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The Ethics of Your Wedding Dress

May 19, AD 2013 10 Comments

You’re probably expecting me to say something about strapless dresses and not showing tethic dressoo much skin, but I’m not. Okay, I can’t resist so here’s my opinion on the subject: Don’t be trashy, The Dress is about your wedding day, not your wedding night.

With wedding season upon us, what I really want to talk to you about is a lot less fun than lace or tulle and the right neckline. I want to talk to you about slavery. The UN estimates that 2.5 million people are enslaved around the world today, and the FBI estimates 15,000-18,000 men, women, and children are trafficked into the US every year—that doesn’t include the slaves already here or those US citizens tricked, threatened, abused, or simply kidnapped into slavery each year. An awful lot of those people are funneled into sex trafficking, a $31.6 billion industry. I’m going to assume neither you nor your fiancé are complicit in the sex-trafficking business. If you are, go to Confession and then call the national anti-human trafficking hotline (888-3737-888) to report yourself. You sinner.

The kind of slavery most of us good Christian folk participate in is the kind you can’t see. It’s eating the food plucked and packed by slaves. It’s wearing the clothes made by slaves. It’s enjoying a nice bargain massage-and-manicure package, pampered by slaves. Two of the biggest offenders in modern day slavery? Restaurants and the fashion industry.

Now, my guess is that even if you don’t usually spend hours primping each day, you want to look gorgeous on your wedding day. My question is, do you really want to look down at your beautiful beaded bodice when you arrive at the altar and think, “Those sequined flowers are lovely, I wonder if they were put there by a terrified slave child?” Not the most romantic thought.

But aside from romance, why should you care? It’s not like you personally keep a child locked in the closet and fed on bread and water once a week to tailor your clothes (if you do, Confession and call the hotline above). You haven’t enslaved anybody. You aren’t guilty. Whoever stands over the slaves with a gun, or locks them in their barracks at night, that’s who is guilty. You know what that person, the one with the gun or the key, tells herself every night? She whispers to herself, “It’s not me who’s guilty, this is just my job. It’s my boss who demands this stuff be made super inexpensively. It’s those creeps who buy this stuff.” And the boss says, “I don’t care how this beauteous lace-and-silk gown is made, but it has to be cheap, otherwise I can’t sell it.” The slave herself says, “I must keep working or they’ll hurt my family, they’ll hurt me,” or she simply says, “Why?”

Let’s be clear: Everyone except the slave is guilty in this situation, the guard for enforcing slave labor (by wielding gun and key), the boss for requiring it (by demanding low-cost products), the consumer for supporting it (by desiring/purchasing low cost products). Remind you of another story? God says to Adam, “Why did you sin?” Adam says, “Eve did it!” Eve says, “The snake did it!” The snake is the guard, Eve is the boss, Adam is the consumer. Another term for “Original Sin” is Adam’s Sin. The consumer, the one at the end of the line, bears responsibility for modern day slavery. That’s not to say the consumer is the only guilty party, or even the most guilty party, but she is assuredly guilty.

So how do you ensure The Dress isn’t hand embroidered by slave labor? It’s actually not that difficult. Major wedding dress retailors in the US often have ethical sourcing policies like this one at David’s Bridal. You really have to watch out for slavery-sourced labor in online shops and little boutiques where the dresses you’re viewing are priced way lower than what you’ve seen elsewhere. Ask the manager where they source their dresses—if they’re not able to tell you exactly, don’t trust the store. Legit fashion designers are very proud of where and how their gowns are produced. If you’re budget-strapped, go green and shop resale boutiques like Goodwill or this little gem in Wilmington, DE; you’ll help out the local economy by generating cash flow amongst your neighbors, reuse clothes that already exist, and best of all glide down the aisle in vintage glam.

If you’re not quite ready for your own wedding dress, or if you’ve already worn one, you might check out this fantastic site dedicated to stopping human trafficking one fashionista at a time: Stop Traffick Fashion.

Under God’s Wing,
~Siobhan Benitez~

About the Author:

After growing up near Kennett Square, PA, the Mushroom Capitol of the World, Siobhan knew she would always live in a bustling capitol city. She earned a B.A. in Theology, History, and Classics at Mount St. Mary's University and an M.A. in Theology (specializing in Systematics) at Villanova University. Now she lives in Washington, D.C. with her wonderful husband where she is still getting used to living with a boy, right down to playing video games and watching football. When she's not hanging out with him or reading novels, she uses her spare time to earn a PhD in Moral Theology at the Catholic University of America.
  • Sarah

    Wow. I’ve never been so happy to have found my dress at David’s Bridal. I originally didn’t want to buy from them because it seemed so cliche… I wanted to be “that bride” who found some hidden, never-before-seen gem at some out of the way place. I ended up falling in love with an Oleg Cassini at DB. This post just confirmed the peace in my heart when I chose it in spite of it being at a major chain.

