The invitation was plain, white with lavender print in Garamond, one of Kimberly’s favorite fonts. We were invited to a winery to celebrate with Kimberly and Erik as they became husband and wife, reception immediately following. I knew the invitation was coming, but I received it with a certain sadness.
Kimberly, at thirty-two, was one of my last unmarried friends. I loved her e-mail dispatches from the dating scene, her Sunday morning phone calls, the reviews of chick lit books she wrote for the newspaper where she works as a page designer. Before she became engaged, we kept in touch almost weekly even though we lived in different states. It seemed that Kimberly was mostly happy living alone. She’d bought and fixed up a bungalow on her own. She traveled abroad by herself. She had a fun group of friends. Still, she wanted what I had—a spouse with whom to share her life. Even though a part of me envied her unmarried life, I encouraged her in this endeavor to find the future Mr. K. I encouraged her to get out more, to sign up for home repair classes where she might meet a handy Progressive Lutheran Foodie Future Father of Two Children (for which she’d already picked out the names). And even though this husband was what she envisioned, I see now that my prodding produced a tension between us, that she thought I was implying she needed a partner to complete her. She referred to me as a “smug married”1 in one of her columns.
But this story isn’t about smug marrieds or smug unmarrieds or the pros and cons of either enterprise. This is about the $50 billion wedding industry2, which feminist scholar Chrys Ingraham calls the “wedding industrial complex” in her book White Weddings: Romancing Heterosexuality in Popular Culture. It’s about the wedding industry’s subtle and not-so-subtle influences on American lives and culture. I bring up Kimberly’s wedding here not because it typified the Big Bucks White Wedding that Ingraham and other scholars write about, but because of the ways it followed certain wedding industry conventions and because of the ways it didn’t. And also because the issue is more complicated than following tradition or not following it, and it’s precisely those complications that make the subject of weddings-and what shapes them-interesting.
My husband and I get invited to two or three weddings each summer. They often follow a similar pattern: the save-the-date sent out months ahead of time, the gift registry, the bridal shower, the Thursday night bachelor/bachelorette parties, the Friday night rehearsal dinner, the Saturday night wedding, the Sunday brunch. And we’re not just spectators at these events. If we attend the wedding and pre-wedding festivities, we’re expected to buy as many as three gifts. I like the idea of this-helping a couple furnish and decorate their home with items lovingly picked out by friends and family. But more times than not, we’re asked to buy something from the couple’s gift registry at Pottery Barn or Williams-Sonoma or Target, taking all of the thought and fun from the gift-giving ritual. So, this summer, we decided to attend just Kimberly’s wedding.
In the weeks before the wedding, I realized it wasn’t just Kimberly getting married that I lamented. It was that she, my independent friend, was getting married in what seemed to be a rather traditional way. The diamond ring, the handoff from the parents to the husband, the pastor, the party, all that pageantry, all that calculated joy. Of course, I’d bought into the tradition of it, too, though I’m still not sure why.
Jaclyn Geller writes about this pull to tradition in Here Comes the Bride: Women, Weddings and the Marriage Mystique. Geller was inspired to research the book after she emerged from Oberlin College, where she spent the early 1980s reading feminist treatises, dissecting cultural gender myths, and feeling like she and her fellow scholars were living on the “cusp of an epistemological shift” for women. But after graduation, she watched her classmates return to the social patterns they’d spent four years denouncing. Nothing had prepared her for what she describes as the “marriage mania” of her female contemporaries.
Here Comes the Bride is as much a critique of modern marriage as it is an exploration of the wedding industry, but what Geller is most curious about is the allure of matrimony and its sexist traditions at a time when women have so many choices. We children of the Baby Boomers have more choices than any previous generation of women, so it’s interesting that many of us choose a similar path—and that many of us choose to get married in a big way with such remarkable sameness.
