The Wedding Merchants

Marriage is in Chapter Eleven, but the white wedding is in the black

I do not plan to have another wedding; I'm standing pat at two. But I must confess that after spending a pleasant hour gazing at the photographs in the newest crop of wedding guides, I began to feel a bit of the old itch. There is something deeply seductive about a wedding: romance in its great last stand, before it is sullied by routine and responsibility. Even a picture of that ill-fated girl Diana Spencer (one of eight in Letitia Baldrige's Legendary Brides), standing at the steps of St. Paul's, her veil caught in a gust of wind and her father waiting beside her, can provoke in me a vague yet undeniable longing. But it took only a few minutes of actually reading the texts of these manuals (which are often published in midwinter to serve the many brides planning June campaigns) to bring me to my senses. More than mere fondness for my husband keeps me from getting on the phone to price tea roses and a tent.

Planning a wedding is hell. Things are said. Doors are slammed. Quarrels about the most inconsequential things—yellow tablecloths or white? hors d'oeuvres set out on tables or passed around on trays?—are often pitched at such a level that it seems the combatants may never recover from them. Much of the anxiety, of course, is tribal. It is wrenching to have to open the sacred circle to admit an outsider. If, as Joan Didion once wrote, "marriage is the classic betrayal," then a wedding is the Judas kiss, public and terrible. But what brings people almost to the breaking point (emotional, social, financial) is that white weddings as they are currently practiced in America—with flocks of attendants, and dinner dances for hundreds of guests, and a code governing every moment of the proceedings—don't come naturally to most. Perhaps they don't come naturally to anybody other than the members of the $70 billion-a-year wedding industry (a staggering $19 billion is spent on gifts alone), who seem to have all but created the contemporary event, weaving together attractive bits of genuine tradition and bolts of pure invention.

Before World War II the idea that a girl of modest means would expect any of the purchased grandeur common today would have been laughable. She would have been familiar with the elements of such a ceremony, would have seen lavish movie weddings and photographs of society and royal ones, but she would not imagine that those events had much to do with her own plans. She would have been married much as her mother was: her best friend would stand up for her, and everyone would look forward to a nice party afterward at the bride's home, the two mothers wearing corsages and ladling punch.

But times have changed, and middle-class couples are routinely trading the down payment on a first house for a single eye-popping party. Ilene Beckerman ponders the shift in the charming little book Mother of the Bride: The Dream, the Reality, the Search for a Perfect Dress. After being confronted with her daughter's hideously complex reception menu, Beckerman can't help herself: "When your father and I were married at your grandmother's house in Queens," she tells her aggrieved daughter, "we served deli platters. Everybody loved them."

Nowadays every aspect of a formal wedding has become so intensely merchandized as to render its original design and purpose almost unrecognizable. The bridal registry, for example, was once a means by which a young couple could acquire the basic accoutrements of good housekeeping. Now couples old enough to have fully stocked homes—not to mention full-grown children—register for loot. They can be seen trolling through Williams-Sonoma and Pottery Barn and Target, carrying bar-code scanners and zapping anything that looks good. The trend toward multiple showers means that a guest may return to a couple's registry several times. Web sites such as the Wedding Channel and the Knot provide an opportunity for couples to showcase their weddings for their friends—and to put those friends a click away from the bride's registry, where a gift can be selected and paid for in a matter of minutes.

Everything is big. The wedding invitation, once the model of a certain kind of brevity, is now often a mere component of a thick dossier with multiple stamps. "What's this fat, unsolicited envelope in your mail, packed with forms that you must fill out and instructions that you must obey?" asks Judith Martin, in her Miss Manners on Weddings; she concludes that it is, in fact, a wedding invitation from "people who have gone around the bend." In the many published accounts of people's experiences planning and hosting weddings, couples are constantly getting blind-sided by the professionals, never imagining the pressure that vendors would put on them to consider various trifles absolutely essential. Just as the morticians whom Jessica Mitford described in The American Way of Death (1963) preyed on the grief and guilt of mourners, so do the wedding merchants capitalize on the emotional vulnerability and social anxiety that afflict people planning a formal wedding. If you love her, shouldn't you spend two months' salary on the diamond she's going to wear forever? Would you deny a cherished daughter the same sort of party that all her friends had?

