Mothers, Daughters, and Wedding Dresses: A Middle-Aged Bride Shops for “the One”

Editor’s Note: Meet our new real bride blogger Sandee, who will be sharing her journey via our blog. She also blogs on her personal website, 40-Something First Time Bride, and we highly encourage you to check out more information on Sandee’s engagement process!

By Real Bride Blogger Sandee McGlaun

SandeeI’m a forty-something first-time bride, and this is my story.

I don’t mean that to sound overly dramatic, because if there’s anything I’ve discovered in taking on the identity of “bride-to-be” in middle-age, it’s that I am actively anti-drama. Life is complicated enough, and after all these many years of waiting and wondering, now that I’m finally in love, engaged, and planning to marry in September, I want all things wedding to be simple, fun, and (relatively) stress-free.

As a forty-something bride, I know what I like, and I’m clear on what traditions and trends appeal (Dad walking me down the aisle, yes) and which aren’t for me (unity sand, no thanks). With so many years to dream, though, my desire for simplicity has occasionally run smack up against those more elaborate visions I concocted over the years of what this process would look like.

For example, more than once I’ve imagined the scene of going wedding dress shopping with my mom. I’ve always been close to my mother Margaret, a retired biology teacher with an artist’s eye and a grandma’s heart. She’s still my favorite shopping companion, and I’d long envisioned an elegant and exciting day filled with white tulle and happy tears. We’d dress up, shop multiple bridal boutiques, then share a lovely lunch and a cup of tea (or glass of wine) in a cozy café, laugh, cry, and generally bond ourselves silly.

That was the fantasy.  The reality looked a bit different.


First of all, between the time my fiancé Steve and I started talking rings and he put one on my finger, I found a Nicole Miller dress I loved and bought it on eBay at half the retail price. It was the practical, smart, and simple thing to do. But I couldn’t quite let go of the dream of dress shopping with my mom. So when she came to visit some months later, we decided to head to the bridal store. Our excursion wasn’t an empty exercise: I had some concerns about the fit of the Miller dress and wanted a back-up, and even if I kept it as I hoped, I still needed accessories.

dressshopping-13We planned to hit at least two shops. At the first store, Mom and I were stopped ten feet inside the front door by an elegant 60-something woman seated at a table. Dressed in a chic black suit, she asked if we wanted to just look around or try on.

“Um, look around to see if there’s anything we want to try on?” I said, thinking logic dictated that approach.

She noted we were free to look around all we wanted, but trying on required filling out a form. Wedding gowns were to the right, bridesmaids’ dresses to the left, veils in the back.

We perused the racks and found a few contenders for a back-up dress. I wasn’t crazy about the bridesmaid styles on the racks, and nothing appealed to Mom for mother-of-the-bride. As I held up a birdcage veil to my head—frowning at its excess frou-frou—two saleswomen drifted to the back of the store to watch us. Were they trying to figure out if we were serious shoppers, or worried we might steal something?

I suspected my age and lack of apparent bride-ness was confounding them, and I was right. When Mom and I returned to the check-in table, a twenty-something blonde sat there. “Can I help you ladies?” she asked.

“Yes, we’d like to try on some things,” I replied.

She looked at me skeptically. “What kinds of ‘things’?”

Suspicion and disdain had not been part of my fantasy shopping excursions. “Dresses,” I said. “Bridal gowns.” I reached for the form, resisting the urge to wave my ring under her nose.

“Oh, well, it may be two o’clock now before we have a stylist available,” she said. “We have another new bride who just came in.”

“Oh,” I said, glancing at Mom, who raised her eyebrows. This young woman didn’t seem too interested in selling us a dress. We decided to grab lunch and come back. As we exited, we overheard the older woman chide the blonde.dressshopping3

There were no cozy cafes nearby, so we ended up at a chain restaurant across the street. It was startlingly awful. The foyer stank of wet table-rag. Mom’s strawberry avocado salad had no avocado. My shrimp scampi not only lacked the fresh basil that made it so appealing on the menu, but it also came with…marinara sauce? Which, of course, I ended up wearing, then promptly turned into a big grease blotch when I tried to blot it out of my top. Mom and I were still laughing about what had to have been –the worst- dining out experience we’d ever shared when we returned to the bridal shop.

