As I mentioned in a previous post, I definitely had a tough time choosing photographers.  I had a gazillion photography blogs on my Google Reader, and I'd scroll through them, making half-legible notations on a piece of scrap paper about the ones I "liked."  And heavens forbid if I had to actually express why I liked what I liked!  I would have been as inarticulate as a 4-year-old ("pweeety pictures") or Rachel Zoe ("I die.").

I think a lot of the difficulty I was having came from seeing each photographer's photos in isolation.  It's hard to articulate what you like and don't like when brides, weddings, locations, etc. are so different; there's just no baseline for comparison.  Recently, though, I discovered that a lot of the photographers I was blog-stalking attend the same photography workshops and -- here's the useful part -- since all the photographers at a particular workshop work with the same model/environment, if you get a hold of those pictures, you can actually compare the styles and techniques of the photographers.  No more comparing apples with oranges.

For example, the Southern California photographer Jose Villa leads a number of workshops each year.  Here are three photographers' work from one of the workshops:

[Images by Jasmine Star]

[Images by Arpia Photo]

While all three photographers are obviously very talented, they each have a different aesthetic that comes across in their pictures.  Each has a unique approach to lighting, posing, and post-processing, so that although the photos are of the same three models in the same environment, each photographer's photos have a very different feel from the others.  Here are photos from a more recent Jose Villa workshop:

[Images by Jennifer Rau]

[Images by Leigh Miller]

Both Jennifer Rau and Leigh Miller are fabulous, right?  Seeing the photos side by side, it's clear that Jennifer's style is more crisp and bright and Leigh's is vintagey, quirky, editorial.  Both sets of photographs are beautiful.  But Leigh's work just appeals more to my aesthetic; it just feels more . . . me.

Have you found it hard to compare photographers?  Which of the above sets of photos appeals to you?  What drew you to your photographer?


A Bookbee Reviews Bridal Bargains

"Yo, que me figuraba el Paraíso bajo la especie de una biblioteca . . . ." 
- Jorge Luis Borges

[A picture of one of my bookshelves (and probably the inside of my brain): wedding books and mags on the top shelf, 
critical theory texts on the bottom shelves.]

When I first emigrated from Hong Kong at the age of 8, I was a shy kid with limited English skills and a bowl cut.  So when normal kids were out on the playground, I was hanging out in the Bookmobile or the library, getting acquainted with my fictional friends like The Babysitters Club or Nancy Drew.  To this day, I'm still a bookworm -- um, I mean bookbee.  In fact, I've managed to make my awkward phase into a profession; now that I'm a doctoral student in English, I get to read books for a living.

Naturally, when I got engaged, one of the first things I did was to buy a zillion books.  And now that I've devoured them all, I thought it might be useful to start an occasional series of book reviews, highlighting the good ones and trashing the duds.  I thought I'd start by reviewing the one book that has been most helpful in my wedding planning process thus far: Bridal Bargains: Secrets to Throwing a Fantastic Wedding on a Realistic Budget by Denise and Alan Fields.  

[Image source.]

I knew this book and I were going to be good friends as soon as I saw the tag line on the cover: "The book the wedding industry does NOT want you to read."  The wedding industry doesn't want you to read it because its 450+ pages give you advice, practical tips, and important details on how to plan an expensive-looking wedding on the cheap (or relatively cheap, anyway).  It exposes a lot of the games that wedding vendors play in order to get you to spend spend spend (and to stress stress stress).  For example, I was annoyed by bridal boutiques that ripped the labels off their gowns to keep you from knowing the designer, style number, and fabric (and thus to keep you from comparison shopping).  But I had no idea until the Fields told me that it was illegal for them to do this.  (Law nerd that I am, I checked.  It is.)  Or I knew that bridal boutiques made money from the sale of accessories, like shoes, veils, and undergarments.  But I had no idea how much of a mark-up (HUGE) they put on those items and how much cheaper they would be online or at non-bridal-specific stores.

A lot of the information that the Fields provide will make you angry, but theirs is no mere muckraking expose of the wedding industry.  Rather, they fill their book with lots of good practical advice on how to beat the industry at its own game.  For example, the bridesmaid gown chapter not only gives you suggestions on what to look for in a quality gown, tips on how to save money on bridesmaids gowns and accessories, and questions to ask of a boutique, it also reviews various stores and websites where you might find affordable gowns and rates the quality, value, and fashionableness of the thirty leading gown manufacturers.  It even gives you the contact info for fabric manufacturers in case you want to DIY.  And they do this for every aspect of the wedding planning process, from the purchase of the wedding gown to the selection of invitations to the booking of a honeymoon.