From the archives:

"The Time Has Come" (September 1998)
Thinking about the logical next step in the funeral industry's evolution. By Cullen Murphy

In a memoir detailing her engagement, wedding, and early married life, Something New: Reflections on the Beginnings of a Marriage, Amanda Beesley describes a moment of clarity in which the economics of her planned event came into sharp focus: she had spent a month's rent on her dress, and "the 'deluxe' Porta-Johns, with mirrors and running water," that she had selected "would have paid off two months' worth of my student loan." Setting aside the advisability of buying an expensive dress for anything that is going to involve Porta-Johns, no matter how whiz-bang, the confession is hardly unusual: young people routinely engineer weddings that are well beyond their means.

How did we get here? The idea that the formal white wedding might not be the purview solely of society types began during the postwar rush to the altar, which saw droves of working people—who finally had a bit of disposable income—having weddings more elaborate than their parents'. The first American book devoted to bridal etiquette was published in 1948, heralding the notion that one might clip from an entire volume of social convention a single attractive chapter.

The hugely influential 1950 movie Father of the Bride traded on the new national interest in the particulars of this kind of event, and it portrayed the shift toward grander weddings. Although the bride's parents are well off, they were married simply, "in your front parlor," Mr. Banks reminds his wife; but she is unmoved by this memory or by her husband's pride in having worn a plain blue suit rather than a cutaway. Despite the old man's remonstrations, it is decided that their daughter, iconically played by Elizabeth Taylor, will not follow this family tradition: she will have a different kind of wedding, "with bridesmaids and churches and automobiles and flowers and all that." (Although the film's wedding provided a specific fantasy for a generation of young women, many of today's brides would turn up their noses at it: refreshments consisted of assorted sandwiches, some ice cream, and small cakes.) Facilitating the new preference for such affairs was the growing availability in the 1950s of both mass-produced wedding gowns and rented formal wear for men. This kind of institutionalized formality, however, had a difficult time co-existing with the social upheaval of the 1960s, and by the seventies the big white wedding (along with its dud pal, marriage) was in a period of retrenchment. Tricia Nixon's 1971 wedding in the Rose Garden was considered by many to be Squaresville itself.

The lights came back on in the summer of 1981, when alarm clocks rang in the dead of night so that millions of Americans could witness Charles and Diana plighting their troth in real time. The doings of the British royal family may constitute a poor template for contemporary American life, but the timing was right. The Reagans had just begun their stylish reign, and lavish entertaining had made a triumphant return. Although there has been some waxing and waning (such as a brief bridal scaling down after Black Monday, in 1987), for the most part the wedding world changed and has stayed changed.

The problem is that we put the formal white wedding into cold storage for so long that we're a little unclear about what, exactly, is involved. Further, the social changes that have so profoundly reshaped American life in the past half century have mowed down virtually every institution that the traditional wedding once sanctified. To stage a white wedding as the form was originally conceived requires a woman young enough that her very age suggests a measure of innocence, the still-married parents who have harbored her up to this point, and a young man of like religious affiliation who is willing to assume responsibility for her keep. Trying to pull off this piece of theater in light of the divorce culture, the women's movement, the sexual revolution, and the acceptability of mixed and later marriages threatens to make a complete mockery of the thing. It's like trying to stage a nativity pageant without a baby and a donkey: you can do it, but you're going to need one hell of a manger.

The modern bride, of course, doesn't dwell on any of this. She is, after all, the daughter of one of the most profound cultural shifts in American history, and this is part of her birthright: the freedom to sample, on an à la carte basis, the various liberties that young womanhood offers. She can gratefully accept a handful of condoms from her guidance counselor and also be assured that no one will laugh when she shows up at her wedding, on her father's arm, wearing a floor-length beaded white gown. And besides, there's no time to think about all of this—there's so much to do! Sending welcome baskets to the hotel rooms of out-of-town guests, learning the precise way to tether a gold band to the ring bearer's satin pillow, discerning which participants must be thanked not only with a note but also with a gift—there's no end to it.

Fortunately, in view of this bewildering array of wedding essentials, a standing army of professionals has been quietly assembled during the past two decades, one consisting of salespeople and "wedding coordinators" and Web-site designers and also authors, who have flooded the market with wedding books so numerous that they would force the library at Alexandria to resort to auxiliary storage. Most of the books fall roughly into three categories: etiquette books that attempt to pistol-whip the masses into decent behavior; glossy wish books that hope to imbue the readers' events with the authors' own good taste; and gritty down-and-dirties that address the awfulness of it all head-on, albeit comically.

