This is part of Say Yes to the Mess, a pop-up Slate series on the unsettled state of the American wedding in 2023.
If you’ve noticed that invites to weddings you might otherwise have expected to attend pre-pandemic are scarce, you’re not alone. Ditto if the celebrations seem a little more lavish at the weddings you do attend. And then there’s the matter of the runaway honeymoons.
Did the pandemic change weddings forever? No one’s quite sure, but you’re cordially invited to watch as the wedding industry attempts to figure that out.
Over the past few years, the industry has felt like a rollercoaster love affair, marked by high highs and low lows. After waves of postponements, cancellations, and precautions in 2020 and 2021, there came a rush to make up for lost time, and last year, the biggest boom of ceremonies in almost 40 years. Now, 2023 might be the first normal—or normal-ish—year the industry has seen in a while.
What does this new normal look like, though? Ask the various authorities on this, who can be a bit opaque, and they’ll tell you it’s downright paradoxical: Small weddings are back, but so are big ones. People are throwing lavish, opulent ceremonies, but are scrounging otherwise. Traditions are in, but they’re also out. And it’s unclear whether COVID caused big shifts or simply accelerated existing headwinds.
When I asked Shane McMurray, the CEO and founder of the Wedding Report, a company that conducts market research on the nuptials industry, if the pandemic changed weddings, he was skeptical. “I would say not necessarily,” he told me. “The general business has already been changing for a long time.”
To start with, marriage rates have long been on the decline. According to his company’s tracking, about 2 million people have gotten married every year in the U.S. since the 1970s, but that has not increased relative to population growth. The total number of marriages reached a several-decade low in 2020, when only about 1.7 million people got married, and a high in 2022, when 2.4 million did. McMurray projected that the figure for 2023 will be around 2.2 million.
In his view, the downtick of 2020 and spike of 2022 are mere blips that don’t deviate much from the larger story, which is that marriage in the U.S. is on the downswing—60 percent over the last 50 years, to be exact. And if marriage itself is less of a priority, it makes sense that many of the people who decide to take the plunge would scale back and opt for less expensive, more modest ceremonies—even as people on the other end of the spectrum decide to double down with big, traditional weddings.
Almost all of the people I spoke to noticed that weddings frequently have fewer attendees now than they did before the pandemic. “This trend of smaller guest list is really sticking quite a bit,” said Michelle Martinez, a wedding planner and host of The Big Wedding Planning Podcast. According to the most recent Wedding Report, American weddings have an average of 127 attendees, and Brides has decreed that an “intimate” wedding is generally considered to be one with 75 guests or fewer. A “small” ceremony typical boasts about 50 guests, according to this thinking, and it’s this style that’s become more popular.
For much of the pandemic, large gatherings were literally illegal in many places, which forced many engaged couples to entertain going smaller when getting hitched. “My perception of everything is that the pandemic was a catalyst to recalibrate how we think about planning weddings,” said Jessica Bishop, who runs the Budget Savvy Bride website. “I think really what it did was clarify for a lot of people, ‘We can do this smaller and it’ll still be really meaningful and special.’ It almost gave people an out of feeling pressured to plan this big, elaborate event.”
It’s also relieved the burden of feeling like you have to invite everyone. Because of this, some wedding professionals have noticed their clients being more “brutal” with their guest lists lately. “In the past, they’d often keep people on the guest list because they had to—family politics and such,” said Adam Lowndes, a wedding photographer in Staffordshire in the U.K. “Now, I’ll often hear stories of, like, ‘Well, we banned all children.’ ”
This sort of dispassionate banning might be easier for couples who had to postpone their weddings or get comfortable with the idea of a smaller guest list during the pandemic—people were sick, not everyone was traveling, and guests were afraid to catch COVID at the cocktail hour. But the same kind of dead-eyed discernment seems now to be applied more broadly.
Sara Margulis, the CEO of Honeyfund, an online honeymoon and gift registry service, said she isn’t surprised by the trend of smaller weddings. “I really feel like this is the way weddings have been going for a long time—that the cost was inflated, that the sort of FOMO-based approach to wedding planning was stressful and not right for people’s budgets and their finances.”
She said that her company has found—however conveniently—that couples have been spending more on their honeymoons, a trend she sees as positive and reflective of people concentrating on an experience instead of a party. “My theory is that the pandemic really opened people’s eyes to what’s important in life,” she said. “The wedding industry’s emotional hold on people, and its ‘If you don’t do it perfectly, you’ll regret it forever’ messaging, just isn’t working anymore.”
The most extreme versions of small weddings are microweddings—which some sources have defined as having 20 guests or fewer—and elopements. Both have gained popularity over the pandemic, industry experts agreed. People love them for the same reasons they appreciate smaller weddings: They’re cheaper, there’s less fanfare, and the people who choose them feel less guilty for leaving out their friends and family than they might have before the pandemic.
“I’ve got loads of friends in the industry who have even moved their business to places which are very popular for elopements and purely just do that now,” Lowndes said, pointing to the Scottish Highlands as one particularly popular spot to elope. Indeed, an entire industry has sprouted up around elopements, which can, contra to the term’s traditional definition, include “elopement planners” as well as photo and video packages.
