Material Visions

Wedding dresses and bikini bodies

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how certain garments override the body of the person wearing them. For example, it doesn’t really matter what kind of torso/upper-thigh situation you’ve got going on, when you put on a pair of “shapewear” (a name so bland it borders on euphemism) you will literally be reshaped into a streamlined fleshly hourglass. Other garments, like cowboy boots or shoulder pads, are so defiant in their shape – indeed so defined by their shape – that they completely recast the contours of their wearer, morphing their corporeality into a structured, unchanging line.

Yet what’s struck me lately is the way that certain garments compel us to reshape our actual selves to fit the image or the idea of them. They reverse the demand that clothing fit must us so that it is we ourselves who must fit the clothes. What I’m talking here is wedding dresses and bikinis.

Reading a number of wedding blogs recently (in the name of research! My PhD is my boyfriend and we’re plenty serious already), it’s been difficult not to notice the subtext running through the advice given to prospective brides. Brides must disguise “figure flaws” if they don’t have the “ideal” body shape (an hourglass, for those playing at home) and as all eyes will be on her, she must look “picture perfect”.

Not only is this “perfection” necessary for her to fully inhabit her appointed role as a bride – in other words, herself but better because here she is at the apex of her romance narrative – it is also expected. This is the best day of her life (isn’t it?) and she has to be the best version of herself to – well, why?

To show that she is worthy of being a wife? To “make her cousins jealous” (as one bridal fitness website urged)? To demonstrate her ability to ace her role in this ritual as a member of society? Or maybe all of the above (cousins included).

Becoming her “best self” in the context of these blogs basically means dressing in a way that reshapes her body into a flattering silhouette. If there is “too much” of her, she is encouraged (in insidiously upbeat language) to “channel her wedding planning stress into exercise,” which will unsurprisingly yield the additional benefit of losing weight.

What she is dressing into here is the image of bridal perfection. She must make choices that will allow her to realise this image, so as not to be embarrassed on The Day. After all, as one blog so helpfully reminded its readers, wedding photographs are forever.

The other kind of garment that we feel compelled to dress into are bikinis. To inhabit bikinis the way that we “should,” we must have flat stomachs and hips that are either boyishly slim or that glide in an uninterrupted curve from waist to non-touching thighs. We should not be too voluptuous, nor should we exhibit any “excess” flesh in wearing one.

Bikinis, brief as they are, disguise nothing and so to wear them “properly” we have to achieve a “bikini body”, in which we literally reshape our fleshly selves to dress into the required image. If we can’t appear this way, there are always “flattering” one-pieces that will, like the ideal wedding dress, hide all of the wearer’s “flaws”: that is, her failure to properly inhabit the bikini in a way that is socially acceptable.

This is a message conveyed by the bodies of the models in swimwear catalogues and fashion magazine swimwear editorials. Yet we also personally uphold it in a number of ways both individually and as a society by policing one another as well as ourselves.

We go on diets and use fake tan to achieve the lithe, brown body we’re “supposed” to have and smirk at other women at the beach who have dared to “flaunt” themselves without upholding the unholy trinity of Western female beauty: to be young, thin and beautiful. We disguise parts of our bodies that we’re ashamed of, seeing the fault as inherent to us rather than a flaw in our way of seeing ourselves.

Of course, neither a wedding dress nor a bikini has power to do anything to us other than change the way in which we appear. But we imbue both with symbolic power in our relation to them as potential wearers. Such a relation goes beyond simply wanting to look “good”, as we believe that to properly wear them we must alter our own embodied selves to conform to the image we are “supposed” to project when wearing them.

P.S. I’ll end on a defiant note by linking to an image I posted on my blog Fashademic earlier this year. It offers a rejoinder to the usual “How To Dress For Your Shape” and I wholeheartedly put my voice behind its sage advice: “how to get a ‘bikini body’? Put a bikini on your body.”