A fourth and steadily growing category comprises books that cater to brides who realize that the wedding business is a racket and who don't want to bust the bank for one five-hour party. Many of these books, such as Kathleen Kennedy's Priceless Weddings for Under $5,000, are very fine. The problem occurs when they focus on how to procure bargain-basement opulence, on how to cut corners ruthlessly on a fancy party rather than throw a simpler one. Kennedy's suggestion that one might offer a full bar but issue each guest two drink tickets is just a bad, bad idea. A recent bride, Lara Webb Carrigan, has written a book called The Best Friend's Guide to Planning a Wedding, which contains a description of a Vera Wang sample sale that makes the event sound like a little corner of hell, with punchy, exhausted brides waiting in line for hours in hopes of scoring a bit of picked-over cut-rate couture. It's hard to get it right when it comes to this particular intersection of money and class. No less an authority than Weddings for Dummies sums up the problem nicely—or, rather, Epictetus (whom the authors, Marcy Blum and Laura Fisher Kaiser, quote) does: "Know, first, who you are; and then adorn yourself accordingly." Leave it to one of the ancients to put a fine point on a modern problem: weddings today are often made comical or ghastly by their obvious overtones of strenuous social climbing. The editor-in-chief of Bride's magazine, Millie Martini Bratten, told me that the modern wedding represents "a chance to reach beyond your station," and she's right. Class aspiration is nothing new, but there was certainly a time when a girl who aped the ways of rich folk on her wedding day would have won herself more derision than respect.

The wedding merchants know that selling "class" would set off alarms in most people's heads, so what they proffer instead is "tradition," and the modern bride pays cash on the barrelhead for it, never realizing that the wholesale acquisition of other people's traditions is an enterprise fraught with pitfalls (if she put down Legendary Brides for a minute and picked up The Great Gatsby instead, she might think twice).

Genuine tradition is not for sale, because no one needs to buy it; it's moored in the customs of one's own family (remember them?). If Dad feels like a complete chump in his Sir Elegance tux, you've just learned something about your tradition. What the altar-bound of today end up buying from their numberless vendors is a dog's breakfast of bridal excess—part society wedding of the twenties, part Long Island Italian wedding of the fifties. It's The Philadelphia Story and The Wedding Singer served up together in one curious and costly buffet.

When the etiquette experts are asked about these hybrid events, how can they possibly know to which standards the questioner is hoping to hew? Often couples want to throw weddings that will be interpreted as "social" (WASP classy) but that include whatever "ethnic" elements look good to them. Miss Manners, by her own admission, tends "to become snappish during wedding season," and I don't blame her. When she attempts to construct a firebreak, she gets blasted. She informed one mother of the bride that her daughter's plan to carry a "money bag" with her during the reception constituted nothing less than "simple social blackmail." "She is counting on the guests forking over under the threat of embarrassment. This is not exactly what we call hospitality." But another Gentle Reader scolded Miss Manners for failing to do some research on other cultures in which such a custom is commonplace: "If Miss Manners thinks her uppity manners prevail everywhere, she has another think coming." Emily Post—now in the guise of her great-granddaughter-in-law Peggy Post, in Emily Post's Wedding Etiquette—deals with ethnic variances by abandoning her station and going PC. Peggy lumps the lucrative customs—including the "money dance," which, if successfully completed, results in "bride and groom ... covered with cash"—together with central elements of Jewish and traditional African-American weddings in a separate chapter called (you guessed it) "Multicultural Weddings."

Bridal salespeople toss around the words "tradition" and "heirloom" with a galling vulgarity that is particularly evident in a captivating Learning Channel series called A Wedding Story. Each episode of the documentary-style program follows one couple through their courtship and engagement (as recounted during crosscut interviews with bride and groom), and the cameras tag along to the rehearsal, the ceremony, and the reception. The couples often have solid but not especially high-paying jobs (Wedding Story careers have included hair stylist, nurse, and police officer); they spend what must be a staggering amount of their income on these events, and they can often be glimpsed at the very point of purchase.

From the archives:

"Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond?" (February 1982)
An unruly market may undo the work of a giant cartel and of an inspired, decades-long ad campaign. By Edward Jay Epstein

In one episode an engaged couple, Ivette and Joe, are led into a jeweler's inner sanctum to get a first look at the ring they have ordered. But as the salesman relinquishes it to them for inspection, he rattles off a bit of boilerplate: "This is the beginning of your family's heirloom. This is what you're going to pass on to your children and your children's children. It is the thing that bonds the two of you, and I want you to appreciate it and treat it that way." Ivette and Joe do not seem at all surprised to find themselves lectured by a diamond merchant. In our culture the wise counselors who instruct young people on the most important ritual of their lives are salesmen. Nor do the couple seem to realize that if the man is telling the truth, they can simply go home and wait for a family member to fork over Ivette's heirloom ring.

