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Tulle time

Wedding-dress shopping can be stressful for any bride-to-be. But especially for one who mostly loathes fashion.

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By Sara Faith Alterman
Globe Correspondent / March 10, 2011

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I’m itchy. Maybe it’s stress. Or dry winter skin. Or tulle.

It’s a snowy Tuesday afternoon, and I’m inside a candy-colored dressing room, trapped in the eye of a hurricane spun from taffeta and organza and charmeuse. I’m not even entirely sure what that last thing is; I just know that it’s trying to strangle me as I clumsily navigate a tunnel of fabric, desperate for air.

Who knew that shopping for a wedding dress could be so dramatic?

I am engaged to my best friend, Sam, who shares my belief that marriage is beautiful and weddings are generally pretty stupid. When we began planning our October 2011 nuptials, we laughed at the idea that we “had to’’ include nonsense like a tiered cake, a bridal party, an awkward photo session wherein everyone jumps in the air like a boy band on a trampoline.

How hypocritical of me, then, to mock such traditions while secretly, passionately longing for a wedding dress.

Of all the wedding “must-haves,’’ a dress seems like the thing I’d be least likely to covet. I have detested clothes my entire life. I have awful memories of sobbing, humiliated, in the Watertown Mall Gap Outlet as my parents took turns draping my arm with progressively larger pairs of discount jeans. I wasn’t a drastically overweight kid, but I was chubby enough to develop a hatred for my belly and hips that has endured for decades.

Still, my lust burns. I hit up bridal shops with my mother in search of the perfect dress.

Working on a cover-up I have no idea what I want my wedding dress to look like. I do, however, know what I don’t want: a strapless confection with any combination of copious beading, lace, or sparkly appliqués. My everyday look is pretty basic, so shiny outfits make me feel like a cat toy. Plus, I have two terrible tattoos on my neck and back that scream “Spring Break Myrtle Beach, 1998!’’ so sleeves are crucial.

I’m terrified. What if I don’t find a dress that looks good? What if I find a dress but it costs too much? What if the salespeople are jerks? What if I didn’t pop enough anti-anxiety medication to prevent a massive meltdown?

Fortunately, I’m immediately at ease once I meet Nancy Erickson, the owner and dressmaker at Maggie Flood (357 Boston Post Road, Sudbury). Nancy may be the most huggable woman in the wedding industry, and her shop is quintessential New England, replete with creaky wooden floors and racks of gorgeous antique gowns.

I wear a size 10, which, today, seems pretty healthy, but in Victorian and Art Deco eras equated approximately to the size of the beasts that towed farm equipment. There’s no way I’m going to fit into any of these dresses without shredding them, Hulk-style, across the back and shoulders.

Luckily, Nancy also makes gowns by hand, and she has several me-size samples.

My stomach turns as I slip into a simple ivory gown with spaghetti straps and realize that it fits. Why am I nervous?

I answer my own silent question once I step out from the sunny dressing room and face the full-length mirror at the back of the store: I’m getting married. What a terribly grown-up thing to do.

Nancy pins an antique veil to the crown of my head. I catch Mom’s eye in the mirror. She’s teary. I am, too.

The dress seems to fit my requirements. It’s simple and elegant with only a few girly details, namely a ruched sash that crisscrosses across the bust and ties in a simple bow in the back.

“Beautiful,’’ Nancy says, adjusting the train and stepping back to survey.

Is it tacky to agree? For a moment, I feel flawless. “Imagine how much more beautiful she’ll look when she combs her hair and covers up the tattoos!’’ Mom says.

And, the moment’s gone.

Opposites attract Our next stop is Vows Bridal Outlet (130 Galen St., Watertown), a smorgasbord of drool-worthy designer gowns, at even droolier discount prices.

Vows is gigantic, and stuffed with racks of modern and princess dresses. I bark instructions: Find sleeves! No glittery crap! Focus! Go!

I sound like a diva, but it’s coming from intense anxiety. Me and my wolfman eyebrows do not belong in a fancy dress store. I want to get into the dresses and out of here as quickly as possible.

