“You’ve got a stunning shape Karen”
“No one’s ever said that to me before!”
So began another day at Curves and Couture Bridal Boutique. Bride-to-be Karen had come to Curves and Couture with her son Jay, her Aunty Fiona, and her soon to be mother-in-law June. Jo and Alison were determined to “find Karen something to blow her socks off”, but I wasn’t sure they would be able to. Because Karen was different.
Karen had already purchased a wedding dress by the time I met her at Curves & Couture. It was an Essence of Australia wedding dress, due to arrive in England by April. But deep down, I sensed that Karen was still unsure whether this dress was really the one for her. Today she had arrived for a consultation with the Fairy Fatmothers, Jo Cooke and Alison Law, to see if she could walk away feeling more confident in decision.
Karen was very fashion savvy. She wanted a dress that was A line in shape, and she would not consider any dress that featured a band around the waist. She wasn’t interested in anything white, she was leaning towards something ivory instead. If a dress had a corset, it was going to have to be unique. It was great to have a bride-to-be visit Curves & Couture with so many developed ideas. However, I was quickly learning the bride-to-be could also be her own worst enemy. Karen was the first to admit that she would not venture out of her comfort zone easily. “I will limit myself” Karen repeatedly admitted to us all, as she gazed at the plethora of dresses that hung before her. “She does that,” remarked June as she sat with Jay on a nearby sofa “She gets set in her ways”.
Arriving at Curves & Couture with too many preconceived notions is definitely not advisable. Jo and Alison are experts in plus-size bridal wear. The multiple business awards that Curves & Couture have won speak for themselves. Often a prospective bride will be adamant that she needs one specific style of dress, but will end up walking away with something entirely different.
I wonder if this is partly due to the way plus-size brides are treated. Many of the women I have met at Curves & Couture have recounted their dismal high street experiences to me and there seems to be a common thread running through each story - the sheer lack of choice. Whilst stores may advertise that they cater to plus size customers, when in reality they may only have two or three dresses in store to try on. Ballroom style dresses with sleeves, thick straps and high necklines – dresses that hide everything the society deems unacceptable about plus size women. Is it any wonder that bigger brides are reluctant to try on anything that differs from this ‘uniform’, when they are constantly told that it is all they are permitted to wear?
Karen has been together with fiancé James for eighteen years, after meeting through friends at university. Her eyes lit up when she spoke about him “James is such an amazing, hardworking family man" she said. "He makes me feel special everyday”. Fifteen years ago, James proposed to Karen. But she has put the wedding off until very recently. She told us she made a myriad of excuses – she didn’t want the expense of a wedding, she didn’t want the hype and attention. When James first proposed, she was much slimmer, but after having their son, she did not find it easy to lose weight and didn’t want to “waddle” down the aisle. “I haven’t got an engagement ring on” she said, holding up her left hand “It doesn’t fit. I didn’t want to be a fat bride. I felt like I was doing him a disservice, having to marry the fat girl version of myself”.
Despite these fears, the wedding is finally going ahead. Last year Karen reconnected with her spirituality, and although she would not describe herself as religious, she felt that this was what prompted her to take the plunge and finally set a date.
Today was the first time Karen’s young son had ever seen her in a dress. The last time she wore a dress was at a friend’s wedding in 2010, and she can’t remember the last time she bought one. I got the feeling that Karen, like so many other women, was her own harshest critic. Alison echoed my thoughts exactly. “I think what you see in the mirror is not what other people see” she said helped Karen into one of the many dresses the boutique has on offer. “You look stunning Mum!” said Jay as his mother emerged from the dressing room. “How are you feeling Karen?” asked Jo, as she went to fetch a suitable veil. “Like I’ve got a waist and had a boob lift!” said Karen ecstatically “I think this could be the one!”.
I was lucky enough to attend Karen and James’s nuptials some months later. Karen’s earlier instincts at Curves & Couture had been spot on. The Curves & Couture dress was ultimately the one for her. We all gathered at Karen and James’s house on the morning of the wedding to document the preparations. James had spent the night sleeping in the small flat at the bottom of the garden and when we arrived, he was leaving the main house with his hands covering his eyes. He’d had to duck inside to retrieve something and was not going to risk catching a glimpse of his bride to be. He assured me that he did not know much about Karen’s dress at all, apart from a few small details. James was the perfect host to all of us, even though we had quite literally invaded the family home on their wedding day. “Do you want anything to drink, anything to eat? What do skinny people even eat? Celery sticks? We don’t have any skinny food!” James joked. It may have been wedding day jitters, but the groom was a barrel of laughs all day long. When it came time to conduct the father and son interview, James and Jay gave some serious thought to being interviewed on the family trampoline. Their happiness was truly infectious. “I can’t wait to get married,” James told me “I already call Karen my wife”.
The brides-to-be that come to Curves & Couture have fiancés that adore them. However, it is heartbreaking to see that so many women lack confidence due to their experiences on the high street. The more time I spend with Jo and Alison, and their clientele, the more I am beginning to understand that this boutique offers so much more than just wedding dresses. More often than not, a visit to Curves & Couture marks the start of a healing process, increased self-esteem, and a new start in life.