    • Siobhan Benitez

      Absolutely! Your dress should make you feel beautiful and holy and ready
      for the sacrament, whether it’s from a major chain or a hand-me-down
      from a cousin. Of course, it’s important to make sure that your dress
      honors the sacrament by being an example of holiness from all
      angles–from modesty to social justice

  • Tienne McKenzie

    Another great idea is to hire a seamstress. That’s what I did when the design I wanted was a Dior that was far out of our price range, plus you can change the sleeves and the neckline to suit modesty or style preferences. That way you have control of the manufacturing process (find a source for ethical fabric, of course) and you know your money is going straight to a small business owner. I love love love love love my wedding dress; it was everything I ever dreamed of.

    • Siobhan Benitez

      That’s a great idea, too! Usually there are several very talented
      seamstresses in any city or town, and dozens of wedding dress patterns
      available online and at fabric stores like JoAnn’s. This is also a great
      option if you do want sleeves on your dress, as a recent newly-wed, I
      know how difficult it can be to find a dress with sleeves. And if you
      are a talented seamstress yourself, why not make your own? I’ve used
      fabric from this USA organic-and-sustainable company:
      for a few projects and it’s always been an excellent quality. Not my
      wedding dress, though, I got that at the Resale Boutique linked above
      and it was absolutely exquisite.

  • oregon catholic

    I like everything about your message except the consession to buy from name designers. They do they’re own brand of harm to women and are not a good alternative. They are overpriced and the name designers are the most responsible for coming up with designs that only look good on scarecrows which contributes to unhealthy dieting, anorexia, drug abuse, harmful plastic surgery, and poor self esteem for those who still can’t make the weight/height goals set by the fashion industry.

    The designer shoe industry directly contributes to serious orthopedic injury and disability through the outrageous designs that squeeze the foot into unnatural shapes (remember the fashion slavery of foot binding in China anyone?) and have women tottering on stilts, risking fractures and spinal misalignment. Plus the recent platform shoe designs make women’s feet look like the feet of a classic half man, half goat satyr.

    By the rapid change in designs they also create the wasteful ‘need’ to buy new clothes and shoes every year among their enslaved. The designer fashion industry creates it’s own slaves, it’s just not the same slavery you point out.

    • Siobhan Benitez

      You are right that fashionable designers are very pricey (part of that does go to fair wages, though) and often glorify a body more angular (i.e., masculine or starved looking) than curvy (i.e., feminine or healthy looking), but if you *are* interested in the right neckline (like I mentioned at the beginning of this post) my guess is you’re not going to be wanting one of those Pnina Tornai monstrosities. Clothing ought to honor its wearer, not make her feel inadequate or physically alter her body. As for fashions changing—you’ll only ever need one wedding dress. I wouldn’t worry about keeping up with changing fashions.
      Support the styles and designers who support woman in all the beauty of her creation, not those who wish we look like boys.

      In my opinion, the absolute most ethical way to acquire your wedding gown, and probably the most sacramentally meaningful, is to wear your mom’s. My mom, though, got married in the ‘60s and even she never wanted to see that dress again. The next step up from that is to buy your dress used or borrow it from a friend or cousin.

    • Amy Frank

      I studied costume in university and we humans have had a long history of hurting ourselves for fashion sake. What about women breaking ribs so they could get the waist more tiny. I personally have to wear orthopedic shoes. That’s okay the doctor is going to get me an off white pair. I agree with you about the slavery of the fashion industry. I never follow them. Yes, and I had a friend who messed up her face keep getting plastic surgery. I am not a pretty lady but I love God with all my heart. And God has bought me the perfect man that loves me the way I am. I feel sorry for some ladies because so many of them actually hate themselves because they feel they are not good enough.

  • William P Murphy

    Why not have a small wedding and wear a dress you already own?

  • Amy Frank

    I am making my wedding dress. I found veil material for 99 cents and a satin like material for 2 dollars a yard. The dress will cost 8 dollars and I had some old crochet thread so I am making flowers, leaves etc to decorate it in crochet. I think I will have it ready by the time he proposes. I am making it modest as per Roman Catholic guidelines. Oh I had an old dress I found cheap at a store. It is the over dress to the satin like fabric. I’m having fun. And, keeping it cheap. I don’t like to waste money. It comes so hard for me. So even someone not wealthy can still have a special day.

  • Lilia

    Siobhan! Thank you for these beautifully written thoughts. Your explanation of the way guilt is distributed among the various actors involved in scenarios of unethical production is really lucid and helpful in thinking through why these kinds of problems are so entrenched 🙁

    One thing I wanted to add for anyone else who might be thinking through the ethics of selecting dresses for their wedding, or reflecting on a wedding they are involved in (since this post is rightly high up in search results for such questions!):

    Just because David’s Bridal or another outlet has an ethical sourcing policy does not mean their sourcing is ethical or that the policy is enforced. In the case of David’s Bridal, much of their sourcing happens in a repressive regime where workers have few rights and corporations who do business there tacitly understand that real oversight is not possible. Here is current information on problems with their sourcing:

    Unfortunately, these kinds of sourcing policies often serve more to produce the “peace in one’s heart” that OP Sarah mentions than to assist workers. That peaceful feeling in turn discourages us from investigating supply chains more deeply. So much injustice survives in the world today because it is expertly rendered invisible to consumers–so it is always important to do one’s own digging.