I mostly blame the programming executives at TLC. It was their genius idea to put cameras in the dressing rooms at Kleinfeld Bridal in Manhattan, making what was once a retail destination for high-end brides into a rite-of-passage holy land for women everywhere. Once there, a bride must quiver, cry, pout, shriek and cry once more before her conversion experience is complete. Once she’s done all that and turned her mother into a puddle, gotten the unanimous approval of a bickering 10-person entourage and said yes to The Dress, she’s ready to walk down the aisle to Happily Ever After.
Or whatever. We don’t really give a fig about that part.
In a wedding-obsessed society fueled by an industry constantly churning out new, expensive ways for couples to outdo their friends and make theirs the best big day(s) ever, the dress has assumed the position of a crown jewel. We don’t have many debutante balls anymore, so this is it — a woman’s a chance to show the world how stylish/pretty/thin she really is. As a bridal magazine executive recently told me, “It’s her one red carpet moment in life.”
These are the glittery waters Wall Street Journal columnist Jeffrey Zaslow chose to wade into for his new book, “The Magic Room.” Zaslow has also written “The Girls From Ames,” which tracked the lives of 11 women whose deep friendships started in girlhood, and he co-authored Randy Pausch’s bestselling memoir, “The Last Lecture,” as well as Gabrielle Gifford and Mark Kelly’s book, “Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope.” Zaslow tends to be uplifting and lesson-bearing. So in an attempt to capture what modern romantic relationships look like and “how all of us can best show love to our daughters,” he hit upon the idea of focusing on the bridal gown and the significance it carries in our private lives and cultural landscape.
Zaslow, who has three daughters of his own, zeroed in on Becker’s Bridal, a salon in small town Michigan that’s been run by three generations of Becker women since 1934. For some Midwest women, it’s become a family tradition to buy their wedding dress at Becker’s, taking their favorites into the mirror-lined “magic room” for final judgment.
As a wedding reporter, I sometimes worry that women are so eager for a wedding — and in particular, a wedding dress — that everything else becomes ancillary. Including the choice of groom. Even in a prolonged economic slump, brides (or their parents) are coughing up ever more money for the gown. A report by Brides magazine found that the average wedding dress cost $1,289 in 2010, up 20 percent from the previous year. Zaslow noticed the same heightened emphasis on gowns and wrote that he “wanted to understand the women wearing them, their fears and yearnings.”
But in the next sentence, he explains that he’ll turn a blind eye to this less-than-wholesome trend. “I resolved to pay less attention to brides I met whose motives seemed somewhat frivolous,” he writes. “I wanted to find brides and their families whose paths here were not necessarily easy, but who have given great thought to the love that guides and connects them.”
The result is a book divided between the story of the Becker women and glimpses into the lives of their customers. Some of the brides are widowed. Others are virgins, saving themselves for marriage. He profiles women who’ve been through car accidents, who’ve waited 40 years to find the right guy, and who lost parents during adolescence. The tales are sentimental, but we’re not with any of brides long enough to develop an emotional attachment.
Zaslow delves deeper with the Becker women, introducing us to Grandma Eva, a tough cookie born in the early 1900s who ruled the store with an iron fist and didn’t bother showing much love to her own babies. Her daughter-in-law Sharon took over the shop with her husband, Clark, and eventually turned the reigns over to Shelly Becker Mueller, who now runs the store and employs her own daughter, Alyssa. The store has been both a boon and a burden to the Beckers, as is true of almost any family business. Feelings get hurt, bottom lines are all-consuming, and no one shifts easily between “mom” and “boss.”
Zaslow builds tension around the progression of Shelly’s marriage. She wore a $3,000 gown with a cathedral-length train and billowing sleeves to her 1984 wedding, but it didn’t stave off the feeling that she wasn’t quite ready to get married. Her husband’s alcoholism plagued the family for years until they divorced. And the relationships that followed weren’t much better. “I’m always finding people who need to be healed first,” Shelly admits. “Or who need me to love them but aren’t great at giving love in return. What the heck is that all about?”
It’s a good question and one I wish Zaslow had explored further instead of moving on to the next “happy ending.” Which, of course, is a total misnomer. By the last page, Zaslow has married off all his brides, as I do each week in my wedding stories, but we both know that the hardest, most interesting, rewarding and heartbreaking stuff is yet to come. And it won’t happen in a dress or a crowd, or on a red carpet.
One of the book’s most redeeming moments comes as almost a side note. It’s after-hours at Becker’s, and Alyssa, who is 24 and a salesperson at her mom’s shop, has decided to try on a dress. Her on-again-off-again boyfriend Cory, who helps with the bookkeeping, sees her and reminds himself he’s not ready. “I’m not prepared yet to get married,” he tells Zaslow. “Even though Alyssa and I have been together a while, we’re still learning about each other.” Friends and relatives have been pressuring him to pop the question, but he wants to wait until he’s financially stable and has established his career — until, he says, “everything feels right.”
Stay strong, Cory. Good marriages are not made of satin and lace.
THE MAGIC ROOM
A Story About the Love We Wish for Our Daughters
By Jeffrey Zaslow
Gotham. 285 pp. $27