is most lucrative to befriend. One vendor, carrying an armful of roses, eagerly asks me if I am a bride–to–be. I show her my ticket, but inform her that no, I am not the bride. I get no rose. I walk past the flower-seller, make my way past the cheese sculptures and fruit bowls. My stomach is queasy. No gaggle of bridesmaids linger by my side. Everyone probably thinks I am single. They probably think I don’t have friends. They probably think I am lonely. In truth, I am. I need a hug. I get a kiss.
There was Lee, standing proudly on my right, glowing at the Harold’s Bridal Booth. “Hi,” I murmured, catching her eye. “KATE!” she calls, pulling me towards her and kissing my cheek, ushering me behind the table to stand with her. Like finding your parents’ coattails when you’re six and lost in a crowd, Lee’s face is unspeakable comfort. Annette shuffles over, surrounded by her daughters and sporting the maroon mother-of-the-bride dress she had scorned a few weeks before in the shop. She’s excited to see me, and introduces me to her daughters.
Pointing to me, Annette exclaims, “We’ve got to show her to Lisa!” and we rush together out of the Expo Room, towards the dressing rooms out front, where three “brides” sit waiting on a plush bench. One is full–figured and blonde, with heavy mascara that makes her eyes, in the language of makeup, “pop.” Her ample breasts, tucked tightly in the corset of her gown, follow suit. Her two companions are taller and more simply arrayed, their faces less painted, their hair not quite so stiff with spray. One is a redhead and maybe thirty-five, and the other is younger, with light brown locks. The three sit cramped and poofing on a plush little bench meant for two. Passing the three, Anette, her daughters and I walk to the closet where the brides had been dressed, where Lisa herself is currently dressing up two school aged girlets in puffy white.
“Look!” Annette announces, pointing to me. Lisa’s excited to say hello, and the little girls stare. But everyone’s busy, and I don’t want to slow down the dressing up. I shuffle off to explore while buttons keep getting buttoned and zippers try not to rip. Back in the expo room, the DJ started playing a rendition of “I will always love you” and the Emcee announced that it was time for the show to begin!
The ladies of Harold’s lined up, and in three sets of dress changes, they made their way down the catwalk. At first, they seemed nervous. Annette’s youngest daughters, sitting cross legged by the front of the stage, gave her giggling grins, and her older ones stood brave in their bridesmaids gowns, doing a little hand–on–hip twirl at the end. A shorter girl, no more than four years old, approaches the catwalk in a little white strappy frock, and immediately bursts into tears. She runs away to hugging arms, and the show goes on. Another, just little bit older, makes it all the way to the catwalk and starts to walk, smiling gently. The crowds eat it up. She shuffles shyly in her Mary Janes, and her hair hangs down straight. The audience is getting excited. It is unclear whether they’re suddenly craving the gowns or children of their own to dress up in Mary Janes. Annette does a second round in the mother-of-the-bride dress, and the trio of fake brides display their gowns to the flash of cameras and the approving critique of the women below. The fashion show is a success.
Two weeks later, I’m standing with Lee in a $1,700 Paloma Blanca wedding dress. The Harold’s staff has wanted to see me in their gowns from the beginning and, despite apprehensions, I finally say O.K. Lee had informed me that we’d start with dresses I like, and then move on to dresses she thought I’d find a little more daring. She had pegged me as a low–key gown girl, and the first two on the rack were ivory silk a–lines, mild on the scale of froof. (An A–line dress consists of a fitted top that hugs a girl at the bellybutton and hourglasses outward at the bust. From the waist down, it poofs into to the base of a cone, like the lower rungs of the letter “A”). Before I put on either, I have to step into a set of constrictive little lace and wire delights, created to sculpt my waist to hip ratio into something worthy of a fertility sculpture (Wire circling waist: breath–defying. Wire midhip: wide orbital ring), and my bust something akin to Judy Jetson’s twin–cone look.
Properly confined, I put on the Palmona Blanca Silk dress. Lee tells me to step on a pedestal so the dress can hang at its full length. The dress puddles out glamorously at my feet. The top of my very first A–line is covered in floral lace and embellished with small pearly beads. An ivory ribbon rests right above the hip. Lee catches me grinning. I catch myself grinning. Lee insists she snap a photo, and I pose.
Next, I try on the San Patrick a–line, which also has me smiling. It’s got a side–pleated top, and it’s off–white with a set of tiny buttons that cover up the zipper. The buttons are so tiny, Lee informs me, that they use crochet hooks to clasp them on the Big Day. The third dress isn’t quite the charm. The thick halter top cuts me off at the shoulder, and the dress clings to my waist, hips, and upper thighs, pulling in tight at my knees so they’re forced to touch, before trumpeting out for the calves. It reminds me of a “Chinese Finger trap,” the little tube toys that suck tighter and tighter the more you try to escape. Curve after copious curve, the gown is fit for an octopus queen, but not for me.
My final dress is fit for a Victorian princess, and I don’t mind one bit. Before I can put on the dress, I’ve got to change slips; I transfer into a set of hoops that pop out wide enough to hide at least one Great Dane, and Lee buttons me up in the dress. It’s a gentle, coral pink–white, decked in rivulets of silver jewels, and blossoming out from the thin-strapped top into a willow tree’s graceful dome. Lee tops me with a tiara and plays with my hair until the little crown stands up on its own. I’d never wear it in real life, but the women of Harold’s don’t care. They just want me to feel beautiful. I do.
Harold’s may be made for marriage, but no matter romantic attachments; this store is a sorority. It’s about women and daughters and granddaughters and the closest of friends. Saturday is the busiest day at Harold’s, but by 4:30 one weekend in October, half an hour before closing, the shop has quieted down, and just the employees and I remain. Meghan, Annette and Lisa’s niece, is here at Harold’s for the first time since I’ve started observing the shop. It’s her 18th birthday.
“Hey Lee!” Lisa calls down towards the storage section of the shop. “Call the girls!” Waiting for the seamstresses, Annette, Lee, and Lisa cluster by the counter, surrounding Meghan. Lee munches on a block of cheese. Somebody brings out cake in a Stop & Shop plastic container.
“I stayed up all night to make this!” Annette jokes. The women work together to top it with a white and green candle shaped like the number “18.” It has two wicks and they set the flame with a little white lighter. “That’s a fire hazard!” Lee remarked. “Good. It’ll keep us warm.” Annette replied. She is ignored in all the excitement, however, for Lee has suddenly begun a enthusiastic, unmelodic “Happy Birthday to You.” She doesn’t make it through the first refrain. “No!” Lisa cries. “The girls are still coming down!” They wait, and soon Lisa and Connie the two squat seamstresses, 40 year vets of the store, waddle in.
With the gang all there, it’s finally time to blow out the candles. In utter un-melodic sweetness, the women begin to sing. The birthday song is stripped of all delicate harmony, and each member of the Harold’s family is singing her own personal rendition just slightly out of sync with her neighbors. They finish, though, one by one, and Meghan, amongst them, stands while they clap. She blows out the candles and gets them all.
Photos by: Harolds Formal Wear