A decade ago, Kay Hansen found her husband’s ex-wife’s wedding dress in her closet, and she didn’t know what to do with it. It hung there for two years—rather annoyingly in the way, considering that she saw it each time she needed a shirt or pair of shoes. The ex-wife didn’t want it back, so her fiancé suggested eBay, since it was, after all, very expensive. But they were about to find a more practical use.
It only took a few drinks and a round of pool at the westside Parish Publick House before Hansen and her best friend Georgia Cantando had the worst idea. After popping a bottle of champagne, the two decided to break out the dress for a photo shoot.
“It was so wrong, but so right,” Cantando says with a laugh. By the time Hansen’s husband got home, they had put the dress on Cantando—complete with a scarf and coconut bra—while Hansen wore her own wedding dress and a black corset.
“We just had the best night,” says Hansen. “Georgia was making speeches to the ex-wife.”
What started as a joke turned into a bigger project. In the years since, Cantando and Hansen have gotten hundreds of people from across North and Central America into the ex’s dress. It’s opened a door to a larger project called “The Divorce Dress,” for which the women travel around and get other people try the dress on—married or not—take photos, and talk about their own breakups in a safe, comfortable space.
“When people get in the dress, they automatically feel like they have to be a bride and act a certain way, but it’s not until they become more comfortable in the dress that automatically they start talking about divorce,” Cantando says. “We wanted to know why that was. Why people felt that they had to act a certain way, and why they always started talking about divorce.”
Although Hansen has never been in the dress for herself, men and women from all walks of life have worn the divorce dress, from the Parish pub co-owner and a Steamer Lane surfer to a celebrity divorce attorney. The more interviews and photoshoots the women did, the more they realized that their idea was more than just a funny side project. Now they are creating a coffee table book showcasing stories, images and haikus about relationship endings. They hope to take the dress on a trip to France and England next month, and will show their work at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) in May.
“Sometimes there is such a thick line of similarity when it comes to finding yourself, shedding your skin and starting fresh,” Cantando says. “Everyone focuses on relationship beginnings, but when it gets sticky at the end, no one focuses on what’s going on there.”
Cantando and Hansen are both happily married to their husbands—and even to each other. The best friends got married at Burning Man around 10 years ago while Hansen was wearing her wedding dress. She was standing in line at the Porta-Potties wondering how she was going to navigate the dress inside the little toilet space when a man introduced himself as a minister and asked if he could officiate her wedding.
“I married my best friend,” Hansen says. “Georgia’s husband gave her away!”
Thanks to social media, Hansen and Cantado no longer have to reach out to candidates to include—people come to them to put the dress on and tell their own stories. More recently, they partnered with celebrity family attorney Laura Wasser to write articles on divorce and relationship endings. They hope that through their writing and project they can help normalize divorce and show that everyone has a story worth telling.
Both women’s lives included some aspect of divorce long before the project started. Hansen’s first marriage ended in divorce, and Cantando’s parents were divorced when she was younger.
“We get more people laughing in the dress than crying in the dress, that’s for sure,” Cantando says.
The dress itself was originally a size 2, so it had to be modified with a corset-style lace back to fit all ages and sizes. Last week, the women came by the GT office and brought the dress with them. Though they didn’t make anyone try it on, they brought their images and plenty of crazy stories from divorcées, including a possible murder, domestic abuse and stalking. People who have never been divorced have also worn the dress, and the pair also want to take it to places where divorce is frowned upon, like parts of the Middle East.
“We need to make this not taboo anymore. Everyone needs to be able to have a conversation about it and be themselves,” Hansen says.
“Divorce does not end with the paperwork,” Cantando adds. “It does not end when you move out of the house or everyone says, ‘Oh I’m sorry that happened.’ It continues to shape who you are.”
Cantando and Hansen currently meet with three or four subjects a month, depending on their schedules. They say that they’ve interviewed five or six people a day on project trips. With the help of an assistant, they interview and photograph the person on site. There is plenty of champagne, and the women sit and just listen to other people’s relationships, expectations and feelings about their exes. Afterword, they will often write haikus based on phrases and words that were particularly memorable.
“Usually Georgia will go up to people on the street and say we are working on an art project, or she will spark a conversation at a bar or restaurant and it happens pretty organically,” Hansen says.
So far, talking to people has been relatively easy and painless. They say they expect a few more roadblocks and differing opinions on divorce when they travel outside of California.
“At first, we got an awful lot of 40-something white women in the dress, but it’s always been important for us to include people from all ages, ethnicities, sexual and religious orientations,” Cantando says. “That’s why we want to travel around and meet people who have different views and experiences around divorce.”
With the debut of their book coming just in time for Valentine’s Day next year, Hansen and Cantando hope to raise enough money through their GoFundMe to travel to Europe next month. On May 4, their exhibit at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History will likely include confessional-style anonymous storytelling in the spirit of conversations around breakups.
“If anyone wants to share their story we take written stories and are around locally,” the women say. “We keep the dress in a suitcase. It lives there, so she’s ready to go at all times.”