As Kate Middleton lines up three alternative wedding dresses, Celia Walden witnesses the pain of choosing a bridal gown.
'Are you romantic, elegant, glamorous or classic?” Sitting on a giant suede pouffe, the bride-to-be chips away pensively at her nail varnish. “I’m not sure,” she murmurs eventually. “Then let’s get you in a few different dresses,” says the shop assistant, helping her up with an encouraging smile, “and see how you get on.”
I’m in Caroline Castigliano’s Knightsbridge boutique, surrounded by racks of ivory tulle and Chantilly lace, watching a series of women go through one of the most emotional and highly pressurised experiences of their personal lives. An hour in, I find myself reaching for the popcorn, momentarily convinced that I’m at home on my sofa, watching some kind of gripping reality TV show. Who knew that people came in with their boyfriends to look at wedding dresses? That mothers could be so unbearably pushy, and that some girls start having fittings before they’re even engaged?
Castigliano – who has been designing bridal gowns since 1991 and has dressed everyone from celebrities to royalty – has seen it all. Does she ever get tired of watching a girl try on her first wedding dress? “Actually, it’s seeing them try on the right dress that you never get tired of,” explains the lithe, 48-year-old blonde. “They’ll try on up to 15 before finding the one, but when they put that dress on, they get this particular expression – like they can’t quite believe what they’re seeing in the mirror. It’s their fairytale moment: they’ve met their prince and they’re about to gallop off into the sunset with him.”
As someone who felt curiously indifferent to the whole wedding dress frenzy when I got married last year – in an £120 gown bought at the last minute – I’m amazed by the energy and forethought the “correct” process requires. Yesterday it was reported that Kate Middleton has commissioned three separate wedding dresses to preserve the surprise before her Big Day. Castigliano isn’t shocked by this. “I recently had a bride buy three wedding dresses,” she tells me. “One was bias-cut to wear here in London for her blessing. Her second was a strapless gown for the evening reception. Her third was a corseted dress to be worn in Australia, where her husband-to-be was from. They were having a massive celebration Down Under a fortnight after the London ceremony.”
For the brides who just want one gown for their wedding, Castigliano warns: “The bare minimum we need to get the dress ready in time is six months. Nine, if you want 'a comfort zone’.”
And there are plenty of women booking in for 2013 weddings now. “It makes sense when you think about it,” she says, motioning at her assistant to adjust the waistband on the girl, who judging by the diaphanous A-line skirt and princess bodice, has gone for the “romantic” look. To a huge percentage of women, the gown is the most important element of the day.
“People will sacrifice everything for the sake of the right dress,” she shrugs. “I’ve seen brides cut their weddings down from 250 people to 100 so that they can afford the gown they want; I’ve seen them sell their car and postpone the honeymoon.” And while Castigliano’s dresses don’t come cheap (the average costs £4,500, but in the Knightsbridge store, brides will often pay from £10,000 to £40,000), her other UK boutiques do offer payment plans, “so people can pay off the dress over the course of a year”.
The physical investment can be equally debilitating. Castigliano is used to witnessing dramatic pre-wedding weight loss, and estimates that the average bride-to-be will lose 7lb in the build up (Kate Middleton is believed to have lost in excess of that, at 10lb so far). The designer tries to warn against manic last-minute ...dieting to no avail: many girls turn up to their final fitting two sizes smaller. “Another scenario that I see all the time is the bride who slims down five months before and then balloons just before the big day. When the stress kicks in, these girls just start to eat. Then there’s this awful moment when they try to fit into the dress and feel desperately disappointed in themselves.”
Pre-wedding nerves can also result in alopecia (“I once had a girl whose hair started falling out in big clumps weeks before”) or desperate measures such as last-minute surgical procedures. “One girl went from an F down to a C cup and didn’t tell us. It’s almost as though because the dress is being created for them, we would somehow know about things like that.”
Tears of self-loathing, anticipation or joy are an everyday occurrence in the boutique. When a mother and daughter come in for that first trying-on session, the occasion can be highly emotional, says Castigliano. “The mother will often have travelled quite a way, and they will have had some champagne at lunch, so when her daughter comes out in a gorgeous dress, the mother will fall to pieces. Then there’s all the hugging, so until it calms down again we leave them to it.”
There can be tears of a different sort when a bossy mum puts in an appearance. “You see a lot of those – the ones running the show, even when their daughters are in their forties.” When one mother insisted that the day should be “a life-changing experience” for her daughter, Castigliano soon found out what she meant. “The bride-to-be was quite heavy and it emerged that what her mother really wanted was for her to walk in looking like a six-foot supermodel. While we can create great things with good tailoring, we can’t turn a size 18 girl into a size 8.”
Is it that these mothers want their chance again? “Sometimes,” muses Castigliano. “Although one mum sat on this very chair telling her daughter – standing there in a wedding dress – that she was doing the wrong thing, and that if she had her chance again, she’d never get married.” Heart-warming stuff.
Arranged marriages are the ultimate example of that parental power. “I once had to dress a 16-year-old Arabic girl, and although she was overjoyed with the dress, she wasn’t in the least bit excited about her husband-to-be – which we thought was desperately sad.”
The oldest bride Castigliano has dressed was an 83-year-old earlier this year. “Her husband had died a year or two ago; but she had met someone new and wanted the works.”
Our complex, modern lives help keep Castigliano in business. “We get so many second and third brides wanting to do it all again. The days when people went to a registry office in a suit are gone. These women will say: 'I got it right the first time and I’ll get it right again this time.’?” The dress, that is. “One girl spent months getting this fantastic dress just the way she wanted, only to call the wedding off the week before. She told us that we could throw it away for all she cared. Then four years later she rang to say that she was engaged to a new man and wanted the same dress. So we made the whole thing again from scratch.”
The belief that a wedding dress sums up a woman more than any other gown she’ll wear in her lifetime possibly explains the worldwide fixation with what (and who) Kate Middleton will be wearing on April 29. “The truth is, we don’t know much about Kate,” says Castigliano, “and we’re hoping that the dress will tell us something.” That said, the designer believes that the bride’s taste will be largely overshadowed by royal protocol. “It’ll be ivory and she’ll have to have a sleeve,” insists Castigliano. “I can’t think of a single royal wedding where the bride didn’t wear a sleeve – but it won’t be a meringue. I don’t see her as Diana reincarnated.”
Castigliano would put her in “a really high-necked gown, with long sleeves in a Chantilly lace and then nip it right in at her waist, which is tiny, and have it come out into a Duchess satin A-line skirt. She’s quite petite so she’ll need something to balance that out and give her drama. The cameras in Westminster Abbey will be up very high, so she’s going to have to wear a train of some description, even if it’s detachable. At the end of the day, that dress will have to denote a certain level of respect for what the Royal family and the Queen stand for.”
It would be helpful for the guests – some of whom Castigliano is also dressing – to be told what colour the Queen is going to wear on the day, “so that at least they could avoid it”, she laughs. “Otherwise all shoulders should be covered and there shouldn’t be too much cleavage on display.”
As I get up to leave and catch sight of a girl squeezing her best friend’s hand as they examine swatches of silk together, I feel a pinch of regret that I didn’t do all this. On the plus side, I tell Castigliano, there’s always the second marriage to think about.