Thus far, I've used this book to research discount wedding and bridesmaid dresses, wholesale cake decorations, and florals.  I've also used the lists it provides of questions to ask various vendors, from caterers to videographers.  I'm pretty web-savvy, so it's possible that I would have found many of the sites listed in the book on my own.  But the reviews and ratings in the book are priceless, as is the convenience of having the research done for you.

At $10.17 on Amazon, this book is probably the best investment (not to mention the cheapest) I made for my wedding.  And it even comes with a money back guarantee: "If Bridal Bargains doesn't save you at least $500 on your wedding," the Fields promise, "we will give you a complete refund."  Schweeeeet!  I give it two wings up.

BTW, Windsor Press, which publishes the book, also runs a number of useful message boards where you can get updated reviews and advice from other budget-minded brides.  It's worth checking out even if you don't get the book.

Do you have this book in your library?  Has it been helpful?  Should I continue with this book review series, or did I put you to sleep with my bibliophilia?


Vedding Registry

A little joke for you from Anita Diamant's The New Jewish Wedding: "The tongue-in-cheek Yiddish-English 'translation' for R.S.V.P. is Remember to Send Vedding Presents."

Hahaha. Call me a dork (or a 95-year-old Jewish man), but it's a knee slapper!  Snort. Snort.

As you might remember, I'm in the process of converting to Judaism, and Mr. Hot Cocoa and I are looking forward to setting up a Chinese-Jewish household once we're married. But one can't possibly be expected to be a balabusta (that's yiddish for quality female homemaker) or balabusto (that's cocoa-yiddish -- coquidish -- for quality male homemaker) without the proper accoutrements, right?  So even though we haven't given any thought to where we'd register for our everyday items, I have already come up with a list of judaica stores with online registry services. And since my Judaism homework this week involves studying the rituals associated with celebrating the sabbath -- in particular the tradition of shabbat dinner -- I thought I'd also list a few of the shabbat-related items that might go in a vedding registry.

1. has an easy-to-use registry service that allows you not only to register for the many Judaism-related products in its e-store but also to incorporate tzedakah (the Jewish tradition of charity) into your registry by allowing you to pledge a certain percentage of the value of the gifts you receive to charities of your choice.  Your guests can also be invited to match (or exceed) your donation.

Their e-store is among the most well stocked of the websites I found.  It offers a particularly rad collection of challah boards, which make even the least palatable of supermarket-bought challah rolls look delicious.  Challah atcha boy:

2. Modern Tribe is one of my favorite finds.  It has a smaller inventory than, but what it lacks in quantity, it makes up for in novelty.  For example, it may be traditional to light candles before sunset on the sabbath, but these are definitely not your bubbie's candle holders:

I'm digging these anodized aluminum candlesticks that read "Shabbat Shalom" and "Yitzkor, Shamor" (Remember, Observe) and come in IPod colors.

3. In spite of its name, doesn't just carry Jewish wedding contracts (though it has a lot of those).  It also has a gift registry and a serviceable selection of judaica.  

Just a warning: the galleries are not as easy to browse as those of and Modern Tribe, both of which allow you to sort by type of item, by Jewish holiday, etc.  At you have to either browse everything or search for specific items.  But if you like glassware and a more painterly style of judaica, you might find some pretty items here.  Like this art nouveau kiddush cup -- perfect for a blessing over wine and not so bad to look at either:

4. carries a large selection of keepsake-quality judaica, ranging from the chic to the oy-gevalt.  You can't add items directly to an online registry, but they can build a registry for you if you email them the list of the items you'd like.  I'm impressed with their collection of havdallah sets -- the collection of wine glass, spice container, and candle holder that you use during the ceremony to mark the end of the sabbath.  

Isn't this Monet-esque set fashioned from hand blown glass and silver so pretty?

Or how about this purple peacock spice box and candle holder for your crazy Aunt Edith who collects tchotckes:

5. Because I heart all things handmade, I'm loving some of the items available at Artistic Jewish Promotions.  The selection is small but the objects are charming and eclectic; each page on the site is like a cabinet of wonders.  How delightful are these tzedakah boxes?
6. All Things Jewish has a more limited selection of judaica than the other stores above, but it does carry two items that I am kvelling over:

Jellyby, our kosher haute dog, would be all over the bagel chew toy.  As for Kvetchy Boy?  I think its charm is evident.  Here's the blurb from the back cover: "Grr, I'm Kvetchy Boy. I'm always complaining: 'The sun is too bright . . . . My ice-cream is melting.' In my book, I learn that life is more enjoyable if I save my complaints for something important. Then, people listen and even try to help."  A good lesson -- especially for those of us vedding planning, right?

