How 'I Do' Became Performance Art

Thirty years ago, with the help of a massive coffee table book, the American wedding theatrical complex was born.

Wedding Stock Photo / Shutterstock

There’s a ritual that takes place, several times, during each 22-minute episode of the reality-show juggernaut Say Yes to the Dress. A bride-to-be, who will typically arrive at Kleinfeld’s Manhattan wedding emporium with friends and family in tow, will first introduce the group (her “entourage,” the show will call them) to the person who will be her personal attendant throughout her Kleinfeld Experience. The bride will then be spirited away, from the “Bridal Floor” and its effusions of white, to a simple dressing room. There, she and her attendant will get down to business. “How do you want to look,” the consultant will ask her, with cheerful solemnity, “on your wedding day?”

The bride will reply instantly (“classic,” “ethereal,” “edgy,” “like Beyoncé,” “like a princess”), and if she does not—if, indeed, she betrays any uncertainty about her bridal Look and/or Style and/or Philosophy—the attendant will allow a shadow of disapproval to cross her face. This is part of the ritual. After all, in the Kleinfeld cosmos, a Wedding Day is not really a matter of legal pragmatism, or of religious tradition, or even, really, of love; it is an act of determined transformation. It is a day about Dreams—Dreams whose roots have been growing in the bride’s mind and heart ever since, as it goes, she was a little girl. Dreams made manifest in that most quintessentially American of manners: through the purchase of an extremely expensive piece of clothing.

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.

So Weddings found Martha Stewart doing what she is so consummately excellent at doing: She saw where things were heading. She observed the broad evolution of the American wedding, up to that point—the conscientious austerity of the ’30s and ’40s, the careful formality of the ’50s, the counter-cultural backlash of the ’60s and ’70s—and realized that another kind of reaction was stirring. This was the ’80s, after all: the decade of Dynasty and greed is good and Princess Diana’s silk-billowing bridal gown. Weddings, Stewart saw, were about to become similarly puffed up. They’d ride the economic boom times of the later ’80s and the celebrity culture of the ’90s and the social media-driven individualism of the ’00s to evolve into what they have become, generally, today: celebrations not just of two people deciding to merge their assets, but also of celebration itself—its pageantry and its unapologetic excess.

Stewart, in other words, understood that weddings were so marketable specifically because weddings were so meaningful. “Of all the events in the course of a human life,” she writes in the book’s introduction, “a wedding may be the richest—in fact, in folklore, in spirit. By almost any measure—the dreams extended, the energy and funds expended, the planning, the paraphernalia, even the quality of tears shed—it emerges as monumental.”

Martha Stewart Weddings, as an object, is more than 370 pages long and 5.6 pounds in weight. Its pages are stationery-thick. Its photography is opulent. It is, in its own way, monumental. And as a philosophy, Weddings embraces the idea that has animated the 15 seasons of Say Yes to the Dress and its counterparts, across American culture: Weddings takes for granted the profound connection between “wedding” and “identity.” It understands nuptials as singular expressions of selfhood. Stewart, with the help of the writer Elizabeth Hawes, meditates, in Weddings, on the definition of style—a word that “often carries a trendy connotation,” but that is, in fact, derived from the Latin stylus. “Like handwriting,” Stewart notes, style “derives from innate rhythms and expresses something personal and unique.” And style, that profound mingling of the intimate and the transcendent, should be the driving force behind any wedding.

It was—Wedding Portrait in a Convex Mirrorin some ways a radical proposition. By 1987, the shifts of earlier eras, the sexual revolution and the women’s movement in particular, had partially deprived the marriage celebration of the significance it once had: the beginning, at least officially, of the bride’s sexual life. And into the vacuum was coming a new meaning, one informed by contemporary notions of selfhood and celebrity and the moral power of aspiration. In the movie Working Girl, released in 1988, Tess (Melanie Griffith) and Jack (Harrison Ford) crash a comically spectacular wedding—a themed event whose only real cultural reference point seems to be “tropical.” Set in a ballroom, the party features thatched-roof palapas, umbrella-festooned drinks, and servers clad in pith helmets. The bridesmaids, however, wear puffy pink satin; the Latin band plays “Isn’t It Romantic.” There’s a cartoonish—and even grotesque—feel to the whole thing, and yet the event nicely reflects its times: Here is a bride, viewers are meant to understand, who has perfectly understood her own wedding Style. And who has channeled that Style into a production that is the height of something personal and unique.

So Martha Stewart understood 30 years ago what every Kleinfeld consultant and every Kleinfeld-approved bride today takes for granted: that, in the great performance of the modern wedding—the reading of the poems and the saying of the vows and the dancing of the dances—families and friends and those people who have the misfortune to be neither bride nor groom are supporting players at best. There is no “team” in “wedding,” after all, but there is very definitely an “i.” What Stewart grasped, long before others would, was a broader transformation afoot in American culture: a shift toward a kind of restless individualism. The historian and social critic Christopher Lasch published his book The Culture of Narcissism less than a decade before Martha Stewart Weddings; the scholar Robert Putnam published his essay Bowling Alone less than a decade after it. Both works were indictments of what the authors diagnosed as the decline of community-mindedness in America. Both were, in their way, indictments of Style.

