In her new book, "One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding," author Rebecca Mead weighs in on a day many little girls dream about: their wedding day. In her investigation of the $161 billion wedding industry, Mead found an entity that preys upon the emotions and vulnerabilities of brides and grooms to get them to spend lots of money for the "wedding of a lifetime." The following is an excerpt.
In the early years of this decade a new word, and a new stereotype, entered the public discourse: the Bridezilla. The creature characterized by this disparaging term was immediately recognizable. She was a young woman who, upon becoming engaged, had been transformed from a person of reason and moderation into a self-absorbed monster, obsessed with her plans to stage the perfect wedding, an event of spectacular production values and flawless execution, with herself as the star of the show. In her quest to pull off this goal she was blithely willing to wreck friendships, offend parents, harass caterers well past the point of patience, and burn through money more rapidly than a fire consumes forest in a dry August.
The alleged phenomenon of the Bridezilla spawned numerous newspaper articles that recounted her exploits with gleeful censure. The New York Times told of one bride who had demanded that her attendants all color their hair the same shade of blond; another who had procured a swatch of the purple wallpaper from the hotel suite in which she would be spending her wedding night so that her florist could find blooms that were an exact match; and another who insisted, before a barefoot beach wedding, that her husband's groomsmen all endure a pedicure. The horrors of encountering a Bridezilla, or worse, unwittingly becoming one, were such that Carley Roney, the co-founder of the wedding-planning company TheKnot.com, was asked on CNN how a woman might know when she had crossed the line into Bridezilla territory: "You forget that your friends have lives, that people might not be able to come to your seventeen fittings," she said.
The Bridezilla phenomenon moved into other media. A "Bridezilla" book was published with the subtitle "True Tales From Etiquette Hell," featuring on its cover an alarmingly oversized cartoon bride clutching, in one hand, a diminutive, frantic groom, with a tiny bridesmaid in a vile yellow dress in the other. Inevitably, there was a reality television show: In its first season "Bridezillas" followed the wedding preparations of nine overwrought and hysterical brides, one of whom was so concerned that her dress remain unwrinkled and her makeup unsmudged that she refused to let her new husband near her all night. And equally inevitably, newspaper reporters identified the so-called Groomzilla: the husband-to-be who becomes obsessed with the typeface on the invitations and undergoes a regimen of eyebrow waxing and facial microdermabrasion in advance of his big day.
The notion of the Bridezilla gained common currency, and it was easy to understand why. Just about everyone knows someone, or knows of someone, whose wedding plans have taken on the proportions of a military operation, whose wedding costs have ballooned beyond economic prudence, and whose attention to wedding day production values would put a Broadway set designer to shame. The term was applicable to brides whose resources permitted the casting aside of a three thousand dollar wedding dress a week before the ceremony in favor of an alternative model, as well as to those budget brides who spent every evening scouring eBay for cut-price wedding favors or who prided themselves on hand-threading ribbon into a hundred and fifty wedding-information booklets for their guests.
But it seemed to me, as I witnessed the urgency with which the Bridezilla term was embraced, that there was more to the phenomenon than the identification of a particularly unpleasant breed of bride. When a stereotype is so swiftly absorbed into the popular culture it is a sure sign that something larger is at stake; and what appeared to be expressed in the vilification of the Bridezilla was a much wider ambivalence among the general public over the direction weddings in America were taking. Blaming the bride, while making for colorful feature stories and cruelly riveting television programming, wasn't an adequate explanation for what seemed to be underlying the concept of the Bridezilla: that weddings themselves were out of control, and that a sense of proportion had been lost, not just individually but in the culture at large.
This isn't to suggest that people all over the country were wringing their hands at the weddings they attended -- though those who were could probably be found everywhere. The majority, though, were throwing up those hands in puzzled bemusement or, at the most, dumbfounded exasperation, while at the same time throwing themselves wholeheartedly into the increasingly elaborate celebrations to which they had been invited. ("When did the softball game become part of a wedding?" one older acquaintance asked me, having recently married off two daughters in weekend-long festivities and found himself swinging a bat on both occasions.) No one wants to find fault with anything so cheering, and so emotionally significant, as a wedding. But at the same time, weddings often prompt a sense of disquiet -- all this, just for one day? -- among the guests, and, when they will admit it, the couple at the altar. So the pillorying of the Bridezilla figure (who has come to seem to me hardly less fictional than her Japanese monster ancestor, Godzilla) provides a way to separate off, into safe quarantine, the disconcerting sense that the way we conduct weddings has somehow gone wrong; that priorities have changed, and purpose has gone awry. The Bridezilla caricature is a stand-in representing a much larger anxiety: that we are all living in a Bridezilla culture.
