Do you remember the Bridal Boutique in the old mall? That renowned wedding parlor, furnished in cream and maroon, behind discrete gold curtains? With the photographs of brides and wedding groups in exotic locations. The rows of dresses along the walls. The mannequins posing in spotlit corners.
I vividly recall madame le noces le mariage. A tall woman on the far side of forty, her height enhanced by a beehive hairdo and high heels. Her long shiny earrings, the dress rings on her long fingers. She wears mascara, red lipstick, a long dress always, and black stockings. She speaks in a deep contralto, an engaging and perceptive woman.
Her brides come from farming communities in the Boland, areas producing the cash crops of table grapes, export fruits, wheat, wine, and maize. The same families have cultivated the magnificent farms in these mountains and valleys for generations.
Some brides arrive with photographs of a wedding dress, cut from a magazine and kept folded in a diary or bible for years. These are their father’s daughters, groomed in the best schools in Paarl, Bloemfontein, Potchefstroom and Cape Town. Rolls of cash from father’s back pockets ensure nothing is spared to provide the best wedding for mother and daughter.
These brides are expected to marry for life, and promising young men from other farming families are preferred. Behind closed doors, many of these weddings, given the wealth of the farming estates involved, are family contracts negotiated between dynasties.
In a rear area back room, six busy seamstresses bring the designs to life. The dresses, bridesmaids’ outfits and men’s waistcoats are created from satin, charmeuse, chiffon, organza and tulle. The lace is guipure, Chantilly and Lyon, imported from Europe and the east. Fabric buttons and clasps come from Thailand.
The first fitting is a moment of truth, a rite of passage where the prospective bride first realises that the fairy tale has suddenly become real. She will be leaving the protective world of the family home to embark on a new life with a new person, to manage her own household. The proprietor is expert in soothing the doubts and fears of tearful brides, creating word pictures of the wonderful life ahead.
In the season she often has five or six weddings to supervise on a Saturday and will travel hundreds of kilometres in her small van, to dress the brides and bridesmaids.
After twenty successful years, she is one of the wealthiest businesswomen in her community. She shares a modest townhouse in Brackenfell with her husband, pensioned off after an industrial accident and not mobile. There are no children. Their social life revolves around family and she is too tired for church on Sundays.
She sometimes dreams of travelling on a cruise ship, or staying in a fine hotel, or going to the opera, but who would care for her husband? She doesn’t have a close friend to travel with her, and the family would not approve of her travelling alone.
Instead she buys pebbles. Diamonds, emeralds, ruby, saffire, and turquoise. In her favourite settings of pave, halo, bezel and gypsy. From jewellers and pawnbrokers around the city, and usually for cash.
At night, while her husband is asleep, she takes the velvet display trays from the safe. She selects a dozen rings and places them on the fingers of each hand. She gently turns her hands from side to side to see the pebbles sparkle in the moonlight.