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The Bride, Off Duty

Great varieties of manners and ceremonies make up the legal and cultural binding called a wedding. The connecting of families, communities, religions and ethnicities is celebrated through a latticework of movements, scripts, foods, and music. Thinking of these ties, values, and community building found in traditional wedding festivities, I had a thought: what if The Bride were alone?


(Click on images to view full-size photographs.)

What if, independently, she went about her day in the ordinary way that many of us do? What if The Bride, dressed for her spectacular moment, were to be watched living out a day of mundane activities? What happens when the spectacular-moment costume dovetails with the ordinary moments of the ordinary day? So many ruptures occur with this simple juxtaposition of the physically-splendid and the everyday contexts and actions:

• A bride is always accompanied, the center of focus; in this imagined situation, The Bride is part of a crowd, a blending person in her actions;
• A bride doesn’t do work; in this imagined situation, The Bride goes about regular chores procuring what she needs in her daily life;
• A bride receives, and receives only gifts; here, The Bride receives nothing, and indeed pays for everything from gas to groceries;
• A bride is seen, often, as at the pinnacle of one version of success; indeed, in cultures which prefer that women not work, a woman’s marriage is considered her job, the means through which she will live and support her family. Here, The Bride is presented as at no pinnacle; rather, she seems to have barely taken the time in her day to have stepped into wedding-mode and then clearly stepped out again; her bride-ness seems here to be only a passing part of the continuum of her day.

What response will the public give as they witness these ruptures, and which contexts will elicit the most reaction, which the least, which none?


Curious about this series of mental images, I wanted to make them happen. I began a search for a discarded wedding dress, one from a second-hand shop or abandoned at the dry-cleaners. I discovered a cache of five of them at a Salvation Army thrift store in Chicago. I chose the one that fit my model, the one the most archetypal—a long white satin dress with seed pearls and sequins, long puffed sleeves, covered buttons, and a long train and two-tiered veil. The fact that it was “used” seemed important, and not knowing its story was part of the allure of this dress. Putting it on was like putting on a narrative the specifics of which one could never access; the outline of its story seemed clear, but the details, in particular the reason for its presence at the Salvation Army, remained obscure and rich. This dress was to be in another narrative with an awareness of a probable first narrative, against which the “performance” of this new narrative would push.


Thinking of photo locations for the independent bride, would any ordinary site do? What public activities are the most ordinary? Waiting for a train; pumping gas; having lunch at a diner; stopping in at a local pub; taking the laundry to a laundromat; reading the paper at a coffee shop; shopping for groceries; getting money at an ATM; walking the dog. These ordinary public chores are mostly solitary tasks. Some of these are done alone for expediency, others to get some down time during an otherwise busy, populated day. But the bride is someone who is never alone, always surrounded, buffered, tended to. So her appearance alone, with the ordinary accoutrements of daily life, seemed jarring to my vision. But to begin the activity of “The Bride, Off Duty”. . .


As Kate dressed on the first of our photo days, we felt exhilarated, as if something very special was happening, and fell prey to the sensation of “special day.” We reached a working mode, however, when we both realized that the oddest aspect of this was that there was no groom, not even a stand-in for a groom, not another celebrant or formally attired partner at all. She really was a solitary bride. There was a lack; she was half of an equation, incomplete.


We got into my rusty pickup truck that winter Saturday, and drove around northwestern Chicago to the sites I had considered. But other situations, as well, appealed to us which I had not considered previously: Blockbuster, a funeral home, an abandoned church. Sometimes she carried something—a black leather jacket, a basket of laundry, a briefcase, a book. Everything she carried seemed odd, out of place—brides aren’t carriers, except of flowers. The briefcase made her seem costumed in a mocking way; a purse seemed poignant, like she was returned to normalcy for a moment because she forgot to buy something for the reception. The black leather jacket seemed more complex, as if a woman from one culture recognized the need to take on attributes and attend to a ritual from another culture. The basket of laundry seemed a collapsing of female duties—both to marry and to move into double domesticity, carrying twice the load. It was The Bride at the ATM machine that triggered for me a realization of my own inculcated presumptions: brides don’t need money, brides are coddled and cared for, treated like dolls, and supported like prizes, booty from some competition. Brides are the currency.


Some of the responses to The Bride on the street were ones we had anticipated. Two women asked The Bride to pose for pictures, “Stand right there. Oh, isn’t she lovely. Imagine seeing her here at the El Station….!” Several people asked tentatively, “Did she just get married?” looking around for the expected entourage or accompaniments to wedding rituals, and seeing none. But there were other responses we had not expected at all: men said more to us than women did. Men smiled and said, “Good luck!” and “How wonderful!” Some men said they wished they could find someone as lovely as The Bride; two men asked her to sit on their laps for photos. Several men responded spontaneously on the street with simply “Oh, wow!” The male response seemed surprising. But recently it was suggested to me that men were perhaps responding to the lack of a groom, implicated as part of the lack felt when confronted by The Bride Alone. Perhaps the male response was an outreach, an empathetic gesture, an effort to fill a perceived void in a simple way.


Women, at two different times over the course of our photographing, looked at The Bride with consternation. Each then said that she would never have worn a dress like that, and then moved on. We were surprised, thinking to ourselves that nobody critiques a bride in the usual wedding scenario. Clearly her abnormal presentation as someone alone and removed from the fairy tale that gave permission to respond in a correspondingly nontraditional way. The interjection of honesty into the arena of ceremony and queenly pretending brought home to us that this was not real. If the appearance of this bride on the street was a sort of proposition, then their rebuttal was clear displeasure, a non-acceptance.


Many people simply ignored The Bride. They seemed to respond not to her extraordinary-day attire, but to the ordinariness of the context. In the city, too much is going on to dwell on any one peculiar situation (provided it is non-threatening). Interestingly, Kate Harris, the model, expressed offense at one point when people treated her as ordinary—by not acknowledging her at all—while she was in the bridal gown. Yet, she admitted that if she were doing the same activities wearing ordinary attire, she would have been offended if people did not treat her as ordinary. Here, she expected the dress to speak.


The wedding dress partly represents the wearer’s adherence to societal norms, exhibiting a desire to make continuing connections over time between families and within cultural traditions. It is expected that the bride will always be seen with and among those that she belongs to as well as with those whom she is connecting. But here is a visual investigation or proposition of The Bride as Loner, the antithesis of she-who-joins-together, she-who-belongs. To some, that made this solitary bride seem funny; to others, invisible; and to some, it made her suspect. Dressed for a moment of connection, she is here alone and doing what is necessary to provide for her individual, daily, ordinary, perhaps unconnected life.

1 I thank Ed Epping for this observation.

web sites:

• McBride-Mellinger, Maria, The Wedding Dress; NY: Random House, 1993
• Monsarrat, Ann, And The Bride Wore…The Story of the White Wedding; NY: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1973

About the Artist: Peggy Diggs is an artist who does temporary public art projects about a variety of social issues; these have taken the form of billboards, subway posters, bar coasters and milk cartons, concerning issues such as domestic violence, teen heroes, elderly inner city women’s fears. Most recently she has taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and will be teaching at Williams College as of 2001-02.

About the Model: Kate Harris is an actress who has been producing and acting in Chicago since 1979. She is Artistic Director of Pyewacket Theatre Company, and co-founder of Bailiwick Repertory.

Published inIssue 2.2Issues
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