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HE PROPOSED. I SAID YES. AND THE search was on to find a wedding dress that suited my mother, my budget, my figure and me . . . in that order.

Juvenile is the word that describes how I felt the first time I tried on one of those frothy, swishy concoctions known as a traditional wedding dress. Fat is another description. I didn't feel like a princess, I felt like someone caught under a futon mattress, and I felt exactly the same after trying on dress number 20.

How would I walk with 4 feet of moire taffeta dragging behind me? How could I sit with 18 yards of stiff netting bunched under my skirt? And most importantly, would my groom be able to bridge the distance between us so we could share that all-important "I do" kiss?

It's not easy finding the most important dress of your entire life. Especially when the last time I wore a below-the-knee skirt, I was a style-unconscious high-schooler who thought mint green polyester was the living end. And that dress cost only $200. Today's wedding dresses start there and go up to $5,000 (at least at the stores I was not too intimidated to walk into).

I didn't start out wanting to make my own wedding dress. I just wanted something that didn't make me feel like I should be standing on a plantation gasping, "Tara, Tara."

I wanted something simple and straight, with just a little bit of shimmer to let everyone know that I'm the one they're supposed to be watching. After consulting with bridal professionals from Miami to Washington, New York City and Dallas, I learned that the dress of my dreams didn't exist . . . anywhere.

You see, I wanted a slim-fitting wedding dress. Unfortunately chemise styles are always embellished with loads of lace, beads, bows, shirring, handkerchief hems, fringe, linebacker shoulder pads, sequins, pearls and tulle poufs. The big dresses, while usually dotted with one or more of these offensive elements, are often somewhat less elaborate. But the gathers and antebellum skirts make me look like the broad side of a barn.

My image of a plain sheath with bell-shaped, lace sleeves was either totally out of date, or far too advanced for most bridal designers.

So, being from the "I'm not settling for second best" school of style, I set out on a quest to design my own wedding gown. Oh, yes, I signed up a top-notch seamstress (Mom) to do the actual stitching. I also included my dad in this project. He actually made all 50 of the 1/4 -inch silk-covered buttons that ran down the back of the dress. That's not an easy task when you consider the fact that you must use a 5-pound hammer to gently rap a round object no bigger than an aspirin.

First came the research. Because my idea existed only in my head, and my sketching abilities end at stick figures with "That Girl" hairdos, I had to scour the pattern books and bridal magazines to convey my thoughts. "It has a Carolina Herrera sleeve with a Bill Blass body and a Jackie Onassis pillbox hat," I told Mom. "But it's made out of the fabric that Julie Andrews

wore in the wedding scene of 'Sound of Music,' and the veil should be big enough to serve as a tent for the entire United States Marine Corps. Oh, and no train on the dress either. I don't want to risk falling headfirst down the altar steps."

Once I'd compiled a collage of dress parts, I took my ideas to my favorite store, G-Street Fabrics, in Rockville. I spent 45 minutes with a bridal consultant discussing the merits of Thai silk over taffeta and the relative weight of 15 yards of netting vs. the amount of muscle tone in the neck required to haul this headpiece down the aisle.

Soon the decision was made: off-white silk crepe, with re-embroidered and beaded lace sleeves, 60 square yards of netting, 50 covered buttons for the back and one small pillbox cap. The grand total, $400.

Plus about 70 hours of sewing time and a two-week stay for Mom at the spa of her choice.

Then (at last) came the big day to make the design. After two store-bought patterns and 10 straight hours of calculating, measuring and standing still like a dress form, I can proudly say that we created a $5.58 muslin sheath that looked closer to my ideal dress than any of the jewel-covered styles Modern Bride had to offer. I was ecstatic. Mom was encouraged. Dad was noncommittal.

We decided to wait a few weeks before tackling the real stuff. Mom had a few candles to light before she picked up her pinking shears.

But after much postponing and procrastinating we cut the silk lining pieces, using the cut-up muslin as our pattern. It fit perfectly and gave Mom the much needed incentive to start hacking up the $60-per-yard silk crepe.

Lucky I was charged with the task of cutting and beading the lace sleeves that would be the focal point of the gown. I will ashamedly confess that the only mistake made on the whole dress was in my department. But who could tell after I'd finished stitching on 1,000 iridescent sequins and seed pearls?

To say that making a wedding dress is a big project is the understatement of the century. A lot of blood, sweat and swears went into it, but the result was worth it. The first time I tried it all on together was when I had my portrait taken two days before the wedding. I was amazed. It looked exactly the way I dreamed it would.

Although the gown itself was a stunning success (my thoughtful groom even toasted my mother and her obvious talents at our wedding reception) the wedding day was not void of fashion mishaps. The headpiece managed to offer a few moments of confusion and good-natured laughter.

You see, my silk-covered pillbox hat was attached to 15 feet of kulle netting that was kicked, stepped on, sat on and generally abused during our 45-minute ceremony.

There is also a lot of neck strength needed to pull that much fabric down a 100-foot carpeted aisle. My dad wondered why I was walking so slowly. I was trying to compensate for the backward pull of my veil and the forward tilt of my high heels.

By the end of the service my hat sat at a rather jaunty, but not very practical, 45-degree angle. And when my groom moved to seal our union with a kiss -- well, off went my once-in-a-lifetime headpiece. I carried it down the aisle along with my bouquet and a pile of wayward netting.

On the whole, there's an awful lot to be said for stitching up your own wedding dress.

Most people were in awe that we would even take on such an enormous endeavor, therefore their usual "You look lovely," comments were almost always followed with, "and I can't believe you made it. It must have taken hours."

Well, it did. And although I hated standing perfectly still for two hours while my mother got the hem "just right," I can't think of any project my mother and I have taken on that could ever mean so much to me. Other girls have memories of scouring the bridal shops with their moms. I have photos of my mother tenderly stitching my gown into shape while my father patiently fixed dinner yet again.

When I look at photos of my friends' weddings, I wonder if I would have been just as happy in one of the bridal dresses they purchased. Probably not.

You see, they had the opportunity to wear their special dress for only one day. I was lucky enough to have a part of it near me for months, as I worked on beading the lace or trimming the organdy to line the sleeves.

I even had enough fabric and lace left over to cover my guest book and slipped our baker a little piece of the lace so he could trace the pattern onto the sides of our wedding cake.

I'll be flattered if my daughter chooses to wear my dress for her march down the aisle. However, somehow I hope that she'll ask me to help make her dream dress.

By then I should have recovered from this one.

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