A Wedding Dress Is Just a Dress
My mother slipped it on for an afternoon, trying on a new role for size
It’s July, and I’m in the south of Turkey, riding through the sleepy coastal town of Taşucu in my dad’s ancient car, windows rolled down all the way, Dad at the wheel. It is hot. Super hot.
The dashboard display reads 35 degrees Celsius, but it feels worse than that. It feels, as Dad says, like we’re being broiled in an oven because the heat here isn’t dry like it is in Ankara, where he and my stepmom live part of the year. Here, it is humid, the air oppressive, and the air conditioning in the car doesn’t work properly. It hasn’t worked properly in well over a decade, not since Mom died in the desert one morning, and we had to cargo her corpse back to Turkey.
More about the car. It is forest green, a seven-series BMW with a tan, leather interior, which sounds lovely until you realize the thing about the AC. Also, if you stick your head under the lid of the trunk and let go, it will come down, like a forest green, leaden guillotine, and sever your head from the rest of you. The car rattles constantly and has trouble accelerating.
So. Windows open, hot air blowing inside, Dad is driving me to the Silifke Museum, a four-room building that was once a school, and is now a place of ancient figurines and busts, Hellenistic ceramics, old coins, jewelry, some weapons from the Byzantine era, from the Romans.
The way to the museum is to drive in from the shore, past the mill where Dad buys his daily bread, past the liquor store, the grocery shops one, two, three, and a sharp right turn into the parking lot where a government-appointed official sits by the door, fanning herself with a folded-up newspaper.
Tickets are five lira a pop, and after money exchanges hands, the guard leaves her post and walks us in herself, flicking on the overhead lights, the air. “There’s an upstairs, too,” she says. “That’s where the dresses are.”
It’s hard to picture dresses on display in a place like this, among amputated Greek gods and statues of lions in repose, but the dresses are there, as promised. Wedding dresses. They are red and purple and blue, painstakingly embroidered by hand, with gold and silver thread. They are each 100-plus years old, harvested from villages that dot the Mediterranean shore, collected from families that live more inland.
Dad and I stand in front of a display: mannequins in wedding dresses, frozen into poses of domesticity.
None of the dresses are white. The first white wedding dress doesn’t show up in Turkey until 1898, when Naime, daughter of Sultan Abdülhamid II, marries Kemalettin Pasha. Naime’s a trendsetter, but white wedding gowns don’t catch on until much later: until the Ottoman Empire collapses, and a new, secular Turkish republic takes its place. That’s when wedding clothes change in silhouette and shade; when the veil is banned; when women gain the right to hold office, to vote. In the general Turkish elections of 1935, the first in which women can vote and run for national office, 18 female MPs join parliament. At the time, many women across Europe still lack voting rights.
But the wedding dresses Dad and I are looking at belonged to women who came long before all that, to women who could not vote, who did not participate at all in public life. They date back to a time when women mostly stayed home, tended to children, to their elders. They cooked a lot. Theirs was a calculated, Islamic performance of femininity that depended on their roles as daughter, wife, mother; that hinged on the deeply held belief that what a woman wore determined, in some core way, her morality.
The air conditioner in the room lets out a dying clank and a few weak puffs of air. A guard in a blue uniform walks over, taps the hard plastic of its frame. He unhooks a small flashlight from his belt, peers into the machine. Dad and I stand in front of a display: mannequins in wedding dresses, frozen into poses of domesticity. One is bent over a copper tea kettle. Another’s hands have been welded to a rolling pin.
“Take a picture,” Dad says. “You’re allowed to.”
The flash doesn’t go off. I see myself reflected in the glass of the display, like a ghost in a red sundress and flip-flops, haunting the women unaware.
“I wish Mom had one of those,” I say.
“Had a kaftan?”
“I wish we saved more of her things.”
My mother was conceived accidentally, 12 or 13 years after her two sisters, 20 after her pair of brothers. They grew up in Konya, the home of Sufi mystics and poets, the city you’ll find Rumi buried six feet under. Mom wasn’t expected to go to college, not really. Her sisters barely finished high school before they were married off in their gowns: white, made on a Singer machine.
Sometimes things change, but it’s not what you hope will change. Sometimes the change stays on the surface. Sometimes a new republic is birthed, but the women, the girls, still cling to the known, don’t venture outside their kitchens, practice being small in all the same ways.
My parents didn’t have a wedding, but people still came to watch them sign papers: 150 friends, family crammed into a government office overlooking a theme park in Ankara. Mom borrowed a wedding gown from a secretary in her department. By then she was an engineer, the first one in her family, the first academic, first chemist.
She was 31 when she married. Ancient. A spinster. Her family despaired, but Mom didn’t care. “I like my work,” she told them. “My work is enough.” She told them this again and again until they eventually stopped asking; until the day she saw my dad across a room, and stared at him, stunned, frozen for several moments.
“What’s the matter?” her friend asked.
“I don’t know,” Mom said.
“But I thought you only wanted to work. I thought you didn’t believe in men.”
“I thought so too.”
She told her friend she would marry this man, whoever he was. She said this in January. In March, Dad approached my mother while waiting for a bus, started chatting, missed his stop, missed all the stops. He wanted to ask her about forever that same night; that’s how he tells me the story. It was so strong, he says.
Mom had the secretary’s gown altered, fitted around the breasts, tucked in at the waist. She didn’t carry a bouquet. Her roommate was maid of honor. They did their own makeup.
My parents emigrated to Australia a month later, making my mom the first in her family to leave the country, to cross borders in a plane. At the University of Queensland, she was the first woman of color to earn a Ph.D. in engineering, the first Muslim woman, the first Turk. She was the only one in her immediate family to learn English, to live abroad; the only woman to work outside the home.
Dad takes a picture of me now, in front of the museum display. I don’t know why he does this. I don’t know why we’re here. My stepmother ushered us out of the house in the morning. She wishes Dad and I would talk to each other more, but it has always been this way. We have lived our lives sitting at the same tables, sleeping in the same houses, thinking things that will never be said. It has always been this way, and it is okay.
Dad takes another picture on his phone. “We didn’t save her things because things don’t matter. The dress doesn’t matter, Hilal,” he says, which I already know to be true. It isn’t the dress that determines how things will end up, where they will go. A dress is not an omen, a metaphor, not an indicator of liberation or character. It isn’t a sign. A dress is just a dress, and my mother borrowed one for a while that June day, many years ago, slipping it on for an afternoon, trying on a new role for size, like putting on a coat.
“So what do you want to do?” Dad asks, when it’s been quiet too long.
“There’s gelato down the street,” he says. “Melon gelato.”
I’ve never had melon gelato before. We step outside, into the unfiltered sunlight, heat shimmering, the concrete cracked underneath us. He looks into my face and I see his old, glossy eyes, sunk at the ends, magnified behind his glasses, the frames steel. We stand like that for a moment, until I break the silence.
“I love you.”
I did not know I was going to say that, and am amazed I have. His face brightens. He takes my hand. “When your mother died,” he starts to say.
“Let’s talk about something else,” I tell him. But we don’t talk about anything else. We just walk together. We walk, hand in hand, leaving behind the museum. We walk until the past begins to melt away, and it feels like we can go back out into the world once again.