Beauty in the Breakdown
When Shelby Swink’s fiancé called off their wedding, she trashed her dress and won the hearts of people around the world
Story by Tess Catlett
Arts | February 2015
When Shelby Swink agreed to trash her wedding dress last November, she didn’t realize she would subsequently be approached by the likes of Buzzfeed, CNN and the Today Show. Three months later, and her story is an international hit. “It’s very surreal,” Swink says, reflecting back on her original essay for the website Offbeat Bride. “I wrote it with one of the bridesmaids. It was hard at first, having to rethink everything and put it into words. My main focus was to keep it positive.” The site held onto the story until after Christmas, and once it broke, it began making headlines across the globe.
But this wide-reaching interest is the result of something far more unexpected: Swink’s fiancé called off their engagement five days before their wedding. She says the two sat down, and he told her that he wasn’t in love with her. Completely blindsided, the following days were a blur of calling guests, cancelling services and sorting out their living arrangements. As their former wedding day, November 1, approached, she says she was forced to make a decision. She could spend the day moping around, or she could take charge of the situation. “Dad brought up the idea to trash the dress, and so did one of the bridesmaids.” But it wasn’t until her wedding photographer, Elizabeth Hoard, pitched the idea that she started to see its potential. “At first I though it was just going to be something fun with my family, but then I thought about it and wanted to capture it.”
“I’ve never done a shoot like this before,” Hoard says. She’d seen pictures where women have ripped up their dress or ruined it with mud, but they wanted something different. “We went to Hobby Lobby in Germantown the day before, and I said ‘get whatever you want,’” Hoard recalls. “We were in the store trying to figure out which types of paint would work, we grabbed feathers and glitter.” They met at Schilling Farms in Collierville the following afternoon, and for Hoard, the shoot started like any other. “Do I have a full battery? Is my SD card formatted? Do I have the right lens on?” Although Swink was running late, everything else seemed to be going smoothly. Hoard says there were about a dozen friends and family members there to see the action and support the former bride-to-be.
“I was really nervous at first,” Swink says. “It hit me that, oh yeah, this was supposed to be my wedding day. It wasn’t only me — everyone was letting go.”
The shoot was done in stages, and Hoard had each group fill up their own paint bottles to show that they were all in it together. “The bridesmaids got her first, then they turned on each other,” Hoard says. “The moment it became real for me was when her parents did it. I could see tears in her mother’s eyes.” Toward the end, Swink’s father broke out the champagne and cigars. But the celebration didn’t stop there. “We all went out to dinner,” Swink says. “My bridesmaids came over and we had a big sleepover.”
Although she was angry at first, Swink says there was no point dwelling on it. “It took a lot of courage to do what he did, and I saw that.” It didn’t take long for her to move on, and she says the photo shoot was a big part of that. “You just have to believe in your own strength and stay positive.”
After the shoot, Joelle Scholl of Barefoot Bride reached out about displaying the dress at the bridal shop. The dress was up through the end of January, and during that time, a portion of the store’s proceeds went to a local charity, Be Free Revolution. Swink says she has no idea what’s next for the dress. “I don’t really want to put it away,” she says. “I would like put it [on display] somewhere, but we’re still trying to figure out where. It’s not like I can put it in my house,” she says with a chuckle. “My cat would tear it to pieces.”