Communication Currents

“Trash the Dress”: Wedding Conventions and Resistance

October 1, 2012
Visual Communication

Photographers, heterosexual brides, and reporters relate “trash the dress,” or TTD post-wedding photography sessions, with changing the meanings of wedding cultures and representations of women. They associate TTD with resistance but this practice also conveys conventional ideas about women. In these TTD sessions, heterosexual brides interact with photographers and wear wedding dresses again while posing in unusual environments, rolling in ocean surf, and wiping dirt on themselves. Photographers regularly market these images as artistic, unconventional, and distinct from wedding photography in their promotional blogs, in Internet wedding forums, and in news reports. In these venues, TTD sessions are identified as representing bridal rage, facilitating resistance, and critiquing the constraining roles established by traditional weddings.

TTD is described as defiant and unconventional but this study, which focuses on photographers, shows how TTD also supports traditional notions of heterosexuality and femininity. For instance, the Trash the Dress! Internet sites offer a “gallery of extraordinary brides” whose alternative features are troubled by the ways women, most of whom are white, passively snuggle into the bodies of male partners and seductively pose so they can be admired. Women also actively trash dresses with mud and other fluids in ways that are antithetical to proper femininity. The claims from photographers, participants, and reporters that all TTD sessions politically transform wedding photography and women’s experiences are in need of critique. However, resistance, pleasure, and prestige are intertwined in this cultural activity so that neither complete control nor political resistance is an apt descriptor. All of this makes TTD a useful site from which to consider cultural uses of resistance and the diverse enactments of gender and sexuality that are part of wedding cultures.

Developing TTD Resistance 

The wedding photographer John Michael Cooper introduced the term “trash the dress” and associated sessions with resistance in 2006. Cooper posted an article entitled “Show Off! a.k.a. Trashing the Dress” to a wedding photography blog. In the essay, he describes meetings with wedding clients as an opportunity to “show off what you are best at” and “love,” which in his case includes depicting “the backs of flowers rather then the front,” “portraits down on the ground, in the dirt, mud, grass, trees, water, whatever,” because he loves “to trash the dress.” Cooper represents his aesthetic as oppositional to traditional photographic views and wedding dresses.

Cooper also describes resistant female clients. Cooper contacted three brides when trying to market the idea, “told them the dress would get dirty,” and had “3 flat turn downs.” He now tells women that this initial session “is not a real bride.” In doing this, Cooper suggests brides have missed being at the forefront of a photographic and cultural phenomenon, asserts his artistry, and encourages new wedding clients to dismiss the sentiments of women TTD resisters.

Cooper portrays the brides who refused his TTD proposal as uninformed, unwise, and child-like. Technology manufacturers and Internet sites also tend to represent women as unskilled and unwilling users and white men as employers of advanced equipment and computers. According to Cooper, brides misrecognize wedding rituals when indicating that they are “saving the dress” for a “daughter” even though most women “flatly refuse to wear their mothers dresses.” Cooper asserts that his idea was innovative and important because women now ask, “pretty please style” for sessions. Of course, photographers, brides, and reporters presently make TTD a significant, and thus conventional, aspect of contemporary weddings. Cooper’s articulation of his aesthetic as oppositional to women’s knowledge is a reminder that resistance is not only about trying to achieve social equality. Cooper and his clients constitute different forms of resistance.

The photographer Mark Eric helped create this TTD lineage by posting images from his session with Shana Strawcutter and turning Internet sites into promotional venues. Eric also identifies Cooper as the “Godfather” of TTD, assigns the phenomenon a patriarchal ancestry, and continues to masculinize photography. Otherwise, the large number of women TTD practitioners and feminization of this form could trouble cultural understandings of wedding photography and the gender identities of photographers. Cooper, Eric, and reporters avoid this feminization by asserting a series of binary gender distinctions—using women resisters and representations of TTD brides to articulate the masculinity of artistic identity. This is similar to how representations of women are used to associate art production and subjectivity with men.

Eric presents a few of Cooper’s images on his TTD sites. There is a representation of a woman in a wedding dress engulfed in flames, an extremely pale woman in a wedding dress immersed in blue-green cloudy water, and a bride in the trunk of a car. Even more than the usual gender hierarchy of associating male artists with activity and female models and representations with passivity, these images associate artists with life and brides with death. Eric and Cooper identify TTD as artistic and pleasurable but these early images are not positive model for women’s resistance or empowerment.

Bridal Rages and Resistance

TTD produces some version of the traditional narrative where women are virginal before the wedding. Brides are then initiated into womanhood and liberation by wedding night sex, or the metaphorical enactment of it, and enter a more fluid state. Brides reference less challenging versions of this fluidity when they step into the ocean but images of women in mud and algae covered lakes reference bodily excretions.

This TTD freedom does not extend to gay and lesbian visibility. There are very few representations of same sex couples. Photographers’ websites ordinarily equate TTD to heterosexual unions. In these cases, TTD continues rather than breaks from photography’s association with the traditional family.

Women also do TTD sessions with other women and resist the conventions of heterosexual unions. For instance, two light-skinned female participants are identified as “friends” but an intimate relationship is suggested by their visual coupling. The women sit in a pond, buoyant skirts mesh, and their playful touching is recorded in the muck on their faces, breasts, and torsos. Sara’s pictures from the day her “divorce was finalized” also challenge the marketing of TTD as a form of heterosexual commitment. In these photographs, which are part of the small TTD divorce genre, Sara appears in a wrecked home with bloody handprints all over her gown. She clutches a (beef) heart; screams; and seems to be destroying the union, its consumerist structures, and her ex-husband. Sara’s images of bridal rage exceed the visual functions of TTD because some viewers find them “almost too nightmarish” to “look at.”

TTD sessions point to the centrality of resistance in contemporary practices and the diverse ways these forms of defiance can situate participants. Since photographers market TTD to brides who are getting or recently married, their practices usually convey positive sentiments about participants’ marriages, although they can resist or reshape some aspects of wedding cultures. This points to the limits placed on resistance, and those who are accepted as resisters, when it is part of a marketing strategy. For instance, it is unlikely that Sara will be used as a stand-in for prospective TTD customers because her relationship did not work and she is celebrating her divorce. TTD can depict ruined dresses but it is more dangerous, and threatens photographers’ prospects, when it relates sessions to failed heterosexual relationships. 

About the author (s)

Michele White

Tulane University

Associate Professor