The Appealing Earnestness of 'Say Yes to the Dress'

Why so many women tune in to watch brides-to-be pick out their wedding gowns

Daniel D. Snyder

A woman in a wedding gown stands on a small pedestal before a three-way mirror. She turns to admire the beading and train, while her mother and bridesmaids sit on a couch and watch. The appointment has run overtime, so Randy Fenoli, the bridal store's dapper fashion director, has been summoned to help the sales associate "seal the deal." He plucks a floor-length veil from an accessories rack and places it gently on the bride-to-be's head. He steps back and waits a full beat—long enough for her to absorb the wonder. "Is this The Dress?" he asks, hands clasped in exaggerated anticipation. The woman stares at her reflection. Everyone on the sofa holds her breath. The camera lingers on the woman's face, and then cuts to Randy, the sales associate, and the mother, before returning to the woman in white. She begins to nod—slowly, as if to prolong the moment. "This is The One," she finally says, breaking into a teary, dazzling smile.

Tune in to any episode of Say Yes to the Dress, a TLC reality TV show, and that is what you will almost surely see. The customers, dresses, and Randy's pocket square may vary, but the plot is always the same: A young woman travels from a distant land (Long Island, Wisconsin, Africa, or some other place with a woefully inadequate supply of wedding gowns) to Kleinfeld's, Manhattan's largest bridal shop, in search of the perfect dress.

Accompanying her on this difficult quest is a posse of opinionated friends and family members. Like the hero of any epic tale, the young woman must overcome a series of hurdles, including (listed in increasing order of importance): the budget, or "price point," to use the show's preferred euphemism; the mother-daughter disagreement; and the fear of commitment, the absolute terror that apparently results from having to choose just one dress from among so many possibilities. "It's sometimes harder to commit to the dress than the fiancé," says Ronnie Rothstein, co-owner of Kleinfeld's, in a moment of unscripted honesty.

And just in case the suspense of watching someone select an outrageously expensive wedding dress is not enough, the show ups the ante with equally riveting post-purchase crises: the made-to-order gown that, after a six-month wait, arrives in the wrong shade of ivory; the panicky bride who is having second thoughts (about the gown, not the groom); and the wild mother-of-the-bride who punches the store's seamstress in a fit of pique. On Friday, the series will begin its seventh season. (By way of comparison, that's about equal to Project Runway's run and half as long as Survivor's, the current heavyweight in the reality TV genre.) And the show has spawned a slew of spinoffs, including an Atlanta version, a bridesmaids-centric adaptation, and a Big Bliss edition aimed at plus-sized brides. Randy Fenoli, the store's aforementioned fashion director, a man whose resume includes a stint as a female impersonator and who is not above wearing a pink suit and purple tie, is now a celebrity in his own right. Last year saw the publication of his own coffee table book, a glossy tome whose title promises "Priceless Advice" on how to find "The One." SYTTD now qualifies as a franchise.

It might be tempting to dismiss the show as a cultural curiosity (which it probably is) or as one long infomercial concocted by a savvy retailer (which it surely is), but for the fact that it appeals to such a wide swath of the female population. According to one industry magazine, TLC's Friday night line-up, including SYTTD, ranks number two among women age 18-49, and number three among women 25-54. Last season, the show averaged 1.7 million viewers per episode. And those numbers don't take into account the myriad women who watch the reruns on Netflix.

What's behind this kind of popularity? The easy answer is that American women are obsessed with weddings. It is a princess-for-a-day fantasy promoted shamelessly by Disney, Hollywood, and a $165-billion-dollar-a-year wedding industry that has managed to conflate a big wedding with guaranteed happiness. As Rebecca Mead notes in her 2007 book One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding, "If a bride buys into the wedding industry, she is promised the happily-ever-after that she, in her big white dress and tiara, deserves."

But how then to explain the show's appeal to people who aren't in the market for The Dress? Indeed, my own unofficial survey indicates that there may be a cadre of older women—people with high-powered day jobs and no imminent nuptials—who are also fans. One 58-year-old PR executive admitted to being "glued" to the show on Friday nights—along with her husband. And a 45-year-old mother of two described how she regularly snuggles up with her teenage daughter and a bowl of popcorn to watch marathon reruns. "I'm addicted," said another female executive. "But don't tell anyone," she added, lowering her voice and looking over her shoulder to see if anyone was listening.