Another explanation for the explosion of small weddings, microweddings, and elopements is a concept that Cele Otnes, a scholar of consumer behavior and the author of Cinderella Dreams: The Allure of the Lavish Wedding, called “focused lavishness.” “What I think is happening is the money being spent isn’t that different, but it’s being spent more deeply,” she said. “If you have a guest list of 100 people, you might work to make whatever experience they have more lavish than if it had been 350 people.” With a smaller wedding or an elopement, people can save money, but still get the kind of luxe wedding they might have seen, and coveted, in both mainstream and social media. This might look like serving caviar, which is much more affordable for 20 guests than it would be for 200, monograming guests’ napkins, or giving out welcome bags that include robes and slippers instead of the standard water bottles and candy.
Otnes suggested that consumers are being influenced by stars like Jennifer Lopez, who reportedly wore four different dresses at one of her weddings to fellow actor Ben Affleck last year. (They had two.) “This whole thing about having a gown for the wedding and then another gown for the reception is definitely trickling down to the middle class,” she said.
All this was a bit of a surprise for Amanda Hudes, who runs a New Jersey wedding planning company called Smiling Through Chaos. She said she expected clients to be interested in smaller weddings, but has found the opposite. “I actually created a whole new offering for small, and people were like, ‘We’re just going to wait until it can be big,’ ” she said. (Opinions vary, but a “big” wedding is generally considered to be one with 150 guests or more.)
Some wedding-industry observers attributed these sorts of “go big or go home” attitudes to people feeling extra eager to attend in-person events after being stuck at home for the better part of 2020 and 2021. Julia Drachenberg, a wedding planner based in British Columbia, told me, “We’re still seeing a lot of guests RSVPing ‘yes.’ Before the pandemic, it was more common for 15 percent of the guests invited to say ‘no.’ In 2021, 2022, and still now, we’re seeing that it’s more like 5 to 10 percent, sometimes, because they’re so excited to get back to going to events and seeing their friends.”
The pressure to throw a big party also didn’t disappear for everyone equally, or if it did temporarily, it came back for some. “On one hand, it’s very freeing,” Otnes said of the way the pandemic lifted some social expectations. “On the other hand, some people have bought into that whole belief that the wedding performs all the functions that it does and it’s worth all the thoughts and all the money. And so, I think it completely depends on the couple and the couple’s family and other factors.”
McMurray pointed out that some of these paradoxes also come down to who pays for the wedding. According to his research, these days, “the couple is paying more of the overall cost, so that actually allows them to make more decisions, whereas a decade or two ago, the parents were contributing a lot to the cost of the wedding.” But whether it’s because the couple is footing the bill themselves or because the pandemic made them reconsider their priorities, some post-lockdown ceremonies and receptions are also being selective about which standard wedding conventions to take part in.
Martinez said that “the format of weddings has shifted quite a bit,” adding that couples are now clamoring for less structure. Rather than a ceremony followed by cocktails, a sit-down dinner, and dancing, some couples might combine the three latter stages into one big party. She credited changes like this to the way “couples were forced to think differently” during the worst of the pandemic. “There wasn’t an option to keep things traditional in the way their mother or grandparents had their weddings,” she said.
Drachenberg said she encourages her clients to rethink even the most accepted traditions, like the champagne toast. She tells her guests, “It’s going to cost you $500 and only 60 percent of your guests are going to drink it,” she said. “I walk around and see a ton of untouched champagne flutes full later in the evening.”
But some traditions die more easily than others. “Through COVID I found that people were not wanting to do a big cake as much,” Hudes told me. “But it’s coming back. People care more about the big cake now again.” Naomi Biden’s cake at her wedding in November, some will recall, was 7 feet tall—she climbed a ladder to cut it.
Another pandemic-era modification that might not be as long-lived as people expected is broadcasting the wedding on Zoom for people who can’t make it in person. Caroline Creidenberg, who runs a wedding live-streaming company, had her best year in 2021, and since then, she said they’ve “plateaued.” Though the service is still popular among certain demographics, like people having microweddings and people with older relatives or a lot of family abroad, it’s not growing.
Indeed, for many people planning their weddings in 2023, most COVID precautions like Zoom weddings are a thing of the past. “This is the first spring where we’re not really thinking about COVID,” Hudes told me. “No one talks about it. I don’t have any clients saying, ‘Let’s have masks. Let’s have sanitizers.’ ” In Bishop’s experience, “It definitely doesn’t seem to be as big of a discussion when it relates to planning an event anymore,” she said. “You know, we’re having full Taylor Swift concerts with 60,000 people.”
Taylor Swift concerts and weddings have in common that their biggest cohorts of attendees are probably millennials—the singer is a generational icon, and millennials are currently in their late 20s to early 40s. Whether or not the pandemic made its mark on the wedding industry, a bigger change is on the horizon: “The industry as a whole has a lot of question marks around what Gen Z is going to look like and how they’re gonna get married,” Creidenberg said. If the pandemic didn’t change weddings forever, Gen Z may be up to the task. We’ll see how they like their cake.