One opulent wedding guide, Weddings: A Celebration, by Beverly Clark, lionizes the gimmick of a bride who bought a seventeenth-century Bible in which couples—presumably of the same family—had recorded important events for some 300 years. She and her groom then added their wedding date to the list, a gesture of almost comical crassness. A family tradition, it turns out, is something that fancy folk do and that you can do too—against the knowledge that your future daughter may not have any more truck with your choices than you had with your mother's.

Of course, the woman who long ago branded tradition as a commodity on the American open market is Martha Stewart, and she established herself in the business of wedding traditions very early on. With her uncanny ability to predict—and often to forge—the hottest societal trends, she was on top of the white-wedding craze not long after Princess Diana braced herself and thought of England. Her 1987 publishing phenomenon, Weddings, helped to cement her reputation as one of our most important cultural figures. Its pride of place in the wedding-wish-book canon has been challenged only by the publication of a second volume, The Best of Martha Stewart Living: Weddings.

In fairness, Stewart has always been great at fanning the mini-flames of actual tradition: in the introduction to her first book, Entertaining (1982), she wrote that when she wants the "comfort of childhood" to come flooding back, she whips up some of her mother's Polish specialties, some nice "pierogi or stuffed cabbage." One has long sensed, however, that it is other people's traditions that she really has her eye on, and the autobiographical sketch in Weddings gives a clue as to whose traditions they are. When she decided to marry Andy Stewart, "it seemed appropriate to be married in St. Paul's Chapel at Columbia in an Episcopalian service, mainly because we didn't have anyplace else to go." It sounds like a lovely affair, but surely it would have been "appropriate," strictly speaking, for an Episcopalian (or—talk about "appropriate"— two of them) to be married at St. Paul's Chapel at Columbia in an Episcopal service.

The Stewart enterprise is powerful enough and thoroughly enough girded with her unquestionable style (my God, the woman's way with simple white daisies) that many absurdities get subsumed in the larger picture. The irony is that many Stewart-inspired events are occasions from which members of the true WASP ascendancy—frugal, abhorrent of excess—would flee as fast as their skinny little legs could carry them. The WASPs whom the wedding merchants hope to conjure are more on the order of the robber barons and their families—people like Alva Vanderbilt, who managed to fuse her daughter Consuelo to the Duke of Marlborough, and celebrated the family's new acquisition in an explosion of pink and white flowers in St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue. Or they're WASPs as imagined by Hollywood screenwriters: Katharine Hepburn's Tracy Lord invited 506 guests to the reception after her second wedding, in The Philadelphia Story. Couples who think they are striking a classically American chord with their tuxedo-clad swing bands and galaxies of trumpet lilies might consider the sentiments of the super-WASP poet Elinor Wylie (who left her husband for a married man—no wonder we look to these people for wedding-day guidance): "Down to the Puritan marrow of my bones / There's something in this richness that I hate."

If class confusion is the order of the day at many white weddings, these occasions are also chock-full of conflicting messages regarding the bride's sexual experience. The white dress; the hand-off from father to groom; the lifting of the veil, which undresses the bride just a bit; and the presence of flowers and small children (evoking the fertility that will soon be unleashed) are all popular components—in various combinations—of the modern wedding.

Perhaps most representative of this ambiguity is the kiss that concludes the wedding ceremony, permission for which is granted only after bride and groom have been legally transformed into man and wife. Often, Miss Manners writes, the kiss "draws laughter, as if it were a love scene viewed by an audience of early adolescents." Although few couples would forgo this crowd-pleasing bit of business, many have reshaped its purpose, using it not to mark a newly sanctioned physical relationship but rather to give a peek at one that is already red-hot. More than once during the rehearsals on A Wedding Story I have seen the officiant instruct the intendeds to approach this moment with a bit of decorum. What patsies these poor clergy members must feel like, forced into the role of a sexual naif primly instructing a young man who has been living with his girlfriend for the past three years that he "may kiss the bride." Well, why not? He's been doing God knows what else to her since the night they met at the softball-league happy hour.

To pick up an issue of Bride's magazine, which has been instructing American women on weddings since 1934, is to find this confusion writ large. In one respect Bride's harks back to a time when women's magazines never mentioned sex at all, and the advice on offer was of a most genteel nature. A recent issue is full of the kind of pointers that well-bred mothers have given their daughters for generations: write the thank-you note as soon as you get the gift; send the announcement to the newspaper several weeks before the wedding. The advertisements (and they are staggering in number) feature brides so demure that many of them can't even look us in the eye; they gaze off in deepest repose or trail clouds of tulle through the marble lobby of the Ritz-Carlton, Pentagon City. The reader of Bride's, it seems, is meant to make an imaginative leap, to enter a world of untouched ladies preparing chastely for their most special day.