How did this happen? What are the forces that are contributing to this increase in wedding pressure, not just among so-called Bridezillas, but among all American brides and grooms? And what is the significance -- beyond the impact on the purses and personalities of marrying couples, their friends, and their families -- of the escalation of the American wedding? What, in other words, does the American wedding tell us about the rest of American life? It was questions such as these that propelled the writing of this book, as well as a hunch that some answers might be found not by looking at the grotesque behavior of a handful of individuals, from whose excesses an amusing but ultimately trivial tale might be wrought, but by looking at the larger context -- at the wedding culture in which those individuals were immersed.
If the state of the American wedding strikes the bride, groom, family member, and guest as troubled (as appeared to me to be the case while researching and writing this book, given the way in which almost everyone to whom I mentioned its subject immediately rolled his or her eyes in recognition, and then insisted on telling me about a niece's, or sister's, or best friend's wedding plans gone wild), then who, I wondered, was happy about the way in which Americans were getting married? In whose interest is it that weddings should be this way? Who, or what, begat Bridezilla?
In order to seek an answer to this question I decided to turn my attention from weddings themselves -- the finished productions upon which so much effort has been lavished -- and to focus upon the less examined side of weddings: what has come to be called the wedding industry. This term is used as a catch-all expression to describe the infrastructure of service providers and businesses, ranging from individual entrepreneurs to massive corporations, that seek to provide the bride and groom with the accoutrements of the wedding day -- and, in many cases, seek to do business with them long after the wedding day is over. It is a capacious category, one that encompasses the small-town florist supplying bridal bouquets and boutonnieres as well as department store conglomerates that compete for bridal registry business. The expression also refers to the wedding media -- the magazines and websites and television shows that court the bridal customer, or simply appeal to the apparently limitless appetite among Americans at large for coverage of celebrity weddings (in publications such as In Style magazine) and for insight into the wedding dramas of real people, such as those whose plans are chronicled by the hugely popular Learning Channel show, "A Wedding Story."
Weddings in America have long been identified by commercial interests as offering a likely prospect: In the spring of 1901, a trade journal for store keepers called the Dry Goods Economist published a jauntily-written item entitled, "June Brides a Fair Mark," which advised, "The merchant of refinement may reach all or nearly all, and tell in an unobtrusive way of how much you can do for them in the taking care of many details incidental to the preparation of a wedding trousseau." Social historians date the establishment of what we would now recognize as a wedding industry as having occurred between the 1920s and 1950s, as jewelers, gown manufacturers, and caterers set standards to which American brides were encouraged, through the bridal media, to aspire.
Today's wedding industry, however, operates at a level of sophistication and with a degree of magnitude that it makes the wedding industry of 1950s seem quaint by comparison. Wedding-related marketing is everywhere, from "buff bride" workout routines ensuring upper-arm definition fit for a strapless gown to home equity lines of credit offered to a couple -- or to their parents -- as a means of affording an otherwise unaffordable reception. The volume of wedding-related products urged upon the newly engaged bride and groom -- from the Yankee Candle Company's pillars scented with the company's proprietary Wedding Day fragrance to rice grains bred in the shape of hearts and crushable underfoot so as not to present a hazard to birds when thrown in the place of confetti -- is breathtaking. And the pressure to mount a wedding that is not merely a warm celebration among family and friends but is also a spectacular and original event -- one that promises to have family and friends talking about it for months afterwards -- is omnipresent, even for those whose budget or whose aspirations are modest, or who would like to think of themselves as eschewing wedding obsession.
