It’s early May. Which means it’s wedding season. Which means a whole lot of Americans will soon be partying in a barn.
Millennials, in staggering numbers, are choosing to start their married lives under high eaves and exposed beams, looking out over long, stripped-down wooden benches and lines of mason jars. According to an annual survey from The Knot, an online wedding-planning platform and magazine, 15 percent of couples chose a barn, farm, or ranch for their wedding reception in 2017, up from just 2 percent in 2009. Meanwhile, more traditional wedding locales are losing their appeal. (The number of couples choosing to celebrate in banquet halls dropped from 27 percent in 2009 to 17 percent in 2017; similarly, hotel receptions dropped from 18 to 12 percent.) Even if a couple isn’t actually getting married in a barn, there’s a good chance they’ll make their venue look like one, said Gabrielle Stone, a wedding planner based in Boston, Massachusetts. “There is this term that people use now: rustic chic.” Typically, that means couples will fill the space with homemade chalkboard signs and distressed, vintage furniture. “And wooden water barrels,” Stone said. “Lots of water barrels.”
When I asked my first question—are barns popular because they’re cheap?—Gwen Helbush, a wedding planner from San Francisco, laughed. “Don’t we wish it were so,” she said. While there are, surely, many relatively inexpensive barn weddings thrown in actual barns, by couples who actually live in rural areas with easy actual-barn access, anecdotal evidence suggests those probably aren’t what’s driving this trend. (Data is not available broken down by race, class, geography, or anything else—a level of granularity that would surely add to the picture of who is buoying this trend and why.)
Over the last few years, a wave of faux barns, designed exclusively to host weddings, have popped up across the country. Venues like Virginia’s Pippin Hill Farm, built in 2011, offer an experience that its owner Lynn Easton Andrews called “expensively understated.” “We’re not seeing bales of hay in the middle of the barn,” Stone said. “No one is wearing overalls, per se.” The tarnished brass lamps and faded couches are generally hauled in from boutique vintage rental companies—another business booming with the barn-wedding industry—more akin to props than random, leftover farming accoutrements.
Like earlier generations of Americans, Millennials want a beautiful (read: expensive) wedding. According to one widely cited set of statistics, the average wedding cost has been steadily increasing, from $27,021 in 2011 to $33,391 in 2017. But, despite these price tags, many young couples today don’t want to be showy about it. Happier at a brewery than a fancy restaurant, accustomed to wearing jeans to work, many Millennials are proudly casual. There is a certain social capital that, as a 20- or 30-something, comes with being labeled “laid-back” and “chill.” “You’re going to be putting yourself out there in front of everyone you know and love and you don’t want to be judged harshly,” Helbush told me. The trappings of a traditional, formal wedding in a hotel ballroom—a fancy fish dish, a black-tie dress code, trays of champagne—are seen by many as stuffy and old-fashioned: chill’s antithesis.
When Easton Andrews asks couples to show her pictures of their dream wedding, the same type of image crops up a lot. “There are people sitting on long tables, clinking glasses, smiling,” she said. “It’s about how heartfelt it feels—people sitting together, breaking bread, sharing the experience.” Formality, for many Millennials, feels awkward. It adds pressure. If a wedding were clearly designed to be just-so—not a table setting out of place—Millennials, Helbush said, may find it hard to relax. Barns and farms, on the other hand, eviscerate that pressure with their inherent informality. A guest can knock over a glass. Life will go on.
Young couples today, more than their parents or grandparents, see a wedding as an expression of their identity. Because they’re choosing to get married later than previous generations, Helbush finds that her clients today seem to know themselves better than her clients 30 years ago. “They’ve come into themselves more,” she said. “They know what they like and they aren’t afraid to ask for it.” Couples gravitate towards locales that say something about their personality. By choosing to get married in a barn, Easton Andrews said, a couple might want to show that they’re “connected to nature.” Maybe they fell in love outside, hiking or camping. Other unique locales—historic homes and museums for history buffs, and vineyards for wine lovers—are also having a moment in the wedding industry.
“It’s about the couple—who they are, and what they want to represent,” Helbush told me. “More than ‘How do I want other people to see me?’ it’s ‘How do I want to see myself?’” Many, she said, live in urban areas and have a fantasy about a life that is “calmer and less complicated”: a life removed from the big city, where couples and their guests can be one with the animals (or—if none are available—at least the spaces they could theoretically inhabit). A barn wedding typifies a simpler life, Helbush said, “because Pinterest told us so.”