On Saturdays I work eight hours at a bridal shop in San Francisco. Its location is prime – just a few steps away from Market Street, where seemingly all the parades that take place in San Francisco, regardless of how large or small or how many spectators (if any), can be seen from our large row of windows on the fifth floor. Across the street there’s a Wells Fargo, suffering silently amidst a sea of empty office buildings whose windows have since been occupied by dust and ‘For Lease’ signs. Down below, eye level with pedestrians, are the colorful storefronts of designer boutiques, none of which seem to be getting much business lately. Had I found part-time employment in one of those shops, I wouldn’t nearly come away with as much material as I’ve got now.
Today I learned how to measure a woman.
A*, a petite girl with a personality twice her size called me into her dressing room.
“Bring a sharp pencil,” she said, “I need you to take down her numbers as I do the measurements.”
The bride in question was a tall, once-athletic woman with dirty blond hair and braces. She had come in last Saturday with a fearful number of women – each louder than the last and with wildly different tastes – a dress consultant’s worst nightmare, but A* had taken them head on and after forty-five minutes of veto after veto, had stepped up and suggested a dress the bride had merely glanced at and never considered.
“That’s not my style,” she had said, when A* brought it out.
“I know,” A* said, “but sometimes you have to try it on to really know for sure. And this is totally different from the ones you’ve been trying on.”
Her friends had sat in a defiant row with their arms crossed; their legs, encased in designer jeans, were crossed as well – the fear-instilling posture of a tough audience. Had I been in A*’s position I would have given up and said meekly, “Well ladies, thanks for dropping by. You might want to try ____ Salon across the street.” But A*’s been at it for two years and she’s a professional. She pushed hard for a different style. The bride gave in, taking the dress reluctantly and came out from the dressing room moments later with that cliched “Oh my god this is the one!” expression: eyeballs a little too wide and that suppressed smile – the kind that waits for others to smile first. And her friends did smile, some out of sheer relief – but there was no doubt – the bride looked beautiful. She spent a good five minutes dancing around in it while her friends clapped happily. And today, with only her maid of honor in her party, she reenacted this dance before she realized we had to take her measurements down soon.
“I’m sorry,” she gushed, “I just can’t believe how comfortable it is! I feel like I can eat some wedding cake in this dress!”
She was ready to buy the dress. At the salon, the dresses are custom made-to-order, meaning the bride selects a dress she likes and the seamstresses upstairs make it to fit to her body. It’s as close to a couture experience as any upper-middle class woman might ever get and many women are glad to pay the price.
We coaxed this bride into the dressing room and out of her gown and A* proceeded to tie shoelaces across and below her bust and around her waist for accuracy. I took the numbers down carefully, all the while keeping my ears open.
“I’m not as toned as I’d like to be,” the bride said, “I used to play volleyball.”
“Why’d you stop?” I asked.
“Injury,” the bride said, “That’s why I’m all flabby now.”
“You’re not flabby,” I said, though she did seem a little soft in certain areas.
“You’ve got a great figure,” A* said, then to me, “thirty inches for her waist.”
The bride peered at herself in the mirror.
“I can’t believe I have a thirty-inch waist!” she said.
I wasn’t sure if she expected us to confirm or negate this, so I stared hard at the paper before me and pretended to bob my head along to the soft salon music. Someone had set it to Carla Bruni.
A* continued, and I learned the various segments a woman is divided into when trying to create the best fit. Hollow. Bust. Full bust. Nipple to Nipple (this one made me giggle). High waist. Natural waist. Low hip. Etc, etc.
“So,” said the bride, “Do you guys get a lot of crazy girls with like crazy body image issues?”
Little did we know, at that exact moment in two dressing rooms down from us was an award-winning, world-renowned scientist and transgendered female getting fitted for a wedding dress she had purchased a week before.
A* looked at me, her eyes saying, “Are you kidding me do I have stories so many stories I could talk until your ears bled,” then realized that it was only my third day over three weeks – I was looking back just as expectantly as the bride. But three days – and three Saturdays, the busiest days for the salon – were plenty to fill a gossip’s journal. Before A*’s bride arrived I had noticed that there were hardly any plus-sized brides today. Nothing against size (though some say I am a fattist), but the smaller dresses hang on easier to handle wooden hangers and go on the widely-spaced racks in the showroom as opposed to the larger size samples which, hung upon diabolically prone to tangling wire hangers, are crammed in a small room near the back.
Nevertheless the look on A*’s face caught in the mirror and the bride grinned gleefully, her braces glinting.
“Ooh, do tell do tell! I love stories!”
“Well,” A* cleared her throat, “there are always those girls who suddenly decide to lose like a hundred pounds and that basically messes everything up,” said A*, twirling the tape around her fingers, “But we make the brides sign a contract saying that they won’t lose or gain too much weight after you purchase the dress.”
Not much of a story, I thought; but signing a contract to stay true to a dress! Fascinating, this gateway to marriage. The bride nodded, already bored by A*’s reluctance to provide juicier details. Her reflection had caught her eye once again. “Well,” she said, turning slightly to the left – I followed her eyes to the “flab” she had referred to earlier, “the most I fluctuate is five to ten pounds. That should be fine, right?”
“Yeah,” A* replied, “But I would advise not going above that.”
“Oh, I don’t think I’ll need to.”
A* began to roll the tape measure up and I stood awkwardly in the corner with my very sharp pencil, clutching the paper with this woman’s measurements. She stood in the middle of the dressing room, basking in the glow of the lamp, wearing only a slip and strapless bra and three shoelaces tied around her pale body.
“Pork roast,” I thought and bit my lip to keep from smiling too wide. What a horrible thing to think about a woman about to get married. Not that the bride would have noticed anyway – she was studying her reflection, negotiating, plotting, scheming – logging gym hours and perhaps counting future, unconsumed calories. It was nothing new to me – my three days were no less jaded than A*’s two years, and I had already seen my share of too fat, too thin, seemingly-fine-but-probably-not girls and this bride, with her braces and flab and penchant for vicious, body-image issue related gossip, was no different from the women I had already observed and the women I had yet to observe.
But like the bride, and like most women, my ears are always open for “stories.” Handing the measurements to A*, I took my very sharp pencil with me back to the reception desk. Now, I had other things to write.