The Wedding Merchants

Marriage is in Chapter Eleven, but the white wedding is in the black

I do not plan to have another wedding; I'm standing pat at two. But I must confess that after spending a pleasant hour gazing at the photographs in the newest crop of wedding guides, I began to feel a bit of the old itch. There is something deeply seductive about a wedding: romance in its great last stand, before it is sullied by routine and responsibility. Even a picture of that ill-fated girl Diana Spencer (one of eight in Letitia Baldrige's Legendary Brides), standing at the steps of St. Paul's, her veil caught in a gust of wind and her father waiting beside her, can provoke in me a vague yet undeniable longing. But it took only a few minutes of actually reading the texts of these manuals (which are often published in midwinter to serve the many brides planning June campaigns) to bring me to my senses. More than mere fondness for my husband keeps me from getting on the phone to price tea roses and a tent.

Planning a wedding is hell. Things are said. Doors are slammed. Quarrels about the most inconsequential things—yellow tablecloths or white? hors d'oeuvres set out on tables or passed around on trays?—are often pitched at such a level that it seems the combatants may never recover from them. Much of the anxiety, of course, is tribal. It is wrenching to have to open the sacred circle to admit an outsider. If, as Joan Didion once wrote, "marriage is the classic betrayal," then a wedding is the Judas kiss, public and terrible. But what brings people almost to the breaking point (emotional, social, financial) is that white weddings as they are currently practiced in America—with flocks of attendants, and dinner dances for hundreds of guests, and a code governing every moment of the proceedings—don't come naturally to most. Perhaps they don't come naturally to anybody other than the members of the $70 billion-a-year wedding industry (a staggering $19 billion is spent on gifts alone), who seem to have all but created the contemporary event, weaving together attractive bits of genuine tradition and bolts of pure invention.

Before World War II the idea that a girl of modest means would expect any of the purchased grandeur common today would have been laughable. She would have been familiar with the elements of such a ceremony, would have seen lavish movie weddings and photographs of society and royal ones, but she would not imagine that those events had much to do with her own plans. She would have been married much as her mother was: her best friend would stand up for her, and everyone would look forward to a nice party afterward at the bride's home, the two mothers wearing corsages and ladling punch.

But times have changed, and middle-class couples are routinely trading the down payment on a first house for a single eye-popping party. Ilene Beckerman ponders the shift in the charming little book Mother of the Bride: The Dream, the Reality, the Search for a Perfect Dress. After being confronted with her daughter's hideously complex reception menu, Beckerman can't help herself: "When your father and I were married at your grandmother's house in Queens," she tells her aggrieved daughter, "we served deli platters. Everybody loved them."

Nowadays every aspect of a formal wedding has become so intensely merchandized as to render its original design and purpose almost unrecognizable. The bridal registry, for example, was once a means by which a young couple could acquire the basic accoutrements of good housekeeping. Now couples old enough to have fully stocked homes—not to mention full-grown children—register for loot. They can be seen trolling through Williams-Sonoma and Pottery Barn and Target, carrying bar-code scanners and zapping anything that looks good. The trend toward multiple showers means that a guest may return to a couple's registry several times. Web sites such as the Wedding Channel and the Knot provide an opportunity for couples to showcase their weddings for their friends—and to put those friends a click away from the bride's registry, where a gift can be selected and paid for in a matter of minutes.

Everything is big. The wedding invitation, once the model of a certain kind of brevity, is now often a mere component of a thick dossier with multiple stamps. "What's this fat, unsolicited envelope in your mail, packed with forms that you must fill out and instructions that you must obey?" asks Judith Martin, in her Miss Manners on Weddings; she concludes that it is, in fact, a wedding invitation from "people who have gone around the bend." In the many published accounts of people's experiences planning and hosting weddings, couples are constantly getting blind-sided by the professionals, never imagining the pressure that vendors would put on them to consider various trifles absolutely essential. Just as the morticians whom Jessica Mitford described in The American Way of Death (1963) preyed on the grief and guilt of mourners, so do the wedding merchants capitalize on the emotional vulnerability and social anxiety that afflict people planning a formal wedding. If you love her, shouldn't you spend two months' salary on the diamond she's going to wear forever? Would you deny a cherished daughter the same sort of party that all her friends had?

From the archives:

"The Time Has Come" (September 1998)
Thinking about the logical next step in the funeral industry's evolution. By Cullen Murphy

In a memoir detailing her engagement, wedding, and early married life, Something New: Reflections on the Beginnings of a Marriage, Amanda Beesley describes a moment of clarity in which the economics of her planned event came into sharp focus: she had spent a month's rent on her dress, and "the 'deluxe' Porta-Johns, with mirrors and running water," that she had selected "would have paid off two months' worth of my student loan." Setting aside the advisability of buying an expensive dress for anything that is going to involve Porta-Johns, no matter how whiz-bang, the confession is hardly unusual: young people routinely engineer weddings that are well beyond their means.

How did we get here? The idea that the formal white wedding might not be the purview solely of society types began during the postwar rush to the altar, which saw droves of working people—who finally had a bit of disposable income—having weddings more elaborate than their parents'. The first American book devoted to bridal etiquette was published in 1948, heralding the notion that one might clip from an entire volume of social convention a single attractive chapter.

The hugely influential 1950 movie Father of the Bride traded on the new national interest in the particulars of this kind of event, and it portrayed the shift toward grander weddings. Although the bride's parents are well off, they were married simply, "in your front parlor," Mr. Banks reminds his wife; but she is unmoved by this memory or by her husband's pride in having worn a plain blue suit rather than a cutaway. Despite the old man's remonstrations, it is decided that their daughter, iconically played by Elizabeth Taylor, will not follow this family tradition: she will have a different kind of wedding, "with bridesmaids and churches and automobiles and flowers and all that." (Although the film's wedding provided a specific fantasy for a generation of young women, many of today's brides would turn up their noses at it: refreshments consisted of assorted sandwiches, some ice cream, and small cakes.) Facilitating the new preference for such affairs was the growing availability in the 1950s of both mass-produced wedding gowns and rented formal wear for men. This kind of institutionalized formality, however, had a difficult time co-existing with the social upheaval of the 1960s, and by the seventies the big white wedding (along with its dud pal, marriage) was in a period of retrenchment. Tricia Nixon's 1971 wedding in the Rose Garden was considered by many to be Squaresville itself.

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Caitlin Flanagan is the author of Girl Land (2012) and To Hell With All That (2006).  More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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