Are you registering for any religious or culturally significant items?


Red Carpet Inspirations for a White Aisle Event [Bridal Guide post]

I'm usually not a big fan of awards shows, with their gaudy sets, the awkward banter between presenters, the tedious speechifying that leads to abrupt (and even more awkward) orchestral interventions. Sure, people (for the most part) are better dressed, but it's basically senior prom and the candidates' forum for freshmen class president amped up and rolled into one. 10 out of 10 on the awkward scale.  No higher than 3 on the entertainment meter.  What I do love, however, are the post-show fashion recaps -- on E!, in blogs (oh how I heart the caustic wit of the Fug Girls), and in magazines like Instyle and People.  

As I was perusing the Emmy recaps this year, it struck me that for the first time the recaps could actually be relevant.  My wedding day will be the one time that I a) get my hair done by a professional, b) employ the services of a makeup artist, c) wear a custom-fitted dress, and d) have hundreds of pictures taken of me.  So I thought I'd share with you some lessons/inspirations I took from the red carpet this year.

1) Careful with the bronzer.  Olivia Wilde looks gorgeous here in her Reem Acra dress -- which I love particularly because its embellished sheer sleeves are reminiscent of the ones on my own gown -- but the overuse of bronzer is making her face look muddy.  I use Bare Escentuals' "warmth" for my daily makeup regimen and would likely have been tempted to apply it a bit more heavy-handedly on wedding day.  Olivia, you saved me.

[All photos from]

2. Work a "skinny" pose.  I've read on various sites, including, that the key to a svelte look in front of the camera is a slightly contorted pose.  You basically turn partially away from the camera, put one foot in front of the other, point the toes of your front foot (which gives you a lean leg), and place your weight on your back foot.  And you lift your arms slightly away from the body to give your arm muscles some definition and to keep away the unsightly arm flab.

3. Get a hairstyle that can go from day to night. Heidi Klum works this loosely pulled back pony tail on the red carpet . . . 
. . . then releases it into vintage glam curls for the after parties.  Whereas Marcia Cross still looks a bit uptight and formal, Heidi's ready to schmooze and dance.  I'll totally be stealing this look to transition from the ceremony to the reception.
What inspirations or lessons did you take away from the awards shows this year?  Will you be working a red carpet look for your wedding day?


First Look

This Sunday I subjected Mr. HC to yet another "Bridezillas" marathon.  (That show is like a bad car accident that I just can't turn away from.)  In the middle of an episode with a particularly awful behaving bride in a particularly awful looking periwinkle dress, Mr. HC turned to me and said, with some trepidation in his voice: "I hear your dress isn't strapless."  "Um, who told you that?" I asked him.  "My mom -- but she didn't mean to tell me; she just told me that it was beautiful."  "Hmm," I replied. "Yep, not strapless."  "Oh," said Mr. HC, with a trace of concern. 

It occurred to me then that we've gone to something like ten weddings in the last two years, and that every bride, except for one, wore a strapless dress.  After I assured Mr. HC that I wasn't going to be rockin' some 80s pouf sleeves or some wackadoodle, high-necked homage to the nuns in the Sound of Music, he seemed a little bit less worried.

But, of course, now I'm worried.  As I've said before, Mr. HC and I have very different aesthetics: he's Brooks Brothers (classic, straight-laced), and I'm Anthropologie (flirty, quirky). He likes to blend in, while I like to stand out. There have definitely been times when my outfits have puzzled him.  And while I usually don't dress to please him, I do want him to be floored by how I look that day.  In fact, I want the reaction Ellen had to seeing Portia for the first time on their wedding day (the whole video is so touching, but forward to 1:30 to see their first look moment):

[Original video, which I couldn't figure out how to embed, here.]

I know this doesn't make any sense mathematically, but I'm both 110% sure Mr. HC will love my wedding day look, and yet 5% worried that he'll be disappointed.

Do you and your groom have different styles and tastes?  Do you worry whether your SO will love or hate your wedding attire?


