When You Find the One: Buying the Dress Before the Ring


In the middle of the week between Christmas and the new year, a week when time grows fuzzy and inconsequential, I bought my wedding dress. I stumbled upon it by accident as I wandered around The Future, a space-themed vintage shop in Savannah where the racks appear to be arranged by mood—minimalist pottery teacher, maximalist key party habitué, and so forth. Flicking through the last of the neutrals, my hand came to rest on silk eyelet the color of whipped cream. I held the fabric out to the side, scanned it top to bottom, and the room began to spin. 

I knew, the way you do, when I saw it on the hanger, and as I stepped out of the dressing room my heady rush graduated to absolute certainty. Tea-length and cut on the bias, the dress had a soft ruffle that framed a deep V-neckline and trailed down the front. The slip was a bit too long, and the waist would have to be taken in, but there was no question—this was my wedding dress. It was timeless and classic with a resort-y kick, simple, feminine, and one of a kind. It would also cost less than a round of happy-hour cocktails.

I changed back into my jeans and sweater, asked the college boy at the register for a 24-hour hold, and called my sister from the car. “Why didn’t you buy it?” she asked. “Am I missing something?” Strictly speaking, we both knew I was the one missing something: an engagement ring. 

I’d been with Patrick nearly two years. We met in a bar, and when he walked me home from our first date, we realized we were neighbors—the windows of my apartment looked directly into his. Now I was 33, he was 36, and we lived together in an ivy-covered cottage with a red door. We’d weathered a few storms, and in many ways we were polar opposites: the magazine editor into big conversations and early bedtimes, and the gentlemanly lawyer with night-owl tendencies and an aw-shucks grin. Still, I knew I wanted to marry him because of how he talked to dogs and small children, the sincere hugs he gave my parents whenever they left our house, the shape and soundtrack of our Sundays. We weren’t engaged, but I wasn’t worried. We had both been married before, and our discussions about our wedding were steeped in recognition and a giddy sense of freedom. The jig was up; the rules did not apply.

Some parts were a snap to imagine: family and friends, good food and great music. I had no shame for having done this already—the truth was, I hadn’t. My courthouse elopement eight years prior, always romantic in the retelling, had eventually lost its shine. After the fall, it seemed more like an act of defiance, and a misjudgment of what real commitment entailed. 

Second marriages, to borrow from Samuel Johnson, are the triumph of hope over experience, yet for all my optimism this go-round, there were pieces I couldn’t quite reconcile. A dress was one of them, and I knew why. With Patrick I felt like my elemental balance had shifted toward happiness and ease. I needed the dress to make me feel like that, too. 

As an inveterate rule-breaker I gave little thought to cart-before-the-horse criticism, but it managed to find me anyway.  “I can’t believe you’re doing this,” read a text that evening from my friend John, whose acerbic commentary and superstitions have colored my life for half a decade. “Where will you hide it?” he asked. (In my closet.) Then he texted “Show me,” and I complied, sending the only grainy photo I had. “Well, shit,” he typed. “It’s perfect.”

The following day at lunch I returned to the shop with another friend in tow. She’d been briefed on the necessary details, and when I pulled up to her office she was standing outside with a bouquet of grocery store daisies, a sign of solidarity if ever there was one. Ten minutes later I was in the dress, holding the flowers, and she was shrieking my name. I turned to face the mirror, and finally, next to an abandoned pile of burlesque costumes and a wall of knockoff banana-leaf paper, in The Future, in the present, I could see it. Whatever beach or garden or tunnel of love we ended up in, there would be eyelet, a shoulder-skimming ruffle, and a flamenco flounce, just begging for a twirl.

—Emily Testa