This time I got the full treatment: a bride bag filled with ads, coupons, and a Skinny Cow (ouch?) snack sample, and my name written on a big heart and stuck to a dressing room door. My stylist, “Mary,” began gathering the dresses I liked on a rack, while Mom settled into one of the chairs lined up, fashion-runway style, next to the mirrors, and readied her camera.

Almost all wedding dresses look lovely on the hanger, making it seem impossible to choose. But I figured out two things fast: how a dress feels when you try it on is just as important as how it looks, and taking pictures to see how it reads in photographs can help narrow your choices.

The first dress was a bomb. Partly because it was way too big and no amount of clipping could fix that, but also because its boat-neck and cap sleeves looked matronly. Next. The second gown featured the same ivory-over-champagne illusion lace as the first, but with a v-neck and fitted empire waistline, it was more me. Mom and I both liked a trumpet-silhouette gown with floral detailing and daisy-like flowers trailing down the skirt, but I was wary of its train. Something many brides may not know: dresses with trains don’t come ready-made to bustle, so you either have to trip over the extra fabric all night, or factor the alteration into your dress budget.

The most stunning dress I tried on was a Gatsby-inspired mermaid gown with lots of beading—but it weighed something like 15 pounds. That didn’t sound fun to haul around for a four-hour reception. I also liked a simple ruched mermaid gown neither Mom nor Mary seemed wild about, but in photos, it was one of the most flattering.

dressshopping-11It was a strange day in many ways. Though I’d looked forward to shopping with Mom, I spent as much or more time in the dressing room with the stylist, joking about the upper body strength it required to wrestle women in and out of 15 pound dresses all day. I felt like a princess in the Gatsby dress, but a pudge in the shapewear, which I swear added a good ¼ to ½ inch of bulk (though it did give me bigger boobs.) Lunch was a travesty, and after just one bridal shop, Mom and I were both so exhausted, we elected to call it a day.

As far as veils went, at least, the day was a success. I’d briefly considered a cathedral veil for the flow factor, but when I put one on, it made me feel too…catholic. A birdcage veil was better suited to my age, my style, and—as my mother reminded me—my love of vintage hats.


Before we’d embarked on our shopping excursion, I’d modeled the eBay-purchased Nicole Miller dress hanging in my closet at home. When I was ready, I called to Mom, and she came up the stairs and stopped to gaze at me from the room’s doorway.

“Ohhhh,” she said, framing her face with her hands, “It’s beautiful, you look beautiful. I think I’m going to cry!”

She choked up, and I choked up, and then we hugged each other tight.

And though our shopping trip, even with all its wacky surprises, was memorable and fun, this I now understand: if we’d stopped right then and there and held that moment as close as we hugged each other, it would have been more than enough.


About Sandee:

Sandee McGlaun chronicles the adventures of marrying at mid-life on her blog She directs the Writing Center and teaches at Roanoke College in Salem. When not writing, teaching, or planning her wedding, she enjoys puttering in the craft room, hiking through the woods, and checking out the local music scene with fiancé Steve. She likes to dispel stereotypes and thus looks forward to becoming a married crazy cat lady.


  1. Hmm
    So genuine and nice article.. I enjoyed it..

  2. Hallie Stanley says:

    I loved your article and wish you the best of luck. I am a 50 something year old first time bride in Roanoke with an early fall wedding date. Boy, I can relate to a lot of your experiences. Unfortunately, my mother is older and unable to accompany me on shopping trips which is just as well as my experiences have not been good. I went to two bridal stores today and the treatment I got bordered on rude. They looked at my overweight, 51 year old body and had me out their door in five minutes. “Sorry, it’s too late to order and we don’t really have anything suitable.” One actually told me that I would be better off having a dress made for me as there really wasn’t a dress currently out there that would be anything close to what I was looking for. I asked if they knew of anyone who was making wedding dresses in Roanoke as I am open to any option. What I was told was that there was someone in downtown Roanoke, but they didn’t know her name. When I mentioned (in both locations) that I was looking for a venue for a small family reception or a venue where I could have both the wedding and reception, they just shook their heads no. I guess if it is not a large wedding no one wants to bother with it. It has been one of the most depressing and degrading days I have had in many years. If anyone out there who reads this has any suggestions, please pass them on.


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