By Joelle Berger
“Oh babe, those look phe-no-me-nal!” cooed the saleswoman at Saks. With such great articulation, she must have been serious.
“Seriously, the sparkle is like, so special – SO special. They will look fab-u-lous with your wedding dress – they’re SO you. They’re you!”
After being an integral part of my life for about nine minutes, she certainly thought she had me figured out. I wobbled toward a full-length mirror for a closer look at these Jimmy Choo four-inch silver stilts. Rocking my gray boyfriend tee, weekend hair knot, and hole-ridden short jorts – a relic of jeans from college – I twisted and heel-toed my feet to see the sparklers in action.
“Uh, I’m sure they’d look better if I was in my dress,” I called back to my seated 78-year-old Mom-Mom. Under grandma goggles, she usually thinks I look beautiful in everything (or hides her true feelings quite well). But this time, even my utmost supporter looked concerned.
“Can you walk in those?” she asked, as if it mattered.
“Mom-Mom, these are designer shoes. They’re great quality, and—” I could barely make my case before rolling my ankle, tipping mere inches from wiping out an entire Louboutin shrine. I may have averted that fashion crisis, but in reality, the jig was up.
While fashion-forward in theory, I have always suffered from a bit of a style “execution” problem. At least that’s how I have diagnosed this chronic illness of appearances. The problem began in college. I remember showing up to sorority rush in Tiffany & Co., my first-generation Birkenstocks, and the full-length version of the jeans described above, thinking, “was a sundress the way to go?” (I received a bid, although I maintain that it was based on the mistaken belief that I would become the house drug dealer.) In some circles, I even became known as “Bottoms Optional Berger” for my general distaste for wearing pants, even in the presence of guests. Perhaps I would have been motivated to pull myself together into the chic twenty-something I was meant to be, had I not met the love of my life freshman year. After that, I figured, what was the point?
Nine years later, in New York City, Doug proposed on the steps of Lincoln Center, in the very neighborhood we call home. It would have been a surprise, had he not been so attuned to my problem. The night before the proposal, he tried to be coy, but quickly slid down a slippery slope from “you could use a manicure,” to “maybe wear a nice dress to work tomorrow – with nice shoes,” to “are you even planning to shower tonight?” (No, I was not.) Fortunately, I took the hint that time. As he kneeled down on one knee, a hired photographer sprouted from the hedges, feverishly shooting as an umbrella-wielding Asian tour group cheered with delight.
For the first weeks post-engagement, I kept up appearances, compelled to keep the stream of “omgyoulooksobeautiful” compliments from friends, family, and Facebook alive. But in no time, I fell back into my old tricks. Sinking to an impressive new low, I managed to upstage a brand new Vince bomber jacket with unintentionally see-through leggings and a way-past-age-appropriate Victoria’s Secret Pink holiday thong that read “Chill Out,” written in icicles, on the crotch. It was the end of summer. I couldn’t even get the season right.
Fast-forward to Saks, months closer to our September wedding, where – in jorts and Choo – I still looked more Real Hobo than Real Housewife.
“Don’t worry, I’m not getting them.” I sulked and tossed the sparkly stilts back into their happy box. Mom-Mom was right. I walked like a crippled giraffe in those shoes. More importantly, they didn’t make sense for me, and in trying to turn “Bottoms Optional Berger” into a flawless, no-Spannx-out-of-place bride, I had to figure out what did.
Before getting engaged, I was honestly willing to own my problem. An accomplished arguer by trade, I posited that by appearing “fifty percent polished” on a daily basis, I would then appear “one hundred and fifty percent fabulous” when I put just minimal extra effort into my look. My former paralegal practically sent out a press release whenever I used a flatiron, and my boss (convinced I was interviewing) shook in his loafers every time I traded Uggs for heels. It was a shock and awe tactic, and it worked. And while this strategy was marginally acceptable throughout college, law school, and several sleepless law firm gigs, I thought my wedding year had to be different. I needed to woman up to be worthy of the rock on my finger and become a bride. Or like, be able to play one on TV.
Soon thereafter, Doug and I had to travel to my childhood home in New Jersey to wedding plan. While waiting for our train in Penn Station, I went to a newsstand and purchased every 200-plus page bridal bible available. And there were lots of them – even a regional one featuring chosen local flair (as Jersey brides need many Snooki poofs to choose from). “I’m sure there are Apps for like, half of those on your iPad,” Doug skeptically pointed out. Whatever, Doug. I wanted to feel the burn of hauling them around, aggressively swiping each page. I wanted to sacrifice in the name of the event. I wanted to try, for once.
As we traveled south through the Garden State, I dug in. It was kind of like prepping for senior prom, but white. Lots of white, and lots of unforeseen details. Tiaras. Flip. Bedazzled boobs. Flip. Hair extensions. Flip. Eyelash extensions. Flip. Southern Charm wedding. Flip. Roaring Twenties wedding – Roaring Twenties? Eyelash extensions? I wasn’t just in over my head. I had already drowned.
That weekend, despite needing to choose our invitations and meet with our rabbi, all I could think about was my personal dilemma. Plopped on the couch with my mother and a half-dozen bridal mag-books, I became increasingly agitated as we continued to get schooled on all of the details I should have been caring about.
“How about this flapper headband veil? It’s like you’re on Boardwalk Empire!” she squawked, finding humor in my attempted renaissance.
“According to this monthly checklist, I should already be teeth-whitening, breaking in my shoes, and developing a relationship with an eyebrow artisan!” It was all downhill from there. “Did you know that I’m supposed to pick out hairstyles for my bridesmaids??! How can I preselect their hairstyles when I barely wash my own hair?”
Doug overheard the turmoil and emerged from my old bedroom, where he would often hide for the duration of these trips.
“What’s going on down here?” he asked with concern.
“I’m not Say Yes to the Dress, I’m like, Say No to the Hobo. You’re marrying a clown,” I cried into the open page in my lap, overwhelmed by the details and defeated by my ignorance.
“Oh, get a grip!” he yelled, with tough love. Tough love works well for disheveled lady lawyers. “In college, amidst all of the southern belles, I fell in love with the Jersey girl whose favorite color was tie-dye.”
“I love tie-dye,” I whimpered, half ashamed, half proud.
“I know you do,” he said. “You have always just done your own thing. It’s who you are, missteps and all. And why the hell would I want you to appear any differently for our wedding?”
My man of nine years did not mind – and in fact appreciated – my appearance, my style, and in turn, my general approach to life as a young woman. For our wedding day, having a head-to-toe dossier of every little detail just was not my style. Even if the “execution” would not be perfect. Even if the magazines were right, and I really did need to bleach my sideburns.
“By the way,” he said, “it’s worth mentioning that when you do get it right, you really get it right.” Shock and awe, Doug. Shock and awe.
Alas, the big day approached quickly. After a nationwide search involving Friends & Family events, sample sales, a trip to Boca Raton, Florida, and several incorrigible Saks employees, I finally secured The Shoes: powder blue, patent leather Ferragamos, with one-inch heel stumps and big, fat bows on top. Given their low-risk heel and ability to match her eyeshadow, Mom-Mom loved them. Friends, in typical fashion, offered mixed reviews. Yet, I felt unapologetically willing to take the risk – with my shoes and with everything else – in order to become my version of a bride.
Joelle Berger is an attorney living in New York City. In early 2013, she left the gift of private firm practice to pursue a more sustainable existence and–most importantly–her writing. She has published in Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Women’s Health, the Gainesville Sun, and other publications. More of her work can be found at averagejoelle.com.