Every bride wants to feel beautiful on her wedding day, but finding the perfect dress isn't easy.
Julie McMillian, who has muscular dystrophy, knows this all too well. She's used a wheelchair to navigate our ableist world since age 11.
Recently, the 24 year-old bride-to-be took us shopping as she looked for her dream gown — long train, veil included — and showed us exactly what it's like to shop for a wedding dress when you use a wheelchair.
Before we started shopping, Julie talked about the surprising response a lot of people have had to her upcoming wedding. "I don’t think people associate a typical life event like a wedding with someone who is atypical."
"If I introduce my fiancé to someone... they’ll say, 'Oh my gosh.' And at first I thought, 'Oh everyone’s so happy for me because I’m so happy to be engaged,' and then I noticed it’s because they’re almost shocked that someone in a chair is engaged. And I think it’s one of those things that someone who's a 'normal person' does, and that someone who is ‘not normal’ doing it... is kind of weird in general. And it shouldn’t be, but that’s people’s mentality a lot [of the time]."
This limited, ableist mentality filtered all the way down to the way the dresses were designed. Right away, Julie noticed that very few bridal gowns would work both standing and sitting — essential for a bride in a wheelchair.
There's a vast difference between the way a dress looks on a body standing up and the way it looks sitting down. Julie would often see a dress she liked on the rack, only to realize it was a no-go. "In my head, my first thought was, ‘Oh this is going to look great on me,’" she said. "And then about five seconds later, it’s 'Is it actually going to look good in my case?'"
Like most brides, McMillian did her internet research before her bridal appointment — only to realize that the options for brides in wheechairs are severely limited. "There were a couple I had looked at... they were beautiful, and I know they would’ve been pretty on someone standing. But they had a long bodice, and when you’re sitting down, everything is smooshed. So I had to go with something with a short bodice."
There was also the issue of comfort — something of particular importance to Julie because she'll be sitting down most of the time during her wedding.
Brides often expect that wedding dresses will be a little uncomfortable — but when you use a wheelchair, even small comfort issues can become deal-breakers. "I know when I watch the wedding dress shows, the [brides] are always like, ‘It has to be comfy enough for me to get up and dance on the dance floor.’ And I’m like, it has to be comfy for me to sit in my chair!" said Julie.
The long, bust-to-hip boned bodices so popular in wedding dresses today were, once again, impossible for Julie to wear. "My stomach and back will hurt because I'm sitting all day," she said. "So when something is sucking in my gut a lot, it already hurts, and since I'm sitting down, that's amplified."
Julie did manage to find a dress without the uncomfortable bust-to-hip boning — but it limited her already-limited selection. "There’s boning in pretty much all of the dresses," she said. "I needed it nowhere in the stomach area, or where your body is bent when you’re sitting."
Though the mainstream wedding industry almost totally ignores them, there are PLENTY of women in wheelchairs killing it in gowns on their big day. But all wheelchairs aren't the same — and all women who use wheelchairs aren't the same, either.
While doing her research online, McMillian found plenty of women who wore wedding dresses in their chairs. But many opted for shorter gowns — which Julie wasn't into. "A lot of the girls went less traditional and wore shorter dresses so it wouldn’t get caught in their chair. But I wanted a long dress and the pretty train," said Julie.
There are also the practical aspects to consider because wheelchairs are all really different. "A lot of the girls used manual chairs, so they could get away with a lot more than I can," she said. "My power chair is more industrial, and so you have to think about, 'Oh, the dress could get caught in this.'"
McMillian thinks the stigma toward the disabled community is why there aren't many wedding gowns designed for them.
Although there are day-to-day clothing lines that were created to accommodate those in wheelchairs, there are NO specific bridal lines. McMillian has strong opinions about that.
The issue as she sees it is that designers NEVER think about disabled people. They don't think about the specific challenges that they face, so they don't have to change their dress designs to accommodate them.
"I don’t think people associate marriage with people with disabilities," Julie said. "And so I think people are like, 'Oh they won’t need that anyway.' But if you Google 'brides in wheelchairs,' there’s tons!"
Julie also added that, as a woman who wears a size 14, her options were limited even further by bridal brands that don't make dresses larger than a size eight.
When going to the dressing room, Julie saw several nice wedding dresses in smaller sizes — only to be told that they didn't come in her size.
"Going from the size 16 dresses back to the dressing area, you see all the dresses in smaller sizes. And I was thinking, 'I wish this one that was in a size four would’ve been in my size too, because it’s pretty. And it’s not like it would only look good on a small person.' I don’t know why they only offered it in the small sizes, but all right."
Additionally, actually *trying on* the dresses was incredibly difficult, owing to how massive each dress was. McMillian needed to be assisted by three of her family and friends.
Two people would lift McMillian up while the third would help put the dress on her. However she could only stay up for seconds at a time, which posed a challenge when trying on cumbersome wedding gowns with restrictive bodices and lots of layers.
This is an issue that Julie is familiar with. "Even a normal dress from Target with a slip underneath I have trouble with," she said. "Those [gowns] had the three of us just trying to get them on. And it took several pick ups and sit downs and pick ups."
Overall, Julie found the experience of even trying on wedding dresses very difficult. Nothing about the experience was easy for her as a woman who uses a wheelchair.
The difficulty she had getting into the dresses further limited the options she had. She later told me, "The ones that were the hardest were the ones that I thought I’d actually like. They were the ones that had a big tulle bottom, but they also had so many under-slippy things. Those were so difficult that I didn’t even want to try putting them on."
Like many brides, McMillian was on a budget — but quality was still important.
Every bride deserves to have exactly the outfit they want on their wedding day — not just able-bodied ones, or women who can afford to spend a lot of money.
"Even though we’re doing it so small," she started, "I still wanted it to look nice, and the dress, it’s the only time you can wear it. We’re going straight from the wedding to our honeymoon, and the reason why is because I want to continue wearing my dress for as long as possible!"
Unfortunately, McMillian's dream dress didn't work — it was already above her budget, and the additional alterations required to make it wheelchair-friendly would cost far too much.
They say that when you find your perfect dress, you know. "After I tried it on for the second time I thought, 'Oh, this is it. I don’t even care [that] it’s $500 above my limit,'" said Julie.
But the dress required alterations — and the seamstress had bad news. "She looked at the keyhole back, and it would’ve been a lot harder to alter because it’s made of lace. Because I’m sitting down, I couldn’t pull the dress down as far as it needed to go. And she would’ve had to alter it so much. It would’ve been almost $200 worth of alterations."
"The dress itself was already above my price limit," McMillian said. "I had to think, the train is beautiful, it’s long, it’s what I’d envisioned, but physically I can’t do it because it would’ve gotten caught in my chair."
McMillian hopes that designers — and retailers — realize that brides of all sizes, budgets, and abilities deserve their dream wedding gown.
"The one thing I said I wanted is the one thing I’ve been looking at my entire life, and that's the wedding dress of my dreams," McMillian said. "I hope designers take their creativity to the next level and consider the fact that brides in wheelchairs, with limited budgets, and of all sizes want to look beautiful, too."
Although she eventually found a great gown that she's excited to wear, other brides shouldn't have to go through the kind of arduous journey Julie experienced to find theirs.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.