Say Yes to the Dress is capitalizing, in that, on a moment in American life that makes the term “wedding industrial complex” seem at once undeniably accurate and impossibly quaint. While participation in marriage, in the U.S., has been declining steadily over the past 40 years, participation in the parties that celebrate the institution has been expanding—if through no other method than the workings of cultural osmosis. Weddings, these days, are everywhere. Take all those “exclusive” celebrity wedding photos in People. All those punny wedding hashtags (#ForeverYounge, #ToHaveAndToHolton, #OneHaleOfaWedding) punctuating social media feeds. All those whimsical wedding salons that have been added, in recent years, to Anthropologie stores in malls the nation over. All those bridal bootcamps that promise to tone women’s shoulders, arms, and backs to ensure that their wedding Looks will be properly picturesque. All those movies that celebrate the dramas and the delightful absurdities of the nuptial events. And, yes: all those wedding-centered reality shows.
It’s a situation—weddings, dissolved and distributed across pop culture—that in one way simply reflects the obvious: Weddings can be awesome. They’re fun. They’re festive. They’re ever more egalitarian. And they do, as well, that rarest of things: They bring people together, across geographies and generations and, sometimes, classes. (Say Yes to the Dress celebrates that breadth: In casting a diverse array of brides, the show emphasizes the idea that nuptial bliss can be enjoyed by anyone who cares enough to seek it.) That communal sensibility—families and friends joining together, just as the couple does—is a special thing. So special, in fact, that, according to the wedding-info site The Knot, Americans spent an average of $35,329 on their weddings in 2016, not including honeymoons—“an all-time high,” the site notes.
But it’s the products at the periphery of the wedding industry, the TV shows and magazines and Pinterest boards and The Knot itself, that have helped to put another kind of spin on that age-old celebration of newly forged family. Nuptials, in the pop-cultured conception, are not merely parties, but gauzy exercises in self-expression. They are intricate productions of the theater of the self, performed as a one-time show. The American wedding, at this point, makes a promise not just about undying love or enduring companionship, but also about something simpler and more radical: It insists, in an age of uncertainty and anxiety, that Dreams themselves—no matter how whimsical, no matter how unusual, no matter how idiosyncratic—can be, with the proper investment, realized.
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Call it the wedding theatrical complex. And while you can attribute its emergence to many things, one of them must be a single book published 30 years ago, in July of 1987. Martha Stewart Weddings was in one way simply the sequel to Martha Stewart Entertaining, the 1982 tome that helped to establish Stewart as a celebrity, authority, and household name. Weddings tells the stories of more than 40 marriage celebrations—intimate ones, huge ones, fancy ones, relatively casual ones, staged at sites across the country—all produced with Stewart’s signature and immaculate attention to detail. There are Knot-esque narratives about each couple and the events they plan, categorized by venue (The Farmhouse Wedding, The Summer House Wedding, The Yacht Club Wedding, The At-Home Wedding, The Rental Space Wedding, The Crystal Palace Wedding). And there are more instructional sections, as well, offering detailed advice about each component of the journey to “I do”: the Invitation, the Dress, the Bouquet, the Ceremony, the Music, the Decoration. There are suggested wedding menus (the Garden Party in Pink, the High-Style Wedding Lunch, the Formal Winter Pork Dinner). There are recipes (more than 120 of them). There are many, many photographs, rendered—this was a novelty, in 1987—in sumptuous color.