My interest in the wedding industry, though, was driven by a conviction that weddings provide an unparalleled lens upon the intimate sphere of American life, and that the way we marry reveals a great deal about prevailing cultural expectations of love, hopes for marriage, and sense of the role of family. Weddings are often thought of being only so much fluff and fun; but when looked at from the perspective of their larger cultural relevance they could hardly be more important, and more defining. It is a premise of this book that weddings are social events, as distinct from the private and always mysterious marriages which they inaugurate; and that they give expression, one way or another, to the values and preoccupations of the society in which they take place. Giving expression to social values is one of the things weddings are for, since good sense and an acquaintance with the relevant statistics might otherwise recommend that the compact of marriage be better undertaken in the sober contractual spirit currently reserved for the signing of divorce papers. We want weddings to be meaningful. But what, these days, do we make them mean?
An American wedding may be conducted in a church or temple, a hotel ballroom, a botanical garden, a restaurant, a private house, or, in one of those cases that seem contrived to elicit coverage in the local newspapers, in a hot air balloon or at the top of a ski slope. The couple getting married may be young, or middle-aged, or even elderly; they may have cohabited for years or may never have spent the night together. The wedding can last four hours on a Saturday afternoon, or it can fill a three-day weekend, with pre-wedding-day barbecue, post-wedding-day brunch, and matching wedding-weekend T-shirts for all the guests. The ceremony can be performed by a priest or rabbi or judge; it can also, in some states, be performed by a notary public or simply by a friend of the bride and groom. It can cost a few hundred dollars in a Las Vegas chapel, or it can cost a few hundred thousand in the ballroom of the St. Regis Hotel in New York, with floral installations by one of the city's top designers and a custom-designed cake as big as the Ritz, or even in the shape of the Ritz for that matter.
Although I speak in this book of "the American bride" or "the American wedding" there is, of course, no single, uniform American bride or American wedding about which generalizations can be made, or from which conclusions can be drawn. Or, it would be more accurate to say, the lack of uniformity among weddings in America is the contemporary American wedding's signal characteristic. While there are certain aspects of weddings that are almost universally observed among Americans (the bride's wearing of a white gown, the structure of a civil or religious ceremony followed by reception with eating, drinking, and dancing) this basic template is applied in a dizzying variety of ways; and when I speak about the American wedding in general terms in this book, I do so with the knowledge that the range of American weddings is vast. There are about 2.3 million marriages in America ever year, and no two weddings exactly the same.