Not every woman will choose to wear a traditional wedding dress for a marriage ceremony.
But for those who do, the selection, designing and making of, and wearing of on the day is among the more stressful things you can do in a lifetime.
And for those women living in larger bodies – women who may have already experienced years of shaming and discrimination – the process can be doubly difficult.
These issues and more are addressed in Made to Measure, a new play by Alana Valentine drawing on interviews with designers, couturiers and plus-size women that explores body image and bias.
What Valentine discovered in her research is distilled into the characters of two fictional women: the soon-to-wed Ashleigh (played by Megan Wilding), and her dressmaker Monica (Tracy Mann).
“Ashleigh’s a big gal and has experienced a lot of the really negative stuff, already,” says Wilding. “Like being asked to leave dress shops and being generally rejected. Then she happens upon Monica, a designer who says yes, we can do it for you. The play is the journey they take together.
“They are completely different women. Ashleigh has all these insecurities and Monica just comes crashing through them, but by making the dress, they both learn something about what is possible.”
There are two male characters in the play, too, adds Wilding. There’s Bryce, the man Ashleigh is marrying, and there’s Scott. Both are played by Sam O’Sullivan.
Bryce is a “sweet and lovely guy,” explains Wilding.
Scott is anything but.
“He’s … not real,” Wilding adds. “Scott is a representation of Ashleigh’s inner thoughts. He’s that ruthless voice of doubt and shame, he’s manipulative … but he also has the face of the man she loves. So it’s pretty complicated.”
Some of the things Scott/Ashleigh says aren’t far removed from thoughts Wilding has had herself.
“Obviously, I’m a bigger woman and having Alana write those insecurities so articulately … It’s kind of overwhelming at first to live all that through a character like Ashleigh but you just have to go for it. It does hit me quite hard at times, though, when I think about how close this could be to my own narrative.”
Ashleigh’s inner voice represents the tug-of-war many larger-bodied people experience, Wilding adds. “You hear people say stuff like, ‘you’re going to die because of this’. Then you hear that you can be big and healthy.
“Ashleigh’s done all the research – into how fat cells work, into diet and exercise, genetics, sleep apnoea, thyroid and metabolism disorders … she’s looking for reasons, which is something that happens a lot. Ashleigh is super smart. I’m imagining she’s a Buzzfeed journalist, always questioning everything. It’s going to be really interesting to take people on that journey.”
Wilding is one of Sydney’s rising stars. A WAAPA graduate, she captured audience and critical attention with a small but rich comic turn in Belvoir’s production of The Rover. In 2017, she played the title role in Nakkiah Lui’s satire-cum-superhero story Blackie Blackie Brown at the Sydney Theatre Company.
The early weeks of Made to Measure rehearsals coincided with Wilding’s first play as a writer-director, A Little Piece of Ash at Kings Cross Theatre – in which she also performed.
“Things have been a bit crazy, lately,” she says. “But it’s been good to go from doing my own show to doing this – to come here and take that liberty I felt making my own work and bringing it to this has been really nice.”
“I’ve got this beautiful dress from Santina Collezione in Redfern,” says Wilding. “Honestly, I feel like Cate Blanchett in Lord of the Rings. But I only have about 90 seconds to get into it so there’s no time for high heels.
“But it was so interesting when I put it on for the first time. The effect that a wedding dress has on people … it’s weird. It’s a costume, right, but people are going, ‘oh my god, oh my god’ … like it’s really happening.”
Wilding hopes the play will spark conversation. “It’s a call for people to be more understanding and accepting. I think there will be a lot of people going, I know that woman, I recognise myself in that woman.”
As part of Seymour Centre’s premiere season of Made to Measure by Alana Valentine, Sydney Ideas is presenting a post-show panel talk Art, Science and the Obesity Epidemic on Tuesday May 21 exploring the role the arts has to play in investigating major public health issues.
The speakers include Alana Valentine, Professor Stephen Simpson (Academic Director of the Charles Perkins Centre) and dressmaker Santina Porpiglia.
Entry is free with a ticket to the performance.