Two years ago one of my best friends got married. She had a big, traditional wedding, which, of course, included a big, traditional dress. It happened that I was shopping with her on the day she found The One, at a bridal boutique in Beverly Hills, accompanied by three of our close friends from elementary school and her mother. The other girls were delighted by the whole operation, walking the aisles and talking mermaid versus trumpet versus A-line, silk and satin and lace and bling like seasoned pros. "Have you guys... done this before?" I asked them. It turns out that all wedding dresses look like massive clouds of tulle and shimmer on the rack, to me, shapless and enormous and terrifyingly similar. "Say Yes to the Dress," they said, so I dutifully went home to start watching.
It sounds like a stupid, depressing premise for a show: a half hour of reality television that follows the customers and sales associates of a New York store called Kleinfeld's, which endeavors to provide young brides-to-be with The One. One of the weird features of the modern wedding industry is its insistence on saying yes over and over and over again: the your groom and then your dress, a relentless storm of positivity that makes some brides panic. What if they don't feel bridal in a given gown? What if they like but don't love what they try on? It becomes the locus for a lot of other inexpressable anxities, but the metaphor basically settles out at: if you can happily decide on one of thousands of nearly identical white dresses, you can also decide on one of thousands of nearly identical men, and your marriage will be Real because you will be a Bride and you will live out Happily Ever After.
Say Yes to the Dress' saving grace is, in some ways, that it's become such a well-known brand name, so that people really come from all over the country to be a part of it. There's a significant financial investment-- Kleinfeld's dresses start in the low four figures and rise sharply into the $50,000 Pnina Tourne gowns that have become one of Kleinfeld's calling cards. (Tourne, who keeps offices on Kleinfeld's property, is an Israeli designer with a penchant for bling, corseting, and baroque silhouettes. Her dresses are also always the sexiest on offer, with a lot of sheer bodice and a few above-the-knee hems. My favorite SYttD catchphrase is "she's a true Pnina bride," which the sales associates will say to one another wearily, in heavy Long Island accents, when a woman wants something sexy and outrageous and outrageously out of her price range.) Other than that, though, the show is remarkable diverse, and it does a nice job of telling capsule versions of these womens' stories, giving them a neat, compelling narrative that contextualizes them as something other than Women in Need of a Dress.
And then there are their families! Kleinfeld's employees refer to the folks who come to offer their opinions as the bride's entourage, which can mean anything from her mother and a few bridesmaids to a fifteen person gaggle replete with bored younger cousins and brothers with strong opinions about cleavage. That's the real trick of Say Yes to the Dress: it offers a unique window onto family dynamics, which are always particularly stark when things like money, fashion and self-presentation are on the table. It's a fascinating cross-section of moneyed Americana, a demonstration that having five or ten thousand dollars to spend on a dress doesn't mean that you have the same ideas as your parents-- much less the woman trying on gowns next to you-- of what will make it classy. (Or elegant, which is another word that comes up often. Classy, classic, elegant, sexy, edgy, funky, unique: it needs to be my personality, brides are always saying, which is a really interesting conflation, the idea that a dress can and should and indeed must represent who you are as a person.)
It's not perfect, obviously, and there's a whole furious essay that needs to be written about the confusion of love and capital, the idea that in order to promise someone forever you need to buy a bunch of stuff that will transform you, a living, breathing woman into a vision, a bride, someone capable of eternal feeling in a way no human being will ever be. In the mean time, though, Say Yes to the Dress is unusual and entertaining and surprisingly heartfelt, a vehicle for women to tell honest stories about their lives, who they are and what they want. They pretty much all end up in the same sea of white tulle, which is depressing, but it's nice to watch these women choosing something they adore. It's the same spirit that animates weddings, really, a rehearsal for the real thing: no matter how stupid and offensive the concept seems in theory, it's hard not to warm to it, watching people fall in love.