Clara Herrera gave a 19-year-marriage her all. When it ended, she didn’t want to wallow in sadness.
So one day, as the Texas science teacher was sorting her feelings, she headed up to her attic and unpacked her wedding gown. She decided the most beautiful dress she owned would not be a reminder of failure. Instead, she would make it a symbol of her new life.
Like most brides, Herrera had worn the gown only once. Since taking it out of the attic, however, she’s worn it dozens of times — and turned heads — in unusual places that are meaningful to her.
She's worn the dress while climbing hay bales similar to the ones she used to play on as a child. And by an oil well in her dad’s hometown. And at the baseball field where she takes her children.
She also wore it to the bank when she opened her first solo checking account in two decades — and to her lawyer’s office to sign divorce papers.
“I thought: What if I take pictures in my wedding dress, with all the new people and the new places we go? It’s like going into my new life,” she said. “I’ve only worn it once, and I want to get some use out of the dress.”
Herrera, 46, posted black-and-white photos of herself in the dress on Facebook over a period of months beginning last summer. The first ones were taken by her older daughter, a 17-year-old high school senior. Herrera said she discussed the project in depth with all three of her kids and made sure each one signed off on it.
“They were like ‘Yeah, Mom does stuff like this. This is fine. Go ahead,’” she said.
That’s because the project perfectly captures Herrera’s creative and unconventional personality. Processing divorce the way most people do just wasn’t her style.
“I did exercise, and I did therapy, but that wasn’t an active way for me to heal. I’ve got to express myself in art, and so this just fit me, just like the dress fit me. This fit my personality,” she said.
“I rocked my marriage and did the best I could. I’m going to rock this divorce. I’m not going to sit here and talk about how sad it was. I want it to be positive and happy, and I want my kids to say, ‘Hey, she’s making something of this.’”
Herrera named her project “Acid Neutral” after the description on the gown’s storage box, which was specially treated to prevent the dress from fading.
Many of her first photos were pre-planned, but then Herrera started carrying the dress in a white plastic bag in the back of her truck. That made it easier for her to slip it on when opportunity arose for her to try something new — like a drag queen bingo game.
Like others who asked about the dress, the drag queens responded with admiration when Herrera explained why she was wearing it.
“People go, ‘Oh, are you getting married?’ And I’d say, ‘No. I’m getting divorced.’ And they’d say, ‘OK, good luck to you.’ People are pretty friendly. I don’t know if it’s just a Texas thing,” she said.
Herrera said Acid Neutral represented a turning point in her healing process, in addition to creating positive memories about the dress, which both of her daughters now want to wear one day to their own weddings.
Herrera, who has since posted some of the photos on a blog, finished her series with the first color photo: Herself in a field of sunflowers wearing a red dress, her discarded wedding gown at her side.
“I’m moving on with my new life, and I’m done. Just like I’m done with my marriage,” she said. “It sounds silly, but it was like a metamorphosis.”
Like her marriage, the wedding dress project has taught Herrera to accept life’s uncertainties.
“It’s really amazing. I wake up every day and go, well, I don’t know what my life is going to bring today. I don’t know who I’m going to meet, but I’m going to make it as positive as I can,” she said. “I’ll go forward, put my big-girl panties on and march through this day.”
Editor's note: TODAY.com writer Eun Kyung Kim worked with Herrera at a Texas newspaper in the early 1990s.