And yet. I'm not quite sure what to make of the young miss who writes that "a few months ago, my fiancé and I"—"fiancé": old-fashioned word, isn't it?—"started watching porn together," which has caused the couple a specific problem that I had no idea was within the purview of Bride's magazine. Then there's the unfortunate woman who seems to have spent down her sexual capital a little too early in the game: "I promised my fiancé that once we were engaged, I'd do anything he wanted, sexually speaking. Now he's suggesting a threesome." (This is one of the reasons those unliberated but canny girls of an earlier era didn't put out until after they had tossed the bouquet: they didn't want to have to put the kibosh on icky sexual fantasies before they'd established joint checking.)

The problem of introducing drama to the wedding night is a big one, and Bride's tackles it unflinchingly. It's uphill all the way. The bride should consider packing her honeymoon suitcase with "a bunch of sex-research books" and "two highlighter pens in two different colors." Call Domino's and pass the No-Doz; it's gonna be an all-nighter. If she's absolutely determined to unveil a new trick, the bride might consider a suggestion that involves a thirty-six-inch strand of acrylic pearls, preferably strung on nylon, and some water-based personal lubricant, although she is cautioned (in what may be the issue's single best piece of advice) to "be careful with the necklace's clasp."

In one sense, all this is in line with the kind of information to be found in many magazines aimed at today's young single women—publications that have supplemented frank information about reproductive health with step-by-step sexual instruction (a typical copy of Jane makes the Kama Sutra look like a compendium of calisthenics for senior citizens). It seems in today's climate that only prudes and religious fanatics suggest that young women ought to forgo sexual experience before marriage; very few grooms, certainly, are troubled by a bride's colorful past. Marry Me! is a recent book by three "professional guys" who share the secrets of snaring one of their elite confraternity (and any woman hell-bent on becoming the helpmeet of an orthopedic surgeon, an accountant, or a lawyer should by all means pony up the $13.98 for Amazon's overnight-shipping option). Along with some repeated—and to my mind rather pointed—advice along the lines of "Never comment in any way about your man's penis being small," the brain trust informs readers how many men they can sleep with and still end up married to a CPA: ten. You're not necessarily out of luck if you worked your way through most of Sigma Chi during junior year, but you are going to have to lie about it.

But the sexual experience (or, rather, sexual ennui) of the contemporary couple accounts in no small part for why—much to the delight of caterers and banquet-hall operators everywhere—today's wedding receptions seem never to end: with only a dispiriting and possibly dangerous interlude with acrylic pearls awaiting them in the bridal suite, there is nothing to hurry the principals off the dance floor. The couple is far more interested in boogying down at the opulent party they've ordered—after all the hard work, a chance to have some fun!—than in attending to the drudgery of consummating the marriage. There was a time when a wedding wasn't just a fancy party, when it commemorated an occasion of tremendous moment, as true ritual always has—in this case the beginning of a woman's sexual life. The reception was once marked by a particular kind of shared anxiety, which fostered a genre of American humor that is now all but lost: the wedding-night joke. The clanging of tin cans tied to getaway cars struck a primal note that nobody failed to locate and that no amount of Ritz-Carlton catering can ever reproduce.

Today a wedding unites a couple who may or may not spend the rest of their lives together and who may or may not have nullified the spirit of their every promise with an ironclad prenuptial agreement. Usually the sexual union has already occurred, and oftentimes cohabitation, with its disappointments and indignities, is in full swing. A bride's beautiful white gown and her flock of flower-bearing attendants may constitute nothing more than an enduring female attraction to the sort of thing that would make Betty Friedan lean her old gray head against the keyboard and weep. Or they may be part of a frantic and terribly expensive effort to infuse a wedding with some small measure of the meaning it once had.

A little more than thirty years ago Joan Didion reported, in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, on the Las Vegas wedding industry—which, she found, was not based solely on "the premise that marriage, like craps, is a game to be played when the table seems hot." She found instead that the Vegas wedding chapels, "with their wishing wells and stained-glass paper windows and their artificial bouvardia," were in fact selling "'niceness,' the facsimile of proper ritual, to children who do not know how else to find it."

Today's children do know where to find "proper ritual." They find it in a thousand showrooms and expos and trunk sales; they skip out on student loans to pay for it; and when they need more cash for the limos, they transform their bridal registries into complicated money-laundering operations (a place setting of Lenox is, after all, a liquid asset). One can't help thinking that they would trade every bit of it for one simple, elusive assurance: only death will part us.