Envois: Postcard Save-the-Dates

A few days ago, I posted on the save-the-date bookmarks that I was too lazy to produce. Lesson learned: it's not enough for a wedding-related DIY project to be snazzy, it's got to be manageable as well. In fact, my new motto is "short and sweet." Describes me (5'3 on a good day, but super delicious). Describes any task I take on in the near future.

Well, what could be shorter and sweeter than a postcard? As a favorite writer once suggested: "To choose a post card is for me a flight which at least will spare you the too abundant literature to which you would have been subjected . . . ." A postcard is pithy, affordable, and cheap to send. What's not to love?

Here are some unique and creative options I came across:
[Mini-cooper card from Etsy seller unlesssomebodylikeyou.]

Quirky, understated, and just adorable. It's kind of an aspirational card, though -- perfect for the lover-of-flea-markets-and-tandem-bikes kind of girl I wish I were, but not so much for the way more boring lawyer/academic that I am. Sigh.

[Polaroid card from Etsy seller seeyoubeyou.]

A fresh take on the traditional photo save-the-date. Gets your guests ready to shake it like a polaroid picture.

[Lummi Island card from Etsy seller EMprint Press.]

This design is elegant and atmospheric, great for anyone getting married at a unique and dreamy locale. We like Marina del Rey (where we're getting married), but it doesn't quite have the charm or mystique of Lummi Island by moonlight.

[Concert card by Etsy seller marit522.]

Again an aspirational card. This save-the-date is way edgier than Mr. HC and I are. It's the kind of save-the-date that a couple like Stella and Ratbones would have; it says "I like leathuh" and "I am rock 'n roll, and I'll die rock n' roll." I do, however, want to point out that I did go through a phase in which I was obsessed with Steve Vai and subscribed to Guitar Magazine, and Mr. HC is still in the middle of a 20-year phase in which he dreams of going on tour with Springsteen.

[Brooklyn card made by Vinas Design for Brooklyn Bride.]

Vane's (a.k.a. Brooklyn Bride's) save-the-date is fab. The card manages to convey her passion for her neighborhood, her fun and unique aesthetic, and the charm of her wedding. Hmmm . . . . That's exactly what we are looking for! A card that says something about us and the feel of our wedding. But where to find such a card?

To be continued . . . .

Did you go with a postcard save-the-date? What influenced your choice of design or style?


The new bargains I'm Baracking

You know my alter ego Haute Cocoa's all about the stylish bargains, while Mr. Hot Cocoa and I are all about political engagement (pun intended).  Well, my split personalities have been integrated through the new Runway to Change store on Barack Obama's campaign site.  Not quite ready to invest in the $8000 Vera Wang gown?  How about this sweet little Vera tee for a mere $60?

I have a massive crush on this sexy secretary dress from Nanette Lepore.  It's so very Joan from "Mad Men."

It's out of my price range for now, but this darling Nanette Lepore tee isn't!

Not only are there tees, tanks, and even a wrap sweater, Runway to Change also carries several chic and affordable bags (including ones by DVF and Marc Jacobs!) and even some accessories. I got myself the Nanette Lepore shirt and a gorgeous "Be the Change You Want to See" scarf from Rachel Roy, and unlike my recent excursion to Anthropologie, this was one shopping spree that didn't leave me feeling guilty.  

And conservative bees, I'm not about to leave you hanging.  Here's where you can get those Kazuo Kawasaki 704 glasses that Sarah Palin's been rocking on the trail.

Shop early and often!



My favorite board game?  Scrabble.  Most lamented Facebook loss?  Scrabulous.  Book I'd take to a desert island?  The Oxford English Dictionary.  Favorite historical novelette?  The Professor and the Madman.  Favorite freebie website?

In case it's not obvious, I am a word nerd.  N-E-R-D.  Nerd.  So you can imagine my excitement when one of my favorite websites, Lifehacker, introduced me to a fun little application called Spell with Flickr.  This app does exactly what it's called: it spells out the word(s) of your choosing using Flickr images.  Like this:

Copper Uppercase Letter H O T
C is for Ceramic O c21 o a

Or this:

w-sf E D D I N Aluminum Capital Letter G (New York, NY)
B McElman_071126_2011 e-028

I contemplated using this to create our save the date cards, but in the end decided on another design (which I promise to share soon).  I do love love love this app, though, and would be excited to use it for some other project -- perhaps a framed art piece for a friend's birthday or even holiday cards?

Have you tried this app?  What would you use it for?


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