Excerpt: 'One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding'

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But while my observations may not apply to each of the weddings my reader has ever been to, it is my belief that they will ring true when applied to American weddings in the aggregate. The limitless nuptial possibility I have described above is, in a sense, the defining characteristic of the contemporary American wedding; just as limitless possibility -- or the myth or promise of it, at least -- is a defining characteristic of American life. The use of a wedding day as a vehicle for self-expression is an inevitable and distinctively American tendency, and it is no surprise that Americans should take the opportunity to present themselves, on their wedding day, as more beautiful, better dressed, and wealthier than they are, or to try to incorporate something of their own tastes and personalities into the occasion, even if that amounts only to honoring the groom's preference for cupcakes over wedding cake, or the bride's wish to have her best male friend serve in the stead of a maid of honor.

But a wedding is also a profoundly conformist occasion, and one upon which the urge to observe some form of propriety is compellingly strong. It involves, after all, saying "I do" to the ruling principle of a society organized around legally contracted monogamous coupling, as well as to one's future spouse. Getting married is both one of the most conventional and one of the most exalted things a person can do; and while brides and grooms may pride themselves on their expressions of nuptial unconventionality, a wedding nonetheless prompts in its participants -- the guests as well as the marrying couple -- a desire to enact a role that has been scripted by some source more authoritative than their own powers of invention.

How to accommodate this desire in a culture in which novelty and innovation have become such irresistible forces does, however, present something of a challenge. To whom should Americans turn to be told how to get married? It is my contention that the wedding industry has eagerly stepped into this vacuum of authority, and that as a consequence the American wedding is shaped as much by commerce and marketing as it is by those influences couples might prefer to think of as affecting their nuptial choices, such as social propriety, religious observance, or familial expectation. Becoming engaged amounts to a change in one's social status -- marking a departure from the ranks of the unattached -- but it also marks the moment of transformation into a potential consumer of bridal products.

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