With the vows taken and the honeymoon over, most brides shake down their wedding dress, wrap it in acid-free tissue paper and pack it away, never to be seen again. But there is another option. A growing number of brave brides have chosen to throw caution to the wind and their big-day dresses to the elements. The idea behind Trash the Dress is simple – instead of letting your gown fester in the back of a cupboard, slip it back on for a photoshoot where it gets destroyed and you end up with some distinctive photographs that are a world away from traditional twee wedding portraits.
The man credited with starting the trend is John Michael Cooper, a Las Vegas photographer who has been taking what he calls “antibridal” pictures since 2000. “I just wanted to create some cool images,” says the man who has captured brides dirtying their dresses in burnt-down forests and disused buildings. “The aim was to apply ideas from fashion and cinema to wedding photography by putting brides in unusual locations. I had no idea it would be so popular.”
The pictures struck a chord with women all over the world, revealing the complex feelings they have about the wedding dress – after all the fuss, fittings and huge expense, you are left with an item you wear only once. The popularity of the Trash the Dress website suggests that it’s more than a passing fad. The site allows brides and photographers to post their images and, since its incarnation two years ago, has become a worldwide phenomenon.
Yvonne Barrett, a vivacious 33-year-old jewellery designer, married in November 2006 and trashed her dress on her husband’s farm in Norfolk. “My wedding photographer suggested it, and I thought it was a wonderful idea,” she says. “I had such a good time in the dress, I really wanted to put it on one last time. Before the wedding, I was so precious about my dress, and worried about getting a mark on it, but afterwards, it sort of lost its value. It did its job and I wasn’t sentimentally attached to it. My friends and family were shocked when I told them I was planning to wreck it, though. I think we all have this idea of the dress being sacred.”
Barrett walked though fields, petting cows and sheep, and ended the shoot by lying in a brook and completely submerging herself. “It was liberating and lots of fun,” she recalls. “After it was all over, I was quite prepared to do it again. We did the shoot on our farm, which was special. It is great to have pictures of me in my wedding dress where we live as man and wife.”
Galina Walls, who photographed Barrett, says a shoot is a fittingly dramatic way to say farewell to the gown you may have spent your life thinking about. “Brides spend a long time preparing for their wedding and, when it’s over, they want to extend the magic. It’s a way of saying goodbye,” she says. She adds that, “on the wedding day itself, you are so time-restricted, you have to grab photographs when you can, and the images are often quite generic. The dress can become a hindrance. People always say ‘Watch the dress’, or ‘Don’t stand on the dress’. This gives you the chance to relax and live in the dress, and that freedom makes for beautiful pictures”.
The Trash the Dress concept has attracted wider debate beyond an interest in the quirky images. Brides have said destroying the dress was a sign of commitment to their husbands, but some traditionalists see the act as showing disrespect for marriage. “People have said that it shows a disregard for your vows, but I think it’s just the opposite,” says the wedding photographer Ashley G Watts. “It shows you don’t plan on getting married again.”
Elizabeth Bright, a 24-year-old teacher from Essex, says her shoot allowed her to defy convention in a way she couldn’t on her wedding day, last August. “However individual you try to make your wedding, you are playing a traditional role,” she says. “These pictures were more of an expression of who I really am.” She climbed trees in her handmade, strapless ivory gown. “I had no regrets and no intention of saving the dress,” she says. “It got wet, muddy and frayed. My husband thought it was crazy, but loved the pictures – he said I looked so natural.”
Bright doesn’t agree with the argument that, if she didn’t want the dress, it should have gone to charity. “It was a personal thing,” she says. “The dress was made for me, and I wanted to be the only one to wear it.” She relates to the idea that the act of trashing the dress can be seen as a commitment to the marriage. “Weddings take so much planning, you can get caught up in the day itself and forget what comes afterwards,” she says. “This is like saying ‘Playtime is over, let’s get down to business’, then moving on to a new stage in your relationship.”
Cooper says he never expected people to interpret the images as a comment on modern marriage. “If there is any other meaning there, it is something that has come afterwards,” he says. “But it’s fantastic that people are now taking risks with wedding photography. Ten years ago, you couldn’t get a bride to walk on wet grass. Now they will roll around in mud for a great picture.” He laughs. “There has been a big change.”
HOW TO GET TRASHED
Slide down a big, twirly slide in a children’s playground.
Prostrate yourself in your favourite running brook.
Climb a photogenic tree and swing from the branches.
Get your new husband or, if you are feeling brave, the bridesmaids and pageboys to spray-paint your dress.
Run through a field of heather, mud, corn…
Get a sloppy DVD and a takeaway, then let the chardonnay do the work during a night on the sofa.
Do a skydive.
Take a roll in a hay barn or go horse-riding.
Go on all the rides at a country fête, especially the rotating swings, the Ferris wheel and the merry-go-round.
Hire a rowing boat and take a trip round a lake – the more submerged you get, the better the effect.
Ravneet Ahluwalia The Sunday Times