Buying 5 Wedding Dresses in 5 Days: My Search Through India for the Ones

"This isn’t Say Yes to the Dress. It’s The Amazing Race: Wedding Edition."

Updated 03/03/19

The bride showing off one of her runner-up options. Photo courtesy of Neha Prakash.

I yank my mom from the street as two-wheelers whip past us. My aunt hurries in front, expertly sidestepping potholes and maneuvering between girls eating chaat from street carts. She’s rushing us down a steep staircase into an alleyway on Commercial Street in Bangalore, India, that’s overflowing with seamstresses sitting cross-legged on the floor, painstakingly embroidering jewels onto sari blouses. We need to catch the tailor to give him my measurements for a maroon blouse I’ll need for one of many wedding functions.

When we discover he hasn’t returned, my aunt tells me to flip through the bangles—there’s not a moment to waste. She’ll corner him when he arrives, all but demanding he does a rush order so I can have a fitting a day and a half later, before I return home to Manhattan.

This isn’t Say Yes to the Dress. It’s The Amazing Race: Wedding Edition.

The mission was five outfits in five days—finding the perfect looks for my late June wedding in Italy. It’s a daunting task for any bride-to-be, but an even more challenging one because many South Asian weddings don’t have a rule book on bridal attire. They’re unique to each bride’s tastes, fashion sense, and familial traditions. For me, that meant shy of white and black, the entire color spectrum was available to choose from. I defined my shopping list as follows: a frothy confection for a lakeside welcome dinner, a festive Indo-Western gown for the Sangeet (something that would let me dance freely), a traditional sari for a pre-wedding puja, a timeless lehenga for our Hindu nuptials, and finally, a showstopping outfit for our luxe reception.

So in November, my parents, my fiancé, and I set off on our journey to Delhi, with a stop in Milan for catering tastings and design meetings. But then our happy excursion hit a roadblock: Before boarding the seven-hour flight, we learned my fiancé was denied his visa to India; despite being born and raised in the U.S., his Pakistani roots meant the Indian government could say no to his return. So while our families had accepted our unlikely courtship—it’s still not widely accepted (and often discouraged, even taboo) for Pakistanis and Indians to wed or for Hindus and Muslims to be together—there were still plenty of geopolitical differences to overcome. It meant he wouldn’t be there to provide the hugs and moral support that would be needed when planning jitters met jet lag.

Still, the search for my dresses proceeded as many brides’ do. For months prior, I had scrolled Instagram, studied Bollywood stars’ designer wear, and read magazines about South Asian bridal trends. But my shopping would not be done in pristine bridal salons filled with white lace and glasses of champagne. Instead, we would scour two cities and innumerable shops—from designer boutiques in Delhi, to famed hole-in-the-wall stores flooded with ornate lehengas, to bustling sari emporiums where clerks ripped vibrant fabrics from shelves and lay them before us as we sipped chai and nimbu pani. I washed my feet in the evenings from a bucket, rubbing the dirt of nonstop shopping from them. Ubers careened through chaotic traffic in cities where we felt equally at home and like tourists: Despite being born in India and frequent summer vacations to Bangalore, for all intents and purposes, I’m an American.

I also didn’t limit my shopping entourage. For South Asian brides, wedding shopping is a full-blown family affair. Countless aunts, uncles, and cousins, along with my parents, had a hand, big or small, in finding the clothes I would wear for our seven events over three days. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. Before I got to Delhi, for example, a cousin organized a list of designers, shops, and areas to explore. Another one curated Pinterest boards of wedding inspo for me. Those less sartorially inclined fed us: Aunts whipped up my favorite childhood dishes—idlis and rotis and jamuns—and later, others selflessly lugged my 20-pound outfits back to the U.S. to save us expensive international shipping fees.

Technology added another layer to all of it. I WhatsApped my fiancé at 3 a.m.: “Measure the circumference of your head for a turban!” When I ran out of time to look for my reception dress, a male cousin sped to shops across town, sending snaps of options. The next day, that same cousin flipped between two phones, haggling with a tailor on one (it’s not India if we don’t haggle) while giving the printer edits for the invitations on the other. One evening, I woke my older sister, in New York City and eight months pregnant, at 4 a.m. for help choosing the dress: either a vermilion-hued one, traditional, and elegant, or a pale green dress that reminded me of the glamour of Jaipur. After 45 minutes of weighing pros and cons—a scene familiar to any bride, anywhere in the world—she made the call: The green one is “unique and memorable; it’s you.” It sealed the deal. I couldn’t have imagined that moment without her. She had taken me shopping for my prom dress, chastised me for stealing her sweaters as a teen, advised me on my outfit for my first job interview...and time zones away, helped me say yes to the dress.

Yet certain moments are best experienced in person. For many first- or second-generation South Asian brides, returning “home” to shop has little to do with cost or access and more to do with tradition and bonding, a point well proven when my mom shepherded me into a store to purchase my first Mysore silk sari—a piece of fabric that’s native to our hometown and symbolizes our South Indian roots. I chose a turmeric hue that my mom says my late grandmother often wore. Online shopping can’t compete with a moment like that.

The bride's mother on her wedding day. Photo courtesy of Neha Prakash.

I was awestruck by the effort my family put forth, but I wasn’t surprised.

It harks back to the ideals at the heart of being Indian: hospitality, putting family first, and celebrating the good things in life—food, love, marriage. It dawned on me that it was Thanksgiving in the U.S., and I was never more appreciative for everything I have.

Days after I returned to New York, my fiancé left for Pakistan with his parents. He learned that his family has a tradition of passing down his grandfather’s sherwani from son to uncle to nephew—and soon, it would be his turn to don the gold fabric from 1951. A different culture, a different religion, and a different tradition, but one that will become part of the thread of my family.

He texted me at 3 a.m. one night: “Can you measure your shoulders quickly? My mom is buying you an outfit for the nikah.” Perhaps our families aren’t so different after all.

This story originally appeared in the April/May 2019 issue of Brides, on sale beginning February 26.

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