At first, my mother was totally nonchalant. When I called one warm February afternoon to say I was getting married, I could almost hear her shrug. “You want me to hold the ladder?” she asked.
It’s a running joke in our family that elopement is the optimal way to get hitched. The fact is, though, that while I may have referred to it as “the Heather ceremony” rather than “the wedding,” I have been planning my nuptials since I first learned what tulle was. Even after I left my dress-up days behind and became the kind of person who was expected to scoff at women who dreamed of white powder-puff dresses, I still thought wearing petticoats and carrying a bouquet sounded pretty cool.
And besides, something strange happened last February. Aaron and I had been together, happily, for seven years when suddenly the idea of getting married seemed almost urgent. It became the most romantic thing we could do, a way of celebrating our most important accomplishment in life thus far— the fact that we had found each other.
So, when I told my mother, I got the ladder schtick. Then, about 25 minutes later, she called back.
She’d been busy those 25 minutes, calling her friend the wedding dress maker, her friend the florist, her friend the cake maker, and her friend the cantor. She had questions about guest lists, tablecloths and hairstyles. Opinions, too. “Do not wear a dress with a long hemline,” she said firmly. “You’ll trip on it when you dance.”
I knew that in my mother’s hands, I would be well taken care of. After all, irony of ironies, my mother is a wedding photographer. (I have often thought that it’s her very skepticism that makes her so good; she’s able to see through the icing-like sweetness of the wedding day straight to the actual story behind it, which is almost always richer.) As such, she had amassed an expertise that served us from the first day of planning until the last guest said goodbye at brunch the morning after. For some reason, it felt good to learn that her ladder talk was as flimsy as a piece of tulle. And I looked forward to her putting the camera aside for one wedding and playing the role of mother of the bride.
The crab feast
My mother suggested that a small event the day before the big event would be nice because most of our guests were from out of town. I thought an old-style Baltimore crab feast would be great. I pictured long tables wrapped in newspapers and our friends from California and New York wearing bibs and wielding mallets. Although at first Aaron and I worried that it was sucking too much money from the wedding itself, the crab feast ended up being one of the highlights of the weekend.
Music was provided by a bluegrass band made up mostly of family members. Sharing that music with friends from all different periods in my life was an unexpectedly moving experience. The party also turned out to be a terrific way for people to get to know each other. I am convinced the wedding would not have been so much fun if we hadn’t had a party the day before.
Makeup & hair
I knew that I wanted a professional makeup artist and that I wanted to give my bridesmaids the gift of being “done up” too. But by whom? I went to a consultation with a nice friend of my mom’s, but I left feeling that I hadn’t been able to communicate the look I wanted. In fact, I left feeling like Tammy Faye Baker. My mom suggested Janice Kinigopoulos, who does movie makeup as well as weddings. Mom thought Janice would have a hip approach. She did. Janice got immediately what I meant by Audrey Hepburn eyes, and she made my bridesmaids, all of whom I’ve known since we were kids, look more beautiful than I’d ever seen them.
For hair, I had Sue Ebert at Kumbyah. Besides being a hotshot wedding hairstylist, Sue has been friends with my mother since I was 12 years old. I met with her a month or so before the wedding and we talked about the look I wanted. In about 30 seconds, Sue came up with an idea that took my own a step farther. (That’s why she’s the professional, I guess.)
Secret: that beautiful bun of braids atop my head was actually created with two 18-inch swathes of synthetic hair purchased at a wig shop on 14th Street in Manhattan. At first I thought I’d fall over backward from the weight of the thing, but when I saw how it looked, I realized it was the best 40 bucks I ever spent.
The first part of getting ready was a blast. All my best girlfriends, gifts for each other, beautiful clothes, people to do our hair and makeup— what’s not to like? But I must confess, I was not a happy bride-to-be. As soon as I put my dress on, I was overcome with a sense of failure. None of it seemed good enough. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but it felt very real at the time. My bridesmaids were in the midst of getting dressed, and the bustle around me was grating. (The fact that my dress had 33 tiny buttons to do up, which it took five people and 30 minutes to complete, didn’t help matters.) Finally, mom took me into another room in the hotel where I could breathe and she could give me a pep talk. I recommend to any bride that she give herself some time alone—or with just Mom— before heading down the aisle.
When Aaron and I first decided to get married, I had a flash of what my bridesmaids should look like. I saw a riot of color, raw silk, bare shoulders. I wanted to go to Calypso, an overpriced shop in SoHo that specializes in brightly colored separates, but my friend Autumn— the fox on the left with blond hair, dragged me complaining to a little Tibetan shop around the corner. For a quarter of the price, we found beautiful outfits for the girls that included purple kerchief tops and Indian silk shawls.