My own experience—I am a fiftysomething former lawyer—confirms this anecdotal evidence. Once I stumbled onto the reruns, I couldn't stop watching them. "Just one more episode," I would tell myself, glancing at my watch. "It's research," I said to my husband in answer to his curious look. Even I, a PBS snob and the mother of four grown children, find something strangely compelling about the show.

Make no mistake, its flaws are plenty. The constant pressure to close a sale within the allotted time is annoying. (Why trek to a store with 1,500 dresses if you can only try on a few?) And the staff's obvious preference for the elaborate and overtly sexy (some might say gaudy and overpriced) dresses designed by Pnina Tornai, Kleinfeld's "exclusive" designer, is offensive—especially when the bride's family cannot afford the $10,000 price tag. Watch a mother's face when her daughter announces she wants a "Pnina" and you too will wince. In addition, the show's ridiculous emphasis on finding "The One," a concept that Rebecca Mead likens to the "myth of separated lovers in Plato's Symposium," elevates the selection of the dress to a level that makes the decision about the groom seem like an afterthought. "Tell me about your fiancé," each sales associate asks with a forced smile, in what is clearly an obligatory part of the interview, a tiresome question that must be posed before everyone can focus on what really matters. Indeed, the groom seems to be relegated to the status of a prop, a walking mannequin whose sole purpose is to accompany The Dress down the aisle.

And then too, there is what I like to call the "Escalating Weirdness" problem." Let's face it, after six seasons, it's getting harder to find interesting customers. The bridezilla who wants to try on a hundred dresses or the spoiled brat who flies in on daddy's private jet (a must-see episode from Season 4) is no longer a big enough draw. Even the woman who insists on donning a mask while she tries on dresses, so that—drum roll, please—she won't be distracted by the sight of her own face, probably wouldn't make the cut today. Now, a customer needs to be a minor celebrity or truly outrageous to get on the show. Recent seasons featured a former Hollywood stuntwoman, a woman who needed a dress to match her fairy wings, and a woman who wanted to look like a pirate. What's next, conjoined twins?

But back to the question: Why do women like this show so much? One theory is that they simply love to look at the dresses. I fall into this category. The white confections are eye candy to me. Granted, I come from a long line of wedding gown aficionados. (My grandmother and aunt were both in the business.) But still, I know plenty of other women who feel the same way. There's something enchanting—and mythic—about those dresses. When Priscilla of Boston, a famous bridal gown atelier, closed shop a few months ago and its liquidators used spray paint to destroy the store's remaining stock, I was not alone in my outrage. I realize that in the hierarchy of world tragedies, this event ranks pretty low. Nevertheless, the public outcry at the photographs of those lovely gowns—the silk, chiffon, and lace forever marred by the gigantic red "X's"—was so great that it quickly turned into a PR nightmare. I suspect that many of SYTTD's viewers watch the show simply to catch a glimpse of what may be among the most beautiful collection of dresses in the world.

For the younger set, of course, the show is also a quasi-retail opportunity. A way to plan for their own big day—an event that, that thanks to Disney et al, they've been consciously or subconsciously planning for decades. "I've been dreaming of this since I was five years old," just about every customer confides while the sales associate nods solemnly, as if she hasn't heard this exact same declaration a thousand times.

And as for the older women? My theory is that it is nostalgia for old-school Romance, or a covert way to enjoy what they know is politically incorrect—or perhaps both. A kind of soft-core feminist porn. This may be especially true for women of a certain generation, women who spent their adult lives trying to crack glass ceilings, the card-carrying feminists who, willingly or reluctantly, jettisoned the idea of a happily-ever-after in their quest for equal pay. Watching the show, they can mourn the loss of both dreams.

Then again, the show's popularity may have less to do with gender politics and more to do with the general economy. The last time the country suffered this kind of financial body blow, people fled to the movies for diversion. Now, people watch reality TV to escape reality. But the irony is purely superficial. After all, what better way is there to anesthetize oneself from a harsh economy than to immerse oneself in the triumphant fulfillment of someone else's fantasy? A fairy tale that actually comes true. And keep in mind that Say Yes To The Dress has none of the competitiveness or harsh criticism that define many other reality shows. Randy Fenoli's smile may be brittle, but he is no Simon Cowell. The sales associates may want to "seal the deal" and presumably earn a commission, but they are not snide. Everyone appears to be genuinely interested in pleasing the bride-to-be. No cynicism spoils this collective pursuit of happiness. And that, I suspect, may be at the heart of the show's success.