Though the percentage of people who get married has been in decline since the 1970s, those who do get married are spending more money than ever. “Thank goodness we’re so much more evolved now,” writes Catherine Newman in “I Do. Not,” an essay in the anthology The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth about Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage. “Except, of course, for the embarrassing detail of the bride’s family shelling out ten or fifty thousand dollars for the wedding itself.”
The average formal wedding costs about $22,000, two-thirds the national average family income today, while before World War II, it cost about one-third, according to Katherine Jellison, an associate professor of history at Ohio University who’s writing a book about the commercialization of American weddings. But, Jellison says, women today are more likely to pay for their own weddings. The average age of women who get married today is twenty-five, higher than it’s ever been. Jellison says women often use elaborate weddings to show their success as individuals: “The appeal is, ‘This is my last time to really celebrate myself before I’m tied down with kids, a mortgage, and having to be responsible to my spouse.’”
As she researched the wedding industry’s roots, Jellison found that before World War II only the wealthiest people could afford the services and props that have become typical of big wedding celebrations—celebrations that are thrown by people from all socioeconomic classes today. She attributes the shift after the war to several factors: the rise in average income; the growth of the middle class; the growth of consumer culture; the saturation of media, especially magazines and television; and the ease with which the wedding industry allows anyone to plan such a wedding. “These media outlets reinforce the idea that there’s one way to get married in our society and it’s with the formal white wedding gown and several attendants and a big sit-down dinner,” Jellison says. “It’s basically the democratization of a way of getting married that was once reserved for the elite.” One of the most dangerous things about this, she says, is that the idea is adopted by people who don’t have the financial resources to have the big American wedding. It’s common for weddings to send working-class people into a spiral of debt.
Marriage has always been an economic institution, media studies scholar Laura Kipnis reminds us in Against Love: A Polemic, another critique of modern marriage. While marriage was once needed to insure property distribution through inheritance, she says, now it’s needed to sustain a consumer society. The wedding is just the beginning of a life-long hunger for more stuff.
With fewer women getting married, the wedding industry had to find a way to make sure every woman who walked through the door of a bridal boutique would want an over-the-top wedding, Jellison says. One way of accomplishing this was to interconnect the various components of the wedding. If you want a white dress, then you’ll have to have lots of flowers, and when you order the flowers, they’ll ask about catering, and as long as you’re doing all that, you might as well get your hair and make-up done and arrange for pedicures and manicures for your wedding party. If that’s too much to plan on your own, you can hire a wedding planner. And, after all that, you ought to plan a honeymoon on a tropical island somewhere because you’re going to need a rest. The industry’s pros continue to invent bigger, better services and new trends, such as the mid-90s craze of releasing live butterflies at the end of the ceremony—because nothing says love like the introduction of a non-native species to an environment.3
How does this happen? How, in these post–women’s movement times, does it get to be that a wedding becomes a woman’s perfect, best day? If you look at the components of the industry, it’s really not that difficult to understand. In Here Comes the Bride, even Geller, the feminist scholar, gets seduced by a wedding dress when, as part of her research, she goes undercover as a bride. At a bridal emporium, a saleswoman convinces her to try on an Oleg Cassini gown with a wide skirt and a tight bodice. Uncomfortable at first, Geller catches her reflection in the mirror—same short spiky brown hair, but she looks like a different person: “I actually think to myself, ‘I look amazing. I look like a queen. It would be worth getting married just to be seen in this dress for a few hours.’”
This happened to me, too. I’d wanted a simple wedding and a simple dress to match, but, somehow, five months before my wedding, I found myself in a bridal boutique modeling $2,000 gowns for my mom and her best friend. I ended up with a lovely Priscilla of Boston number with a train. A train?!? I hadn’t wanted a train, but the French woman at the boutique was convincing—and the dress did make my waist look small. For the reception, she said, the train could be bunched up in a bustle, and I wouldn’t notice it at all.
