I wore Arwen’s bridge dress to prom thanks to a united Lord of the Rings fandom

Growing up, I wanted no part of my dad’s love of fantasy books. He was always trying to get the family to watch the Rankin/Bass version of The Hobbit, which frightened me more than it interested me. I never understood what he loved about wizards, or J.R.R Tolkien. It wasn’t until after he died that I discovered my own love of fantasy through The Lord of the Rings movies and online fandom.

I was one of many, many fans of the Lord of the Rings movies who found a home in spaces built by fans of the Lord of the Rings books, that made it easy for a new generation to understand Tolkien. In an era when the internet, and internet fandom, looked very different than it does now, a worldwide community stepped up to help newcomers bring the Lord of the Rings into their everyday lives — and for me, into a painstaking recreation of Arwen’s dress.

TheOneRing to rule them all

2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies’ 20th anniversary, and we couldn’t imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we’ll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon’s Year of the Ring.

Before I saw The Fellowship of the Ring, my relation to fandom was limited at best. Basically, my knowledge began and ended with LiveJournal.

In those early days, folks wrote long blog posts, created avatars, and glitzy custom message board signatures. (Extra points if they were animated.) There was a methodicalness to it all; with boards moderated, and the rules clear from the start. That’s not to say there weren’t flame wars, but the spaces tended to be small enough that it didn’t result in the same sorts of internet culture cataclysms of today.

I was not the only person for whom The Fellowship of the Ring ignited an all-consuming interest. This influx of new fans purchased mountains of LotR-related paraphernalia, then they read the books, and when there were no more books, and still months until The Two Towers, they scoured any source for information on the films yet to come and the process of getting them made. That’s what drew me online, and how I found The OneRing.net.

TheOneRing.net (TORn) was started by fans Erica Challis, Michael Regina, William Thomas, and Chris Pirrotta in 1999. It was a simple-to-navigate website which detailed the latest news about film production, important dates in the LotR calendar, and fan gatherings. But what set TORn apart was its ability to make news and foster connection.

Liv Tyler as Arwen in The Fellowship of the Ring. Image: New Line Cinema

Dubbed “Ringer Spies,” fans contributed to the gathering of tips to send and post on TORn. Film locations were scouted, photos of the actors were posted, and interviews were conducted. The hunger for any and all information about the upcoming film’s helped make TORn into a repository for the greater LotR-universe. The most common way to connect was through message boards and small local gatherings. Fans joined to watch the Oscars together, dressing up in costumes and rooting for Peter Jackson’s saga. TORn published books, like The People’s Guide to J.R.R. Tolkien, and enjoyed a fairly friendly relationship with the cast and crew.

TORn and sites like it represented a mostly honest effort to democratize Middle-earth to new generations using guides, wikis, and memes, bringing the Lord of the Rings out of the 1950s and into digital spaces, making it easier to digest, and more accessible to a new generation.

Literature and pop culture collided online, as people could access the world of Tolkien however, whenever, and wherever they wanted. Some people remixed — the 2005 video “They’re Taking the Hobbits to Isengard’’ first premiered on the joke flash website Albino Blacksheep (YouTube was only six months old at the time). Some people absorbed — want to learn the ancient language of Sindarin? Cool, there’s a website for that.

But my interests in online fandoms had a far more practical purpose.

The Bridge Dress

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In the Extended Edition DVD extras, Fellowship of the Ring costume designer Ngila Dickson revealed the great lengths the team went to age the silk velvet that made up most of the elves’ costumes. It was bleached, dyed, etched, and sandpapered, and trimmed with more fabric that had been dyed, aged, and beaded over. That work had seemed to give Arwen an ethereal glow my teenage self desperately wanted. And, okay, it didn’t hurt that I had a massive crush on Aragorn. Either way, I knew I had to have one of these gowns.

Specifically, the Bridge Dress, named for the place Arwen first appears in the costume. In the trilogy, she and Aragon meet on a stone bridge in Rivendell, and reaffirm their love for each other, even though she is immortal and he will one day die. She wears an ivory dress with long, flowing sleeves and long, beaded train.

Through TORn’s community, I found AlleyCatScratch, a costume website that hasn’t changed much in 15 years. You can still find hundreds of process photos, detailed descriptions, and sources for materials, as well as dozens of pictures of fans wearing their costume replicas. If all these people who looked nothing like Liv Tyler or Cate Blanchett were creating costumes, I thought, maybe I could too?

LotR fan forums explained it was possible on a limited budget, and with sewing skills picked up from one sixth-grade home economics class. The users at AlleyCatScratch had a pattern for the bead-work on Arwen’s Bridge Dress available to print and guides on what kind of beads and sequins to buy — even affordable substitutions for the makeup used in the film.

The author in her blue Arwen dress with several inches of beading around the bottom, posing with family.
The writer in her hand-altered dress.
Photo: Andrea Ayers

I picked a similar dress to buy and alter, but in blue — I wasn’t about to look like a bride for prom. My mom thought I was getting in over my head. I was committed to seeing it through. My questions were met with tips, easily adaptable sewing patterns, and words of encouragement. And when I got frustrated, forum users told me to enjoy the journey of making and not fixate on the outcome, showing me kindness when I could not show it to myself. I only ever succeeded in beading the bottom part of the dress, but I’d never been more proud of myself.

I never thought I’d be the type of person to wear a Lord of the Rings-inspired prom dress. Hell, I never thought I’d go to prom.

What my dad loved about Lord of the Rings was reading the books with his father. He wanted to have that experience with his kids and sadly, I was never able to while he was alive. But through the films I found fans eager to share their community, expertise, and fandom with new people. I could experience his love of fantasy in a new way: by connecting with others, learning to embrace a kind of story that didn’t click until I saw it in live action, in real costumes, and online. My journey as a LotR fan might be quite specific, but the LotR book community made sure it was for everyone — especially movie fans.