My mother was originally going to wear something that went with the bridesmaids’ outfits, but at the last minute she unearthed a 1930s evening gown that my great-grandmother had smuggled out of Nazi Germany when she escaped to the United States. Black, with sequined bouquets at the hip and breast, the dress is gorgeous and fit my mother perfectly. It seemed right to bring this piece of history into the wedding.
Aaron’s suit, my dress
Aaron gets an idea about what he wants and nothing except that exact thing will do. He knew from the start his wedding suit wouldn’t be a tux. He wanted a sleek, ’60s-ish suit. Think James Bond meets the Rat Pack. After days of searching, we finally found it at Paul Smith, a London-based designer with a shop in New York. As for his groomsmen— his brother and first cousin and my brother— he wasn’t particular about what they wore. My brother simply does not wear ties, for example, and Aaron and I agreed that he looked quite cool in an open-necked green silk shirt and black suit jacket.
Oh, my dress— where to start? I could write poetry about my dress. I will never fully recover from the sorrow of knowing that wearing it was a one-shot deal. I have always been mesmerized by beautiful gowns, but I never thought I would actually own one. Fortunately, my mom’s good friend is Susan Khalje, a couture wedding dress and evening gown maker. I had all the fun of shopping for a wedding dress, all the while knowing my dress would be without compromises and without the hefty price tag. Instead, after I’d shopped around a bit, Susan and I met and discussed what I wanted and what kind of dress would suit me.
Much to my dismay, for example, I’d discovered that dresses with big skirts or ornate décolletage dwarfed my 5-foot self. Susan kindly explained that a simpler, sleeker dress would be more flattering. Together we designed a dress, conceived specifically for my body and my idea of beauty. It was a time-consuming process— I traveled from New York to Baltimore at least five times between February and July— but it was really fun to watch the dress come into being.
Those shoes I’m pointing at are a story in themselves. I’d bought a pair of sensible white pumps— as sensible as any white, high-heeled shoe can be, that is— and then made the mistake of wandering into the designer footwear department at Barneys. There they were, crying to me from across the room. Manolo Blahniks. I tried them on. I drooled. I left. I returned. Finally, after a salesman eased my mind with the tale of $1,200 crocodile loafers he’d bought in Paris, I bought the things. I’ll give them to my daughter, I told myself. Or be buried in them. As my shaking hands signed the credit card receipt, the kindly salesman patted me on the back. “Your first pair of Manolos?” he asked. “Don’t worry. It gets easier.”
I hope not.
We knew we wanted to get married in Baltimore, but we had no idea where. My first thought, The Cloisters, was already booked on our date, July 3. When I asked my mom about The Belvedere, she said we wouldn’t like it. This proved to be the one thing she was wrong about. Completely wrong.
Aaron and I swung by the hotel just in case, found The John Eager Howard Room open, and wandered in. We both fell for its old-time glamour and charm. “It looks like somewhere Jean Harlow would have hung out,” I told people. And when the tables were set and the flowers spread about, it was more beautiful than anything I could have imagined. And I have a pretty good imagination.
Ceremony and cantor
What kind of ceremony to have was a difficult choice for us. Aaron wanted a traditional Jewish wedding, but, not being religious myself, I was wary of doing anything that would make me feel hypocritical. Finding Jan Morrison, the cantor at Columbia Jewish Congregation, was one of the best things that happened to us during this whole process. We met with her and talked for hours. She helped us create a ceremony that paid homage both to our Jewish heritage and to who we are as people today.
We stuck to basically a traditional formula with a few modifications, such as circling each other at the beginning and both stomping on the glass at the end. Also, we decided to write our own vows. I was unsure about this idea at first— I didn’t want the ceremony to be so personal that I was embarrassed to be doing it in public— but it turned out to be beautiful. After Aaron read what he had written, I had an urge to turn to our friends and family and rip up my own words and say: “I don’t even need to read this, do I? I think that pretty clearly explains why I’m marrying this man.”
Jeff Conti and Patti Dallam have convinced me that there is an art, a genius even, to creating beautiful flower arrangements. I wanted romantic pink roses. Aaron only likes flowers that look like they came from outer space or at least the desert. Somehow, Jeff and Patti satisfied us both. The four of us spent an afternoon drinking tea and looking through flower books, Jeff shouting out suggestions and Patti making low-toned recommendations. I said I wanted the bridesmaids to look as if they’d just wandered in from some field, and the two nodded their heads as if this were the most natural request in the world. And my mom once again turned out to be right. Lots of flowers made the difference between a nice looking wedding and a beautiful one.
The dance music
The thought of a cheesy cover-band playing “Celebration” and making dumb comments in-between songs made us cringe. Our dream would have been to have a ’30s-style Latin big band for the first couple hours and then switch to a DJ playing dance music specifically chosen by us. When Aaron’s family offered to foot the bill for such an extravagance, we were thrilled. Until we learned that the band we liked, 11 members strong at its smallest, would violate The Belvedere’s policy of a five-piece band, max.