My dress must have seemed ridiculous to Kimberly, the friend who got married this summer. She knew I was more of a barefoot on the beach sort of bride than a train and bustle bride, but she was kind not to laugh as she helped zip me into the dress on the afternoon of my wedding day. I’d known Kimberly since she’d been my editor at our college newspaper. Our paths had diverged when, at my first newspaper job out of college, I fell in love with the man I would marry two years later. Kimberly was the only one of my friends to challenge my decision to get married. It didn’t fit with her idea of who I was then, and she told me so. It took me years to forgive her for that, and not until recently, seven years later, have I wanted to thank her. It’s not that I regret my decision to get married. It’s that I’ve come to appreciate her honesty. I’ve come to appreciate her questions, which came at a time when it was easy to get caught up in the swirl of wedding planning, the spree of buying.
Take a look at the wedding magazines in your local bookstore sometime. Last time I counted, there were twenty-two. The headlines reveal the psychology of the industry. The message is: A woman’s wedding day is the most important day of her life, and for every need or want or wish she has for that day, there’s a product or service or accessory that will help her look her best, which is, judging by the advertisements and articles in these magazines, the highest priority for the Big Day. You’re a Star. It’s Your Day to Shine. Sparkle! Glow Girl! Easy Tips for Big Day Radiance. Celebrity Wedding Hair. Pretty as a Picture! Lose 10 Pounds by Your Wedding Day! Set His Heart A-Flutter.
A friend recently attended a $75,000 wedding, the ceremony of which she later described as “distinctly loveless.” That phrase padded around in my head for weeks. “Distinctly loveless.” There’s not much focus on love or relationships in wedding magazine articles. In the magazines I’ve looked at, very few focus on anything other than the Big Day, and if they do it’s thinner than a layer of fondant on a $3,000 wedding cake. An article in Bride’s magazine claims to offer advice on marrying outside one’s religion, but the article focuses on etiquette (how to find an officiant, where to get married, what food to serve) rather than the relationship. An article in Portland Bride & Groom offers advice on getting along with the in-laws. Again, a great, practical idea. But the article is just a page long with four subtitled paragraphs: Respect. Set Limits. Traditions. Parenting. The last sentence reads perkily: “Enjoy the journey!” Another article in Portland Bride & Groom is curiously titled, “Leap into Marriage: 7 Steps to a Meaningful Ceremony,” as though the words “leap” and “meaningful” go together so naturally.
Wedding magazines are filled with more advertising than anything else. What better way to inaugurate the couple into the buying frenzy that many weddings become. “The engaged life stage is among the most compelling sales opportunities for your company,” boasts Condé Nast Bridal Group to its advertisers. In Modern Bride, an ad for Crate & Barrel reads, “You marry a store, too.” Lest anyone forget, it’s all about the loot.
If there are marriages where it really is all about the loot (could any relationship be so uncomplicated?) then the only winners here are Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma, and Target. In Against Love, Kipnis glowers, “As everyone knows (and if not, the advertising industry was invented to educate you on this score), steady doses of the proper commodities will help assuage the sense of amputation and resentment that come from doing a mindlessly boring thing for most of your life on earth.” That mindlessly boring thing she’s referring to is marriage. Kipnis employs a rather cynical view—that marriage leaves most people wanting more, that the emptiness translates into rampant consumerism, anti-depressant use,4 and, often, adultery.
We’ve all heard the statistics. Half of all marriages today end in divorce. A recent study from the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University found that 40 percent of married Americans don’t describe themselves as very happy. So, it’s not surprising that some scholars link the self-help industry to the wedding industry. In the self-help section at the local bookstore, you’ll find Reclaiming Desire, Resurrecting Sex, and Restoring the Pleasure. Dr. Phil beams from the cover of Relationship Rescue, shelved between his The Ultimate Weight Solution Cookbook and a Relationship Tool Kit. Borders even has a Marriage and Divorce section that hosts: Making Marriage Work for Dummies, Idiot’s Guide to the Perfect Marriage, The Hitched Chick’s Guide to Modem Marriage, and Divorce for Dummies. As Jellison says, “If your wedding is the perfect fantasy, your perfect day, what comes after must be a real drag .... Living in the same home with another human being for the rest of your life can be a difficult proposition.”
