Earlier this spring, my boyfriend and I went to look at wedding invitations. We were keeping it low-key, we thought; we were busy with our jobs; we were skeptical, slightly, of weddings. Several weeks and four visits to the stationer later, we still hadn’t chosen an invitation, though we had spent more hours than I care to name studying hundreds of possibilities—letterpress flowers, engraved champagne glasses, be-ribboned envelopes. Initially, I had tried to choose from among our first 50 options; the woman “helping” us said, “But you can’t! I haven’t even shown you the best ones yet.” In the interest of pressing forward, I left the task in my partner’s capable hands while I turned to the matter of finding an officiant. When my fiance finally told me his choice—a letterpress image on cream rectangular card stock—I heard myself utter the words, “But cream is too dark—and I really preferred the square!”
Somehow, I had developed a powerful—one might say improbable—attachment to the aesthetics of a square invitation. What had happened to me?
The question of why so many Americans become obsessed with lavish weddings has been tackled by a whole host of TV shows and books lately. It animates shows like Bridezilla (a reality series from WE), Bride vs. Bride (WE), and My Fair Brady: We’re Getting Married (VH1), and books like the anthology Altared. It is the question that Rebecca Mead tries to answer in her excellent (and unnerving) new book, One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding, which examines how and why, exactly, the American wedding came to be a multibillion-dollar-a-year business as likely to scar couples for life as to bring them together in harmonious unity. (Disclosure: I know Mead slightly.)
Fluster over weddings in America isn’t exactly new: In Father of the Bride (1950), Spencer Tracy plays an upper-middle-class father confounded by the costs and commotion of putting together a wedding. But the angst has become more pricey and pervasive. A cynic could make the case that there is no better test of a union’s prospects in our late-consumer capitalist society than its capacity to navigate the acquisitive choices and pressures involved in planning a big wedding. Today’s marriage ceremony is indeed a statement of love: the love of buying things, and, more particularly, buying things that have been personalized to express one’s taste and, so the industry tells us, the essence of who one is. Ahead lie years of that same pursuit (if all goes according to plan). What better pledge (our cynic might ask) of a bond’s longevity than for spouses to discover that they can jointly define the brand right from the get-go?
But of course no wedding planner is going to play the cynic. And so every exchange you have with wedding planners is coated with a patina of sentimentality—with the pretense that you are dealing in emotions rather than commodities. “Tell me the story of your wedding,” the salespeople say—whether at Vera Wang or at the funky little store downtown where you can get off-the-rack gowns. “Tell me the story,” they say, as though sitting you down for a heart-to-heart. Of course, what they extract is not the story of romance, of how you and your partner met, of what it means to ask your family and friends to witness your public display of private feelings. It is the story of “by the shore” or “at the country club”; fall or spring; black-tie or flip-flops; “strapless” or “empire waist”; of “$$” or “$$$.”
We succumb in part because the real story of a wedding—its central point—has become increasingly obscure, even as the average price of one has soared (to nearly $28,000 in 2006). Weddings today are not the life-changing (and even traumatic) events they once were. Sex is no longer postponed or shrouded in secrecy, nor are the domestic niceties of sharing linens and kitchens new to honeymooners: According to some figures, more than 50 percent of Americans have co-habitated before they get married. It is not clear what is “different” about life post-marriage, other than one’s tax form—and the unnerving prospect of divorce; after all, many of today’s couples are children of divorced parents and know firsthand just how precarious the institution is. So the wedding becomes an exercise in magical thinking: If my teeth are white and my linens match my napkins, he and I will stay in love forever. This is the “impending transformation of [our] inward self” (as Mead puts it) that we’re seeking in the “outward accumulation of stuff.”
Why is it so hard for even a skeptical young couple to resist this magical thinking? It is, after all, so obviously perverse, not least in turning sensible women with egalitarian ideals into dithering throwbacks. Fantasies may be great in marriage, but they are rarely a very firm foundation for it, and pre-feminist “white blindness”—the term wedding-industry types use to describe the state of near abandon that comes over even the most reluctant bride—is, well, infantilizing. Why not get the very best? It’s once in a lifetime—etc. Yet it is the infantilizing dream that continues to allure. Trying on a lavish dress bedecked with almost imperceptible crystals, I found myself strangely smitten—and telling my fiance about it, he said, “Maybe you really like planning this wedding.” What Kool-Aid had he—and I—been drinking? No wonder one consultant at a wedding-industry conference told his audience, “You are selling dreams, and you can charge anything.”
But perhaps the best cure is to recognize that it isn’t really some exotic Kool-Aid after all. The cynics are right: Commerce in dreams is business as usual (and amongst themselves, even the wedding planners are cynics—as evidenced by terms like “white blindness”). Being able to see that, even as we succumb to it, is at least a step. What is most distinctive about the wedding industry isn’t that it persuades us to spend a lot of time and money on the event—as consumers today, we’re besieged by what Barry Schwartz has called the “paradox of choice” and can waste precious minutes just trying to find the right toothpaste. What’s different here is that the wedding juggernaut can persuade us to spend so much more money than we feel we should.
When you stop and think about it, there are some clear-cut market reasons—never mind magical ones—that explain why that is. First, it’s the couple’s parents who often pay for the event (and are possibly even more sentimental about it than the couple in question). Second, wedding customers don’t plan to come back, so the vendors have no incentive to make us lifelong customers (even if they want us to recommend them to friends). Finally, the industry’s intensely nostalgic, gauzy pitch (“It’s your day to look beautiful!”) makes it hard to be a good consumer, bent on getting value for your money. The pernicious thing about the wedding industry’s consumerism run amok is precisely its rhetorical pretense that the endeavor is entirely anti-consumerist.You’re made to feel guilty if you try to cut corners, as if to do so is to cheapen your love. As a friend warned us back when we started the process: “You just have to accept that you’re going to be a sucker.”
So we have—lured by the knowledge that at least we’ll get a good party out of it. And in a funny sense, the bustle makes very unsentimental sense: Such an investment in a wedding day puts the pressure on to stick it out for some time to come. In the meantime, our invitations arrived—an ivory rectangle—and they look great.
A version of this article also appears in the Outlook section of the Sunday Washington Post.