But Style is a powerful thing. And it is also, of course, a costly thing. In 1950, the film Father of the Bride focused on the financial pressures borne by the eponymous dad—“bridesmaids and churches,” “automobiles and flowers,” “and heaven knows what!” he complains—but emphasized that the pressures existed in the first place because the Bankses were expected to give their daughter the kind of wedding their friends had given theirs. In 1991, the movie’s remake thoroughly recalibrated those expectations. The wedding whose bill the Bankses foot, its opulence expanded with the help of excitable wedding planners, is defined by idiosyncrasy more than conformity: Swans waddle through the yard, and Annie, the bride, wears sneakers instead of heels. The guiding ethos of the remake, four decades after the original, is not keeping up with the Joneses so much as distinguishing from them.

What both movies’ visions have in common, however, is anxiety over an event—One Perfect Day, the journalist Rebecca Mead summed it up, with no paucity of irony—that seems to have adopted a mind of its own: Everyone involved wants to be practical, in terms of money, in terms of scope. But the wedding will not be denied. This is another thing Martha Stewart anticipated. Weddings acknowledges the necessity of a budget, for example—“the question of budget is an old-fashioned one: that money makes it easier to make free choices, but that money is not the arbiter”—and yet, in the end, downplays it. This is, after all, a once-in-a-lifetime event. While you can’t put a price on love, in another way, the modern wedding whispers, you very definitely can.

So while Weddings is in some ways an instruction manual, as so many of Stewart’s later guides would be, it is also a kind of declaration—about the moral value of wanting something, about the worth of aspiration itself. The book does not try to reflect the world as it is—the couples here, for the most part, are wealthy enough to throw Yacht Club weddings, and are, in general, varying shades of white—but exists instead in that diaphanous realm of aspiration and accommodated desire. It is a paean to the work that goes into weddings—Stewart herself was connected to many of the events highlighted in it because she had, indeed, catered them—that casts labor itself in the service of a broader vision. It is the Dream, here, that matters. It is the Dream, indeed, toward which all else will bend.

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It is perhaps through such layered meaning-making that Martha Stewart Weddings, as Caitlin Flanagan wrote in a 2001 essay in The Atlantic, “helped to cement [Stewart’s] reputation as one of our most important cultural figures.” It is perhaps because of it, as well, that, in a market crowded with books and blogs and magazines and Pinterest boards, Weddings’s “pride of place in the wedding-wish-book canon,” Flanagan put it, “has been challenged only by the publication of a second volume, The Best of Martha Stewart Living: Weddings.” And it is certainly for that reason that the original book—coming as it did so soon after the 1981 wedding of Princess Diana and Prince Charles (and, months later, the wedding of Luke and Laura on General Hospital)—captivated the public, helping to fix in the American mind the notion of a high-stakes exhibition of pageantry and money and selfhood. Here comes the bride, who for a day will know what it is to be a celebrity: catered to, beloved, the star of the show. Here comes the woman who, for that One Perfect Day, will be, as Kleinfeld’s website sums it up, “the absolute, stunning, sparkly, and sexy center of attention.”

But with great Dreams, Kleinfeld knows, come great responsibilities. The brides of Say Yes to the Dress may function, collectively, as Campbellian heroines, embarking, with that initial visit to the bridal salon, on their sacred journeys toward self-expression. They may face opposition from an Overbearing Mother, or a Show-Stealing Bridesmaid, or an Eye-Rolling Groom, but their real foils, in the end, are themselves—their own ambivalence, their own lack of desire for the spotlight, their own imprecise answers to the question of how they want to look on her wedding days. Insufficient commitment to the journey: that is the thing that will not be entertained by the otherwise all-accommodating Kleinfeld consultants. Because, ultimately, the attendants here are proxies for the wedding industrial complex itself. They will entertain any Dreams their brides may have for their weddings—fanciful elopements, goth-themed dresses, underwear-revealing bodices, Wiccan ceremonies, polyamorous ceremonies, vows said while scuba-diving. What they will not entertain, however, is the absence of a Dream itself.

In this sense, the consultants are proxies, as well, for Martha Stewart. Stewart understood, long before some ingenious reality-show producers would understand the same, what weddings would become in an age of individualism and excess. She understood the theater that would accompany the nuptial event in an era that finds identity, as an ethos, driving so much in American life. Stewart looked at the direction of families. She looked at the direction of feminism. She looked at the state of American sexual mores and celebrity culture. She surveyed and scanned and then noticed something, glinting, in the distance. Martha Stewart peered out to the horizon line and saw, in that gauzy place where the sky meets the sea, a series of mermaid-cut dresses, encrusted with Swarovski crystals, on brides who were, at least for a day, living out their wildest dreams.