What My Wedding Dress Means to Me

As we battle the coronavirus pandemic, rites of passage are passing us by: graduations, proms, bar mitzvahs. And with weeks dragging into months, thousands of couples also face difficult questions over what to do with their wedding celebrations.

I have heard many brides wrestle with feelings of guilt mixed into their sadness. Is it right, they wonder, to still dream about a beautiful day, and yes even a beautiful dress, while people all over the world are suffering and dying?

When I moved to New York City in August 2001, I was a starry-eyed 18-year-old. Breathlessly excited to embark on my fashion design studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology, I could have never imagined the unspeakable trauma I was about to watch unfold. In the ensuing days and weeks after 9/11, as Fashion Week got canceled and talks of war got louder, a fundamental question bloomed in my mind. In a world that is so capable of hurting itself, what is the point of dedicating my life to pretty dresses?

Pain has a way of shaping us. Beauty has a way of speaking to us. But these messages and how they relate to each other are not always immediately obvious. As a young person, I couldn’t decipher exactly the purpose or direction of my dreams, yet I resolved at least to not be driven by fear. I hoped for my work to cultivate human connection. I plowed forward as if called by an invisible force, holding onto a faith that someday perhaps the pieces would fit together.

After college and a few years of being chewed up by the garment industry, a series of life events forced me to stop and reimagine my entire career. I found myself more humbled than ever, and my only remaining motivation was the deep love of the craft that I had known as a child at my mother’s feet. Cautiously, I started making simple wedding dresses out of my Brooklyn apartment.

I was not drawn into making wedding gowns because I was so in love with love. To be quite honest, at the time I didn’t quite believe in love. I had been caught up in that whirlwind before, and found myself married by the age of 23. For a decade I struggled mightily to make our relationship work, but ultimately it ended in heartbreak. So perhaps, I didn’t believe I myself could be fully loved.

Yet I found myself fueled by a simple, viable hope: If I could dedicate myself to making beautiful things that bring me joy, some others out there may gain joy from them as well. Perhaps in this way I could support myself and my two young sons and eventually give good jobs to a few others.

A simple sharing of joy seemed a worthwhile pursuit. Armed with nothing more than this vision, a few hundred dollars of savings, my training, and a whole lot of grit, my tiny business miraculously flourished.

As I used my skills to help women to feel their most beautiful, symbiotically each bride helped me to discover the connection and inspiration I had been seeking for so long. The encouragement my brides poured over me — as an individual and as a designer — helped me to believe again that I, too, was worthy of all kinds of love.

And with this healing, I began to open myself up to the possibility of meeting the right kind of life partner. When I serendipitously met Michael Peppard last year, there was no way I could have guessed that soon I would find myself completely in love — and later in pandemic-induced lockdown — with him. Yet that is exactly what happened. For once in my life, I feel seen and accepted, loved for all of me. Just nine months after we met, we decided to marry.

Our excitement could not be bound up by lengthy lead times, familial interjections, and detailed planning. We felt somewhat urgently that we should be a family, to face together whatever life may bring. We knew we wanted to elope, and arranged plans to hold a sparkle-filled celebration with family and friends a few months later.

We set our ceremony to take place on Dec. 30, 2019, in the mountains of Steamboat Springs, Colo., the last spot we had camped during a memory-saturated summer road trip. We lined up our friend who is a Colorado-based Episcopal priest to officiate, booked a talented photographer friend to capture it, reserved an Airbnb, found a wonderful day-of coordinator, and ordered some silk flowers off Etsy.

It felt wildly romantic to wrap up a perfect year of falling in love with our own kind of perfect ceremony. And it felt deeply satisfying to me, a person who is surrounded daily by stressed-out brides, to plan my own wedding in a matter of hours.

Date and details set, I figured making my gown would be no problem whatsoever. After all, I would love to wear any of the gowns I design! But I felt nagged by the urge to be unique, to design something memorable and inspiring. What I love about a wedding gown is that it’s almost purely emotional and not at all practical. It’s a piece of interactive art. Imagining a wedding gown as a way not to transform but to reveal a woman’s true beauty has provided me endless inspiration. However, when I turned my gaze to the mirror, it became cripplingly difficult to decide how exactly to dress myself.

With endless design options and only a few short months to execute it, my head swirled. I imagined a free-formed tulle skirt in layers of deep purples and magenta, paired with a long-sleeved bodysuit ecstatically embroidered with a rainbow of floral motifs. Or perhaps I would craft a sweeping emerald green satin gown, encrusted with museum-worthy beadwork. I was fairly certain at the time that I would not wear ivory or white — frankly, after making several thousand white gowns, I salivated for a fresh palette.

Decision fatigue and information overload can be problems for most brides. In my case, the paralysis became quite real. I also started feeling acutely aware that I would want to share my photos on social media for my brand — and that I had not hit the gym in months.

There came a morning just one month before our elopement when I had to give myself the same “talk” I often give my clients: Breathe. Reduce the noise, focus on your vows, keep the energy around your gown light. And for God’s sake, woman, don’t think of your wedding as an Instagram photo shoot!

With my newfound peace of mind, I decided to make my gown out of materials I already owned. I gravitated toward a length of ivory French lace that I had used for my debut collection and still love dearly. I opted to create a streamlined silhouette referencing the Western pioneer women of the late 1800s, who were my ancestors. My Brooklyn team deftly tailored the custom sleeves, which we added to our signature sheath shape. I finished off the look with an ivory organza overskirt I borrowed from my shop and a custom veil and accessories created by close industry friends.

I love what I wore, but much more important I love that I am now married to my best friend. I’m utterly grateful that we have each other to lean on through these very hard times. I’m grateful that we, as I hope many will find ways to do, consecrated our vows in our own style. Although we had to hastily decide to postpone our March 21 reception, we know we will celebrate together when the time is right.

It is good and right to meditate on beauty and be taught by love. A wedding day itself comes and goes. Sometimes it runs as planned, sometimes we have to bend our visions dramatically. For most of us, it will be both beautiful and flawed, just as we are.

Rebecca Schoneveld began sewing at the age of 4 (her first dress featured baby ducks). She now designs her eponymous line of bridal gowns and owns Schone Bride in Brooklyn, N.Y. She and her husband, Michael Peppard, live with his daughter and her two sons in Westchester County, N.Y.

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