The Dress Mess

The issue of the dress quickly became a mess, one that I liken to knocking over coloured paints onto the floor and watching the cultural collisions swirl into each other, the colours all powerless in the merge.

I got fitted for a qipao 旗袍 or Chinese silk gown about a month before the wedding. My mother-in-law and I chose a beautiful silk pattern of red with gold design, the typical wedding colours of a traditional Chinese wedding gown. Normally, I’m not a red and gold person, but I found myself enjoying the silky royalty of it all and really looking forward to wearing such a stunning piece of clothing. And it was truly beautiful.

Then I discovered that there is often a “costume change” that occurs for women (why not men?) between the initial part of the ceremony (a word I use loosely, as it’s more of a performance) and the part that proceeds the ceremony when the bride and groom visit each table to clink glasses and thank people for coming. I learned this while watching a video of Guo Jian’s cousin’s wedding that my mother-in-law wanted me to see so that I knew what was going to happen. In it, I remarked on the bride’s  different clothes part-way through and his Mother said, “Why, of course, didn’t you know that? You can change into something else for the drinking portion!”

No, I hadn’t known that. As with most of what was going to happen, I knew nothing.

Here I had thought that all was settled and I was “good to go” with my wedding prep but no, now there was another dress that was expected of me? I sighed a big, audible sigh, I’m sure. I really hate shopping.

That was about the same time that I began to get some conflicting messages from my parents about the coming event in China. My mother and I had been talking regularly on the phone but suddenly my father was not that interested in talking to me and I was confused by the shift in his energy. My mother eventually told me that he was uncomfortable with the fact that I would be wearing red at the wedding.

“Red?” I asked. “What’s wrong with the colour red?” My father got on the phone then and quite frankly said that it made him feel like his culture wasn’t being respected. “What are you talking about?” I asked, bewildered. He explained that it’s the colour that whores wear in the Irish tradition.

<insert dramatic music here>

My family is Canadian and I’m the second generation, but my paternal grandfather was born in Ireland and sometimes my dad is very particular about tradition through his father’s line. And, it’s particularly related to colour.

When my sister and I were young, Saint Patrick’s day every year was a tricky time.  The theme at school was always built around wearing green but this made my dad very irritable. We were “Orangemen,” or protestant Irish and “should not be wearing the catholic green” to school on the 17th of March, he would grumble. Of course, as kids, we didn’t understand what we were doing wrong and couldn’t figure out why our dad would be so moody with us for being festive. A few times I wore orange to make him happy but just felt foolish and left out at school when my friends had no idea what I was talking about.

Later, I came to understand that these were his only ties to a heritage that he never had had a chance to know. Still, Canada was our heritage and we were two generations removed from the orange and green conflict in Ireland.

It’s amazing the things from our childhood that creep back into our consciousness when we are older. When I learned that this wedding dress mess was about colour, memories flooded back of my happy days of green leprechauns and four-leaf clovers being rained on by my disapproving dad.

What’s more, this Chinese cultural tradition was as removed from Canada as Ireland was for me back then. China—the other side of the world—does things differently! This centuries-old, rich cultural tradition certainly isn’t interested in offending a Canadian father with an Irish heritage.

My father went on to explain that white was our traditional colour for marriage and, even though I had already been fitted for the qipao, he wanted to know if I would at least consider wearing white, if not for this event then for the event that we would have in Canada in December.

Enter the costume change.

A lot of Chinese brides now wear the big fluffy white gowns because they’ve been influenced by Western culture. I had never wanted a Western wedding and so I had never had dreams of a big marshmallow dress, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t find something white (or off-white) to change into. Besides, what was the harm in making my father happy?

He was already unhappy about the fact that they were not expected to stand in the receiving line (more like greeting line pre-event that was exclusively for the groom’s family), there was going to be no first dance with his daughter (there’s no dancing at Chinese weddings) and he was not going to be walking me down any aisle (because there is no aisle in a crowded banquet room), so the least I could do was look for something white. (I can still hear the scolding tone in my mom’s voice as she reminded me of all these things—all that my father wasn’t going to get at his little girl’s wedding!)

These heterosexual traditions are so loaded, aren’t they? As I’d been so removed from them for so long, I had no idea that my parents had all these latent needs. I mean, they must have grieved the loss of such dreams years earlier when I’d come out as queer but now, suddenly, they had dug them out of the dumpster and re-stacked them up, protectively, like bricks around the walls of their hearts.  Even though I’ll never be their heterosexual daughter, this wedding seemed to be cuing some expectations I had never imagined existed.

I grumbled about that for a while before I just went with it. I grumbled that I wasn’t “pure” and “innocent” like the colour was supposed to suggest—“virginal” was far from my reality. I grumbled that I had to shop at all, but shopping for something white was even more annoying because, frankly, I’m pretty pasty to begin with and I really don’t look good in white! I grumbled that I was already negotiating a relationship with one man—Guo Jian—and it was hard enough without having sudden conflicts with the only other man in my life: my father. The biggest grumble was about the notion that I was capitulating to a ridiculous issue that wasn’t my issue and shouldn’t be my problem on my wedding day.

Who knew there would be so many people to please on this particular day? Weddings so quickly become about everyone else besides the bride or groom. I was learning this fast and kept reminding myself that the wedding wasn’t for us, the marriage was. It was becoming a bit of a mantra.

Eventually, I found a cute and simple white dress that was fun and short, bought some tall white boots to funk it up with and added classy pearls. I’ll never forget the beam in my father’s face when he saw me in it.

Sometimes pleasing the ones we love is a more powerful act of independence and autonomy than we could have ever imagined, simply because we choose to do so. Once again, it’s that power in choice.

I ended up wearing the red silk qipao in Canada as well and didn’t even pull out the whites. By then, I think the pressure of my dress’s palate was long past. Happily.

When I emerged in my red silk in Canada, someone jokingly said, “Oh Ember, you clean up well!” and all I could think of was that image of colourful, cultural paints swirling on the floor and it made me smile.

Yes, cleaned up.

It was.


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