Barbara, my dress “consultant,’’ is a stunning redhead who is so perfectly put together that I want to apologize for my peeling nail polish and unkempt hair. She’s also sweet and friendly and perceptive — she leaves Mom and me alone to scavenge the dresses, and then meets us in the dressing rooms, a pile of gowns strewn over her arm. All of the dresses are exactly what I’ve asked for: sleeves and simplicity, with nary a bead in sight.

I try on a few, but nothing is really popping for me, until Barbara ties an appliquéd sash around my waist. Suddenly, a plain lace dress has some serious personality. I look trendy and hot. Whaaa?

I’m hooked. It’s just enough sparkly detail to be eye-catching, but not so much that I feel like a disco ball.

Then Barbara suggests that I try on one more dress, just because she saw it and thought it was kind of “me.’’ It’s strapless, with a full tiered skirt and a silvery beaded bodice. I give the dress a firm “no.’’ After all, this is everything I don’t want, on one hanger.

I look at Mom. “Well,’’ she says carefully, “sometimes, when you try the opposite of what you usually go for, it turns out to be the right choice. Just think about you and Sam.’’

Sam is, in fact, the complete antithesis of every other person I’ve dated. I have a weakness for tortured artists and neurotic comedians. Sam is a management consultant who enjoys exotic activities like hiking and making spreadsheets. When I met him, I immediately resigned him to “friend’’ status, because I was sure that a romance between us would never last.

I decide to try on the dress.

And hark, what’s that I hear? Why, it’s a choir of angels sent from fashion heaven.

I’ve heard a lot of noise about women finding “the’’ dress, and it’s one of the wedding cliches that I’ve mocked most freely. Perhaps it’s because I don’t believe in fate. Or that the couture gods set me on some sort of spiritual journey that was meant to culminate in this very moment.

But I do believe that, just as I was wrong about the type of man that would ultimately make me happy, I was wrong to apply strict limitations to my dress search. This dress makes me feel gorgeous, and ready to walk down the aisle.

The underdog dress At Berkachi Bridal (2257 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge), I’m like a strapless-seeking missile, tearing through racks of samples while owner Donna Berkachi looks on, amused, I think, by my tunnel vision. She is also lovely and helpful, the first person today to ask me what dresses I’ve already looked at and liked.

I tell her about “the’’ dress, and she brings me an armful of similar gowns.

The very first Berkachi dress I put on is amazing. It’s a simple A-line gown with upside-down V folds that cascade down the bodice, which is accented at the bust by an elegant cluster of beads. Donna seals the deal by pinning a kicky birdcage veil to my hair. I look modern and vintage all at once, which is, I think, the perfect look for pale-skinned and tattooed me. Bonus points: it costs $150 less than “the’’ dress.

Oh no! I’ve now — after hours of stripping down, zipping up, and sucking it in — got two serious contenders.

In one corner, a unique beaded and tiered dress that defied every fashion convention that I’ve ever set for myself. It’s almost too beautiful for someone like me, who can barely put on eyeliner.

And in the other corner, the veritable underdog dress has a real fighting chance. It’s simple enough that I’m comfortable, yet it has enough charm to make me feel like the badass belle of the ball.

I am torn.

Leaving the comfort zone The ride home is, naturally, full of dress chatter. Do I pick the less expensive dress? Do I go for more bling? Less fuss? WHY DOES THIS SEEM SO IMPORTANT?

Ultimately, it’s not my fashion sense but my weakness for symbolism that wins out.

Mom reveals that, the first time I told her about my new “friend,’’ Sam, she hung up the phone and lamented to my father that she wished I’d give this incredible-sounding guy a chance. She bemoaned the fact that I always went for the same type of guy, that I was scared to go outside of my comfort zone, but if I did, I might surprise myself.

Like Sam, that silvery dress from Vows is something I never would have looked twice at, had it not been in the right place at the right time. I didn’t even want to give it a chance. Once I did, though, it made me feel beautiful and confident and excited to commit my life to another person.

And so, I strayed from my comfort zone and went with the silvery, strapless, beaded dress. And I haven’t doubted my decision, even for a moment.

You were right, Mom. You always are.

Sara Faith Alterman is a writer, performer, and proud Boston native. She currently lives in San Francisco with her fiance and two rescue dogs, and can be reached at sf.alterman@gmail.com.