He cut off our conversation to flag down a couple passing by. “Excuse me, miss, when’s the big day? I’ve got something for you!” he shouted, shepherding them to his company’s table. “Sorry about that,” he said. “I get paid whenever they stop by. I can’t let them get away.”
Wedding expos around the country bring together soon-to-be-married couples and the companies vying for their business. The companies range in size from large chains such as Bed Bath & Beyond to local wedding planners. Gathering data on the sprawling, amorphous wedding industry is difficult, but the Middlebury College sociologist Laurie Essig used bridal expos as a place to do research, by talking with couples and trying to understand their idealistic visions of their wedding day.
In her book Love, Inc.: Dating Apps, the Big White Wedding, and Chasing the Happily Neverafter, she describes how hard these events work to sell people on a wedding that will be the stuff of dreams. “Love has always been caught up with money,” she told me, but the frenzied expos present a uniquely modern vision of romance: perfection that can be bought.
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By Essig’s estimation, bridal expos have been around for the past three decades, cropping up at the same time that the U.S. wedding industry began to balloon. As people’s access to credit expanded in the 1970s, so did their ability to spend—which consequently boosted spending for weddings, Essig said. “You had more stuff to sell people, and so you needed a way to consolidate how to sell it to them.” Enter the expo, which Essig calls “capitalism at its most efficient”: Gather people and vendors in the same room with symbiotic purposes to buy and sell.
Essig attended four expos in 2013 and 2014 across the U.S. and Canada. The majority of couples she spoke with were heterosexual and working- or middle-class. Most planned to spend $15,000 to $35,000 on their wedding, many of them adding to existing debt such as student loans and mortgages in the process. They said they were willing to take on more debt to have their “perfect day.”
“They were already so far in debt that I think taking out debt for a wedding didn’t scare them as much as it might have,” Essig said. “I talked to a lot of people who said, ‘We’re always going to be in debt—that’s the generation we are.”
People’s willingness to take on thousands of dollars in debt for a wedding—as opposed to other adult celebrations such as, say, college graduation or the birth of a child—fascinates Essig, who studies gender and sexuality. Part of some couples’ rationale was that their parents, especially their mothers, expected a “good wedding,” to reflect the fact that it’s supposed to be one of the “most important days of their lives,” she said. “They definitely saw the wedding as part of producing a good future that their families could get behind. That’s what your family expects of you. And if you don’t do it, there’s going to be something wrong with your marriage. It’s not going to last.”