But I have to admit that I had fun looking at wedding magazines, which aren’t located far from the self-help section in the bookstore. I enjoyed reading, in the Summer 2004 issue of Martha Stewart Weddings, about Sheila and Steve’s “glamorous old Hollywood” wedding at the elegant and expensive Grand Newport Plaza, in Costa Mesa, California, which they drenched in pink carnations, dahlias, and orchids. And when I get my Sunday edition of the New York Times, one of the first sections I turn to is the wedding section. But to read Ingraham or talk to Jellison or other feminist scholars5 and then to engage in this wedding voyeurism is a bit like watching a PETA film and then going out for filet mignon. Ingraham, for instance, points out that the wedding industry is a serious business with ties to racial, class, and sexual hierarchies in America, and that our romance with wedding culture only furthers promotion of consumerism and patriarchy. I’d rather go back to that innocent time when I could gaze at the Vera Wang dresses on the Times wedding page.
But Ingraham also explains the white wedding’s mystique in American culture with a compelling personal anecdote: “Watching video after video of wedding stories, there were times when I would feel my emotions and my intellect split apart. Tears would be streaming down my face as I empathized with the characters in a movie while, at the same time, I would be taking notes critiquing the heterosexual imagery.”
I think that emotion/intellect split is at the heart of why smart women have big, expensive weddings. On one shoulder sits a Bride. Perhaps she’s wearing a sequin-encrusted ivory silk taffeta dress and her great-grandmother’s pearl necklace and holding a bouquet of sweetheart roses. On the other shoulder sits Jellison, wagging her finger at the Bride because her dress was made by children in Bangladeshi factories. Hello, have you heard of the women’s movement? she asks. Yes, you have choices, but walking down the aisle in a veil on your Daddy’s arm isn’t the choice we had in mind.
But how many women share Jellison’s point of view? And so what? So what if a woman wants to have a fancy traditional wedding? To this Jellison says, “A woman who knows better but has a show-biz wedding sends out a dangerous political message to the rest of the world regarding such ideas as the role of ‘wife’ being the most important one women can play, the wedding day being the one that eclipses all days and accomplishments in her life, etcetera.” She admits she takes these things more seriously than most people.
On the morning of Kimberly’s wedding, she and I went out to breakfast with two other friends. Kimberly had gone running earlier, and at the cafe, she ate a piece of quiche and a ginger cookie and sipped herbal tea. She was calm—the opposite of the nervous, frantic bride from the movies. One of her friends, a new mom and an old hat at this married business, offered Kimberly an anti-anxiety pill. Kimberly declined. She obviously didn’t need it . Kimberly’s other friend told the story of her wedding day—how her mom had distributed an itinerary days before that told each member of the wedding party where to be and what to do every five minutes, for the entire day. One of her most vivid memories of her wedding day was starving in her elaborate wedding dress. No one would let her touch food because she might stain the dress. So, before the wedding, her sister-in-law dropped pieces of pita bread with hummus, a food she dislikes, into her mouth like she was a baby bird. She’s divorced now and can laugh at these stories.
Later, at the wedding ceremony, which took place outside the winery in a grove of trees, Kimberly walked through the grass on the arms of her parents, smiling big, laughing even. She wore a tea-length Dupioni silk dress with a lavender sash (her mom made the dress), and she looked herself—not all froofy or done up or swathed in white. I cried. I really did. And I’m not usually a wedding crier.
