Sunday, July 15, 2007

If the cost of a wedding were directly proportional to a couple’s love for one another, Donald and Melania Trump would be the Romeo and Juliet of our time. Clearly something other than romance is driving the $161 billion wedding industry. In her new book, “One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding,” New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead, a bitingly funny Englishwoman, reveals how lavish weddings thrive on our country’s worst insecurities.

According to the Conde Nast Bridal Group, the average wedding in America cost $27,852 in 2006. That’s seven and a half months of the average household’s median annual income! Ms. Mead points out the statistic is one of the wedding industry’s many sneaky tricks, “If a bride has been told, repeatedly, that it costs nearly $28,000 to have a wedding, then she starts to think that spending nearly $28,000 on a wedding is just one of those things a person has to do, like writing a rent check every month or paying health insurance premiums.”

For a bride-to-be the sky, not her bank account balance, is the limit. Parents who didn’t buy their daughters ponies when they were young girls find themselves breaking out their checkbooks for every gilded or quilted trinket these now-grown women desire. And smart businesspersons tag “wedding” before every service they provide — wedding photography, wedding catering, wedding tanning beds — instantly doubling or even tripling the price.

Ms. Mead blames pushy wedding “planners” for inflating the costs. They pressure brides into spending more than most can afford — or necessarily want to — because a wedding is pre-designated as the happiest day of a woman’s life. She argues that brides are the scapegoats of this bloated industry, and 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 awry.”

Who hasn’t heard an engaged couple say that if they can get through the wedding planning ordeal, they can “get through anything”? How, exactly, did a daylong celebration of true and everlasting love become another burden amid other arduous tasks? According to Ms. Mead, “being a bride has become a category in and of itself, an occupation — one that requires tutelage at the hands of experts whose curriculum has been established with the interests of an ever-expanding wedding industry foremost in mind.”

This relationship is in step with the history of our subtle class system. “Because America’s elite has always been porous, with its membership accessible to those who can afford to buy their way in, the new rich have always required the instruction of experts in how to behave like the old rich.”

Wedding planning is the new finishing school. The process openly encourages a bride-to-be to abandon the woman her fiance fell in love with, in favor of a Stepford Wife persona. “Girls use their engagement as a kind of transition — a stage of life, a time for self-improvement,” Nina Lawrence, former publisher of Brides magazine, told Ms. Mead. A bride may not be a virgin before she weds, but she can use the wedding as a marker for before and after she knew where to place a butter knife and salad fork in a table setting.

Overstuffed weddings are keeping-up-with-the-Joneses in process. If the only barricade to high society in this country is the price tag, Americans will pay for some very silly things in order to seem classy.

Ms. Mead coins a great word for the mood of bridal miscellany: “Traditionalesque.” The perfect example of this is the “Heirloom Ornament,” a pewter disk imprinted with an image appropriate to one’s role in the ceremony — flowers for a flower girl, a cushion for a ring bearer — preposterously suggesting the flower girl will hand her ornament down when she grows up to be a bride. “[The] very definition of an heirloom is something passed down through the generations, not bought over the counter at a bridal store,” Ms. Mead writes.

Humorous as it is, Ms. Mead takes more swings than needed to smash the wedding pinata. She smugly delights in the sight of a tiny Chinese factory worker hauling off an enormous size 30 gown. She spends a great deal of time detailing the infantilizing spectacle that is the Walt Disney World Fairy Tale Wedding, but without insight so much as obvious cheap shots. When Ms. Mead quotes from Joan Didion’s “Marrying Absurd” essay in the Las Vegas wedding section, one is left dearly wishing for Ms. Didion’s even-tempered, clear-headed prose, after being subject to Ms. Mead’s emotion-driven cynicism.

The book benefits from one of this season’s cleverest cover designs — a sales receipt unceremoniously stapled to a traditional wedding invitation, obscuring the calligraphy text. Ms. Mead has just as aggressively sent a message out to brides-to-be, liberating them from a sense of obligation to have a wedding that is “perfect” or “right.” It’s downright depressing to continuously tell a bride that her wedding will be the happiest day of her life, and for that reason no expense should be spared. Can happiness be so easily manufactured? Or does it spring as organically as love itself?

“A lot of brides make fun of the bridal industry at the same time as they get caught up in it,” one bride tells her. “We think we are better than that, but then we get caught up. I feel so betrayed by the wedding industry. They are feeding me, and I am suckered into it, but I love it. It is a real struggle.”

While reading the book, one finds herself wondering what about the love? What about the romance? What about the marriage itself? The wedding industry, by design, does not toast newfound soul mates so much as appease the snooty wishes of stodgy great-aunts and other proper relatives. Plenty of arranged marriages went underway with enormous fanfare, and plenty of madly in love couples have eloped, or — like Ms. Mead herself — married quietly at City Hall in a simple outfit rather than a wedding gown.

And what of that estimated $28,000 “average” cost of a wedding? Ms. Mead suspects it’s high, because the Conde Nast Bridal Group only surveyed people who “made themselves known to the Bridal Group by answering a survey online, or responding to a magazine promotion, or attending a bridal show. They had, in other words, already demonstrated an interest in having the kind of wedding that bridal magazines promote.”

Joanne McNeil is a freelance writer in Massachusetts.

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