It was my hope at the outset of reporting this book that by looking behind the scenes of the wedding industry and studying its grinding mechanic I might better understand why the American wedding is the way it is. But my interest in doing this was not, fundamentally, because I wanted to understand weddings themselves, which would be a limited if engaging goal. Nor was it because I wanted to malign the choices of individual brides and grooms. I enjoy a good wedding as much as the next person, and I have teared up even at ones I've attended -- in the course of reporting this book -- when the bride and groom have been strangers to me. I'm married, and I had a wedding of sorts myself, if not of the sort or on the scale prescribed by the wedding industry. (I'll come back to that later.) Weddings are fun: a chance to dance to familiar tunes, to treat the senses with fresh flowers, to wear something other than jeans for a change. But the real reason weddings are compelling is that they are riven with human drama. I will not soon forget the breathtaking sight of one friend, a strong-willed, beautiful woman, alone on the dance floor with her father, a powerful businessman with whom she had a tempestuous relationship, the two of them swirling passionately (there is no other word for it) to the theme tune from "The Godfather." Nor will I forget watching a crowd of stamping, cheering guests dancing the hora -- the circle dance that is a staple at Jewish celebrations -- for a quintessentially Waspy couple who had simply decided they liked the tradition and incorporated it into their wedding, which took place at the groom's family home by a pond in a private residential enclave of Long Island, a setting that might have come from "The Great Gatsby." The comedy and the pathos of family life are on display at a wedding, with short stories waiting to be written at every turn. I hope to be invited to many more of them.
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.
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.
But there is much more at stake than the mere measurement of quantities of tulle produced for, and filet mignon consumed by, American brides, grooms, and their guests. While the wedding industry certainly moves a lot of product -- it was estimated in 2006 that the wedding business was worth $161 billion to the United States economy -- the most significant thing that the wedding industry is selling is fantasy, about the wedding day itself and the marriage that follows it. The foremost product peddled by the wedding industry is the notion that a wedding, if done right, will provide fulfillment of a hitherto unimagined degree, and will herald a similarly flawless marriage and a subsequent life of domestic contentment. From this perspective, naturally, doing a wedding right means doing it according to the wedding industry playbook, with no expense spared and no bridal trifle uncoveted. If a bride buys into the wedding industry, she is promised the happily-ever-after that she, in her big white dress and tiara, deserves.
The perpetuation of this fantasy, it seems to me, is much more pernicious and damaging than any amount of havoc that might be wrought by a Bridezilla on the rampage. A bride who is gripped by the desire to have her guests' chair-backs tied with ribbons colored to coordinate precisely with the envelopes in which her save-the-date cards have been sent out can always laugh later at her own folly. But the bride who has been convinced, in some barely articulated but nonetheless persuasive sense, that coordinating her ribbons and her envelopes will contribute to the future harmony of her marriage has been sold not just an expensive complement of stationery but a dangerous bill of goods.
This book, then, comprises a journey through the wedding industry, exploring the degree to which weddings have been transformed by outside interests into machines for making money, as well as the ways in which those outside interests tap into the deepest hopes and fears of their consumers in order to accomplish their economic goals. I begin in chapter one with a look at the bridal media and at their influence in establishing what has come to be expected as standard at an American wedding, as well as their role in brokering relationships between brides and the businesses that serve them. In chapter two I look at the novel career calling of the professional wedding planner, and at the implications of handing over the conduct of weddings to hired hands. In chapter three I consider the importance of tradition when it comes to the practice of weddings, and the emotional uses to which the idea of tradition is pressed into service by all sorts of commercial interests, from the manufacturers of wedding favors to the Walt Disney Company and its Fairy Tale Weddings & Honeymoons program. Chapter four examines the iconic wedding product -- the wedding gown -- and traces it from the American aisle back to the Chinese factory floor.
Chapter five looks at the wedding registry, and the way in which department store conglomerates attempt to use the opportunity of a wedding to secure the bride as a customer for life. In chapter six I consider the role of religion in the contemporary wedding and look at the ways in which nuptial spirituality is marketed. In chapter seven I visit two wedding-industry towns, Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Las Vegas, Nevada, to see how the business of weddings -- in particular, the courtship of the so-called encore bride -- is conducted when it constitutes an important part of a local economy. Chapter eight considers the wedding from the vantage point of retrospection, and examines how brides are offered the irresistible promise by wedding photographers and videographers that their wedding day, and its attendant emotions, need not be evanescent but can be permanently preserved and endlessly revisited. In chapter nine I turn to the honeymoon and consider the role the travel industry plays in establishing the idea that the contemporary wedding, and the marriage that follows it, is an individualistic adventure rather than a community sacrament. I conclude by turning to the bride herself and asking the surprisingly difficult question: What, after all, is a wedding for?
This is a question that deserves consideration not just by individuals planning to wed, but by the rest of us as well, married or not. The American wedding -- with its softball games, its matching linens, and its $161 billion dollar industrial infrastructure -- is an expression of this culture's character and a declaration from this culture's heart. The way we marry, for better or worse, is who we are; and if we were to reexamine our commitment to the American wedding as it currently exists, we might be surprised to find that our ultimate happiness does not depend upon it.