Last November, I was married at the grand old age of 43. By that point, Elizabeth Taylor had swanned down the aisle six times, including a re-run with Richard Burton. I finally understand why, now: once you’ve acquired 250 IKEA tealight holders, you want to get some use out of them.
Getting married later in life no longer raises the eyebrows it once did – the average age of 2017’s first-time bride is over 30 – but, as I soon found out, what it does raise is questions. Questions like guest lists: how to fit four decades’ worth of school, college and work friends plus extended family times two into one venue? Bridesmaids: is it fair to make your fortysomething best mate wear ASOS sequins next to your niece? And is it weird to throw the bouquet when the only single guests are your teenage stepdaughters?
I won’t pretend I hadn’t envisioned my own wedding over the years, but the vague prototype I had in my head was based around me being roughly 28. While it was my fiancé’s second time around, it was my first and I soon found myself stuck in a strange hinterland – too old for the cute Etsy boho nuptials in the magazines, but not quite ready for the sophisticated “me & him & margaritas #hotelbar #wed” grown-up do. I wanted the tradition – but not if it was going to make me look ridiculous.
I had no idea why I’d be surprised not to see a dewy-eyed ingénue gazing back at me from the mirror – but, illogically, I was. I was crushed
The dress was the first sobering indication that I’d have to rethink what those traditions should be. Encouraged by my kilt-wearing fiancé to find something “white and flowy”, I visited a chic London bridal shop, where the kind assistant wrangled me into the only dress that would do up. It was £3,500. I looked like the oldest milkmaid in town. I had no idea why I’d be surprised not to see a dewy-eyed ingénue gazing back at me from the mirror – but, illogically, I was. I was crushed.
My best friend, the voice of reason, stepped in. She demanded to know the last time I’d bought anything white (never) or strapless (also never). So, why was I starting now? She reminded me about my local dressmaker, the one whose last commission had been for a bride who wanted to ride to church. (The resulting gown included ivory stretch jodhpurs and involved a fitting with the bride’s horse – Jilly Cooper perfection.) “Go there,” she said, “and tell Carol you want to look like yourself on your wedding day, but fabulous.” So, I did. Carol measured me – in discreet silence – then hand-sewed a corseted masterpiece in oyster satin that made me look like Downton Abbey’s lost duchess.
After that, I ditched the wedding mags and made “our life, but fabulous” the inspiration. Food, wine and friends were far more important to us than wedding cars, veils, favours and videos, so we flipped the spreadsheet. Another advantage of being older is that you call the shots financially – and with an open bar and a cèilidh band instead of a posh venue, there were a lot of shots.
One tradition, though, stayed. It never occurred to me that my dad wouldn’t walk me down the aisle. Even though he’s 79, and last told me what to do in 1991 (“The handbrake! The handbrake!” – that was our first and last driving lesson together). Dad and I both knew the concept of a man handing over ownership of a woman of any age, let alone one as independent as me, was barking mad, yet it wasn’t really about that. I married in my old school priory, a place full of family memories, and as my dad and I walked down the aisle, my arm tucked in his, it felt as if we were blowing a last kiss to my childhood, to the father-daughter relationship that had grown into adulthood. It wasn’t just 43-year-old me he was escorting to the altar, it was the child he and Mum had loved, the hopes and dreams of their family being carried on, with me. He wasn’t giving me away – he was joining up our new families.
I guess the most romantic thing about my late-doors wedding is that, ultimately, we didn’t have to do it. My husband and I had our own houses, our own careers, our own worlds. In fact, there’s a good argument that if a woman’s reached her forties and carved out a comfortable life, she’d be crazy to give it up. But we wanted to make promises to each other in a place of trust, in front of people we loved and who loved us, in words that linked our lives to hundreds of thousands of other too-human hearts. At 43, I knew the full euphoria and agony of love – and that made my “our life, but fabulous” wedding day all the sweeter.
Where The Light Gets In by Lucy Dillon is published by Bantam Press