Sonya Naumann & The Thousand Dollar Dress

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Sonya Nausmann is an Iowa City-based artist who's working on a photography project chronicling 1000 women wearing her wedding gown, the titular Thousand Dollar Dress. Sonya's photography is provocative, and her project offers a pointed commentary on women, marriage, and identity. Here's my interview with her…

Where did the thousand dollar dress come from?
Frankly, it came right off the rack at a Marshall Fields in Minneapolis, Minnesota. My mother took me shopping for the “magic cloth.” We looked all day — I had a hard time finding a dress that didn't make me feel like an overly sprinkled cupcake.

Where is the thousand dollar dress going?
The $1,000 dress is going everywhere! Ideally, it will engage in a world-wide tour — just like Madonna, minus the virgin. This summer, the dress and I plan to travel to Las Vegas, Texas, California and New York. There are several women in each area who've written via the website and expressed their interest in participating in the project.

I've been utterly amazed by the literal meaning of the World Wide Web. I've had women write from Russia, Israel, Latvia — it's been fairly fascinating.

I'm also in the process of seeking out funding to attempt an international chapter of the project. I've been utterly amazed by the literal meaning of the World Wide Web. I've had women write from Russia, Israel, Latvia — it's been fairly fascinating.

Why did it feel so important for the dress to live on after your wedding?
The dress was hanging inside a bag in the laundry room and I began to think about the bazaar life of this incredibly significant and precious garment. I visited the dress in hibernation each time I entered the laundry room. At times, it turned into this sort of siren that screamed, “YOU are married!!!! YOU!” to which I would respond, “Ahhhh!!!!!!” and run up the stairs like a track star in search of whiskey. Whew.

Up until I said, “I do,” marriage was just the “m” word. I remember in our rehearsal, my fella called me his “wife” and I froze — to the extent that my family was playfully placing bets on whether I'd make it down the aisle. I was knee-deep in love with my fella — he's the best man I know — it was the power of the words that were arresting. (Insert “commitment issues” here, no?)

After ruminating on the vision of the bagged dress hanging on a green line in a basement laundry room, surrounded by dirty socks and underwear, an old olive green refrigerator and a few tools, the frugal side of me flourished. I thought, what if I had 1,000 women wear my $1,000 wedding dress and tell me about their thoughts on and experiences with marriage?

In that sense, I deem it important for the dress to live on as a sort of tool for exploration — a vehicle for admission into a dialogue.

Do you have a relationship with the dress?
Oddly enough, I didn't realize how I felt about the dress, let alone knew I even had a relationship with it until I watched the first few women put it on. It was then that I realized it was somewhat precious to me — it's fragility came flooding to the forefront. If I'm honest, I'd say that a part of me said, “Hey — that's my dress!”

Once I had grown used to pulling the dress out of the bag and adorning friends and strangers, it became simultaneously more and less precious. It's become this incredibly significant tool that has taken on both a function and a life of its own. It serves my curiosity and exploration of identity regarding the arcane concept of marriage.

I rather adore watching other women wear it — over and over again — it simply never gets old or any less fascinating.

Tell me about some of your favorite subjects. What kind of reactions have you gotten from people wearing the dress?
I've watched women cry while they look at themselves in the mirror. I've seen them fidget, laugh, perform, put make-up on, and take make-up off, all the while telling me about their relationship with the dress and their relationship with their relationships. I've even been given the photo album of a wedding that ended in divorce. I think for that particular participant, the dress served as a sort of closure.

I've had women say that this would be the only wedding dress they'll ever wear. For gay women, it's been a symbol of a civil right they are denied.

I've had women say that this would be the only wedding dress they'll ever wear. For gay women, it's been a symbol of a civil right they are denied.

One of my favorite participants was a law student whose fantasy was to be photographed affront a sorority house that was destroyed by a tornado. We did the shoot a few days after the rather monstrous storm. There we were, total strangers, walking through the streets, stepping over piles of trees, pieces of homes, glass all about — she was in my wedding dress and I in my camera. The response from passerby was priceless. She was something.

I'm fascinated by the women who I haven't photographed yet. Multiple women who've graciously volunteered to participate have done so with their own ideas of how they'd like to be photographed. I'm elated by the persistence of that notion as they become more than a female who bears the image — they become the female who helps make it. In that sense, the subject has power. From a feminist perspective, I quite fond of that.

I've had a woman write that she'd like to be photographed in her gynecologist's office with white heels in the stirrups, a burlesque setting, pulling the dress out of her dryer while wearing a hideous housecoat and fancy slippers, another in a tattoo parlor, a stripper on her pole — it's just plain incredible.

Why do you think so many women preserve their wedding dresses in little hermetically sealed boxes with acid-free tissue paper?
It's an interesting question. Why the hell do we do this? It's as though the dress is having its own funeral. The box is the coffin and the dress the woman who walked in it. Is that too morbid?

How can someone apply to wear the dress?
Any interested participants can apply to wear the dress via I like to know a little background on the individual as well as why they're interested in participating in the project.

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Comments on Sonya Naumann & The Thousand Dollar Dress

  1. Looking at the gallery website, I love the photo of the green dress. Doesn’t it just inspire you to ‘casual up’ you wedding dress? Wear it with a nice cardi and a pair of flip flops and you’re away!

  2. What a clever idea! Makes things very memorable, and would be a fun story to share with others!

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