Reluctantly, we decided to go for just a DJ, much against the advice of my mother. She said a good band brings an energy to a party that can’t be beat. This is probably true, but for us it was more important to have the exact songs we wanted, not somebody else’s interpretation of top 40 hits. We made a bunch of CDs, and danced that night to everything from The Beastie Boys and Run D.M.C. to Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and Billy Bragg.
Our cake was made by a wonderful man named John Michael Hammock. My mom has always admired his work, and when we decided to get married she called him right up. Aaron and I visited him at his magical workshop in East Baltimore. There, we paged through pictures of cakes and fingered the little sugar flowers he’d created. (The man can make anything out of sugar paste, and, most important, make it look beautiful.) Together, by stacking different shaped pans, we designed a cake: simple, square and white with a lavender bow on top and little bunches of flowers running down the sides. It seems criminal that it existed for only one brief night.
Under our contract with The Belvedere, we had to use food provided by its in-house catering company, Truffles. We were anxious about this, but we need not have been. The food was excellent.
Josh, one of my oldest friends, is a total food snob. I saw him thank the chef when he went up for seconds. “I think overcooked fish is a crime against humanity,” Josh shouted. “So thank you, thank you, for not overcooking this tuna.” If we pleased Josh, we pleased everybody.
The party planner
I had never in a million years thought of having a party planner— it seemed like a luxury for rich old women with face-lifts— but, at my mother’s insistence, we met with Sherri Kronthal. I will listen to my mother for the rest of my life for this piece of advice alone.
Sherri helped us figure out our budget, our priorities, our timetable, and on and on and on. Most important, she was there the actual night of the wedding, making sure everything went as planned. It was because of her that Aaron and I could enjoy ourselves so much that night. We didn’t have to worry about when the cake was getting cut, or whether the waiters were pouring enough champagne, or when to take the floor for our first dance. If you can possibly afford it, hire a party planner— and pray that Sherri is available on your date.
Heather Chaplin, a graduate of The Park School and Sarah Lawrence College, is a staff writer for Fortune Small Business. Her work has appeared in Fortune, The New York Times, and Salon.
Cake, John Michael Hammock, 410-732-6266
Cantor, Jan Morrison, 410-730-4801
Coordinator, Sherri Kronthal, 410-486-2108
DJ, BandHouse Entertainment, 410-356-5510
Food, Truffles at The Belvedere, 410-332-1000
Food at rehearsal dinner, Crabs by Classic Crabs, 410-320-0552; salads, coffee, desert by Eddie’s of Roland Park, 410-323-3656
Flowers, Jeff Conti and Patti Dallam, Pinewood Farm, 410-877-7082
Flowers at rehearsal dinner, J.J. Cummings, 410-664-1100
Gown, Susan Khalje Bridal Couture, 410-592-5711
Hair, Sue Ebert, Kumbyah, 410-235-3663
Invitations, The Pleasure of Your Company, 410-821-6369
Makeup, Janice Kinigopoulos, 410-580-1500
Manicures, Donna Berryman, Studio 1612, 410-664-3800
Photographers, David Aitken and Howard Routt, June Chaplin, 410-235-3927
Tablecloths, Table Toppers, 410-769-9339
Tent for rehearsal party, Loane Bros. Inc., 410-366-8200
Video, Black Tie Video, 410-944-4707
Mom Weighs In
June Chaplin left her career as a free-lance fashion photographer and writer in 1988 to devote herself full-time to wedding and portrait photography.
According to her, there is one basic rule for having a great party: Hire professionals you like and trust, and make sure they know what you want from them. Unless you are used to throwing big parties, include a professional events coordinator or party planner.
Tips for the photography:
• Be sure that you love your photographer’s work.
• Make sure everyone who is to be photographed knows when and where they should be for formal pictures.
• Assign somebody to point out for the photographer the most important people at the party. Make a list of everyone the photographer needs to capture on film at least once. You’ll be amazed at who gets left out otherwise.
• Don’t imagine that the camera will magically fix things that aren’t right. If your roots are dark, they will photograph that way.
• Buy underwear that is appropriate for your dress, and be fitted while wearing it.
• Don’t gain or lose weight once the dress has been fitted! If you do, have another fitting.
• Do a trial run of hair and makeup and, if possible, be photographed beforehand (for, say, an engagement sitting) wearing the makeup. And yes, while wearing that white dress you will need more makeup than usual.
• Try your clothes on beforehand to make sure everything fits and that you have everything to complete your outfit.
• Time your haircut so it will look its best on your wedding day, and consider having a barber shave you that morning.