The best part of the ceremony was the homily, which was given by a friend of Kimberly’s from college, a Lutheran pastor named Katy McCallum. Katy told the story of the wedding at Cana of Galilee, a wedding attended by Jesus and his disciples. While Jesus was at the wedding, the wine ran out, which was, Katy said, as much of an emergency then as it would be today. When he heard about the wine situation, Jesus made a rather mysterious statement about how it was not yet his “hour,” and then he turned 180 gallons of water into 180 gallons of fine wine. Katy told the story because it raised a question that applied to that wedding in Cana of Galilee and to Kimberly and Erik’s wedding in Spokane, Washington. “Will there be enough for you, in your life together?” she asked. “Will there be enough time for one another in the midst of busy jobs and schedules? Will there be enough money to go around? Will there be enough family and friends to support you? Will there be enough love when there is much to be forgiven? Will it be enough?”
It was such a bold and elegant question to pose at a wedding. Later Katy told me she asked the question because it seemed appropriate for Kimberly and Erik, who, she said, live out their faith in some counter-cultural ways, and because such questions seem appropriate at weddings, where there are so many expectations. Katy marries about fifteen couples a year and is engaged to be married herself “I do think our society puts huge demands on marriage,” she says. “Fantastic sex all the time, someone who fulfills all your needs, two people likely working full-time but expected to be romantic 24/7. No one can live up to that. It’s certainly not healthy even to try. The bar is raised so high that ‘enough’ comes to be defined as ‘absolutely everything.’”
One of Katy’s points is that Americans are such individualistic people that marriages are often separated from communities of support, yet these communities can be crucial when the storms rattle our small domestic islands. “Maybe the two of you won’t be enough for one another at times,” she told Kimberly and Erik. “That’s why you have the rest of us.”
That’s the part where I wished for a hanky. It was a simple statement with more significance than any cake-cutting/cake-stuffing-in-mouth ritual or any bouquet toss, more beauty than a truckload of butterflies. It was the opposite of the pageantry, of all this stuff we’re supposed to need—as opposed to the people we need. It wasn’t until later that I realized Kimberly had been helping me with my marriage for seven years, despite whatever disagreements we had. All those phone calls. All those girls’ weekends. I hadn’t thought about it that way before. If you strip weddings of their rituals and all their stuff, what’s left is two people pledging to spend their lives together and their guests, however many, pledging to support the relationship. Everything else is superfluous. I wonder, what if every couple planning a wedding started there—with that idea?
At Kimberly and Erik’s wedding reception, we raised our glasses of sparkling wine in a toast. We ate homemade Norwegian cake. We swayed tipsily to the music from mixed CDs friends had made. We snuck away and decorated their get-away car with balloons and streamers. But what I’ll remember most is the question. It’s a question I like very much, a question I’d like to pose to Bride’s magazine, to Vera Wang, to the peddlers of wedding insurance (“should the unexpected happen”) , to Crate & Barrel, to Condé Nast Bridal Group, to the newly engaged, and to wedding planners everywhere: Will it be enough?
1 The phrase “smug married” comes from Bridget Jones’s Diary, that iconic text chronicling tortured single womanhood.
2 This figure comes from the Condé Nast Bridal group, which, being a part of the wedding industry, may not be the most reliable source but, at this point, is one of the only sources for such statistics. According to Condé Nast, the $50 billion figure comprises weddings and ceremonies alone, while other purchases, such as honeymoons, add up to another $70 billion.
3 The North American Butterfly Association has called for a ban on the release of commercially obtained butterflies at public events such as weddings, noting that the introduction of a non-native species spreads disease and parasites and results in “inappropriate genetic mixing” and, often, an abundance of dead and half-dead butterflies.
4 Kipnis says an estimated thirty million Americans, around 10 percent of the adult population, have taken anti-depressants at some point.
5 Marriage and wedding research is a relatively new field of study. This may be because the academics most inclined to study weddings are feminist scholars, who’ve long considered weddings a taboo subject—too fluffy and unrelated to issues of feminism. Like weddings, the study of weddings is a gendered affair. One of the only men to have written on the subject is British anthropologist Simon Charsley, who wrote a book about the wedding industry in Scotland in 1991 and another about the cultural history of wedding cakes in 1992.
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