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With an emphasis on North American society, Cele C. Otnes and Elizabeth H. Pleck show how the elaborate wedding means far more than a mere triumph for the bridal industry. Through interviews, media accounts, and wide-ranging research and analysis, they expose the wedding's reflection—or reproduction—of fundamental aspects of popular consumer culture: its link with romantic love, its promise of magical transformation, its engendering of memories, and its legitimization of consumption as an expression of perfection. As meaningful as any prospective bride might wish, the lavish wedding emerges here as a lens that at once reveals, magnifies, and reveres some of the dearest wishes and darkest impulses at the heart of our culture.
Given the amount of detail involved, the lavish wedding obviously does not happen overnight. Engagements in the United States now last an average of thirteen months, a far cry from Emily Post's admonishment in 1922 that "A long engagement is trying to everyone.... It is an unnatural state, like that of waiting at the station for a train." Of course, in case the bride and groom are unsure of how best to use this time, bridal magazines and etiquette books provide detailed checklists of goods and services that must be acquired, altered, maintained, and stored for the wedding, according to a month-by-month timetable.
But just what does it mean to be engaged? In Western countries, where couples choose their own mates without parental influence or supervision, it means two romantic partners who have created a "love match" openly declare their intention to marry in the near future. The event that marks the official beginning of the engagement is the proposal, which in most cases still depends on male initiative. The period is marked by a set of ever-evolving rituals, most of which are designed for women participants, and which revolvearound lengthy preparations for the "big event." These rituals have become more elaborate in recent years, as if a fancier wedding somehow requires or deserves a more dramatic and magical warm-up.
Renowned ritual scholar Victor Turner defines a liminal condition as one during which a ritual participant "passes through a realm that has few or none of the attributes of the past or coming state." During their engagement, the prospective bride and groom each have one foot in both the single and married worlds. But because they are not full-fledged citizens of either and are occupying a "celebratory never-never land," they may be unsure of their roles and identities. As a result-and as is true of all states of liminality-engagements are often characterized by emotional ups and downs, and some of these are caused by the sheer enormity of the tasks involved in planning a lavish wedding.
Throughout the centuries, the engagement period has evolved from one designed to reinforce the ceremoniousness of the marital bond and help prepare the couple to adjust to the roles of husband and wife characterized by premarital gifting and shopping sprees, particularly in consumer cultures. Engagements today are largely secular and consumption oriented. Once, they included their own religious betrothal ceremonies, viewed as legally binding, and featured an exchange of rings between the couple. These ceremonies originated in Roman times because some couples apparently seemed "forgetful of their plighted faith [and deferred] the fulfillment of their nuptial contracts."
In fifteenth- and sixteenth-century England, an engagement became official when the couple participated in "handfasting" or "contracting," during which they exchanged solemn vows similar, if not identical, to those repeated in the actual wedding. Although not required, if a couple participated in handfasting, "there was no backing out." However, if an impediment such as an existing spouse or another woman pregnant with the groom's child was discovered, the ceremony could be declared invalid. Bindings were considered vital parts of engagements by the middle and upper classes and were sanctioned by parents, the church, and the community, all of whom had a stake in reinforcing the solemnity of the marriage commitment.
Around the same time, another religiously sanctioned tradition, the reading of the "banns," or intention to marry, began to take hold in England. This custom had been made compulsory in France in 1176.8 Its purpose was to allow parties potentially harmed by the marriage to come forward and make their cases public. In order to marry in Catholic Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, couples had to either have the banns read three times in church, get a license, or have a public notice posted, usually on the church door. Reading or posting the banns had virtually supplanted handfasting ceremonies in England by the late 1600s,10 and the custom was imported to America by the first settlers. But by the mid-nineteenth century, it had died out among Protestants in the United States, although reading the banns persisted among Catholics as late as the 1930s. The tradition was slowly replaced by a nonbinding form of announcement, the placing of engagement notices in the newspaper, which began as an indication of high society in the large cities in the Northeast. In New York City, only families included in the Blue Book of Social Registries were permitted to be included in the paper. A prominent name and marriage at the fashionable Episcopalian church were the usual principles of inclusion in large metropolitan dailies outside New York until around 1900. Occasionally, such papers did carry announcements for Catholics and Jews but none for blacks, Hispanics, or Asians, except perhaps those of daughters of foreign diplomats.
Although banns were no longer required by the end of the nineteenth century, the engagement period still retained its legal status through two mechanisms. The first was the waiting period imposed by the various states, a designated number of days between the time the couple acquired a marriage license and the time their ceremony could take place. Although typically lasting just a few days, most waiting periods were designed to prevent hasty trips to the altar. Of course, some states like Nevada discovered that eliminating the waiting period boosted the state's economy, since all heterosexual marriages that take place in one state are recognized as legal in the others.
The second way the engagement period was legally upheld was through "breach of promise" or "heartbalm" lawsuits. Breach of promise lawsuits were authorized by common law to protect mainly female plaintiffs who claimed injury to their reputations, their future chances at marrying, or their emotional states because of a broken engagement. After posting the banns became optional, there was no longer a clear legal standard as to when an engagement agreement had been reached. Some Victorian judges had accepted a suitor's love letters as indication of a promise to marry. But by the late nineteenth century, while the law still permitted such suits, public attitudes had changed. Women who claimed breach of promise were no longer seen as wronged and virtuous daughters, but as gold-diggers who cheapened the institution of marriage. Moreover, as romantic love became the ethic that governed whether a couple would marry, the courts became more convinced that love should not be regulated by jurisprudence, and that "treating a marriage like a contract made it 'soul-less' by subjecting lovers to contractual compulsion."
The major period of reform for heartbalm laws occurred from the 1930s to the 1950s. By the end of this period, the only lawsuits permitted were those enabling the man to sue for the return of the engagement ring if his fiancee backed out of the wedding. This item, it was argued, deserved special status because it was given on the condition of marriage and would not have been provided otherwise. Since the 1970s, a "no-fault" ethic has dominated these cases, meaning the ring must be returned, regardless of who ends the engagement. Interestingly, while men can sue for the return of the ring, the courts do not permit women to sue for any costs they may have incurred for the wedding itself, even if they are stranded at the altar. Obviously, such statutes illuminate sexist assumptions about engagements and weddings; while these occasions may be more "for" women, they have no legal recourse to recoup their investments in the events.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the United States, the engagement period was a time for both the bride and groom to accumulate goods for their new household, and for the man to solidify his financial prospects and acquire a home. The couple often had to wait until the groom could demonstrate he could provide a dependable source of income. In many cases, the bride lived with her family after the marriage until her husband could provide a separate residence for the couple.
Besides getting to know her fiance and his family more intimately, nineteenth-century brides typically spent their engagement periods acquiring the necessary clothing, linens, and other furnishings for their trousseaux. They usually made these items, both because stores were far away and because most did not have the means to buy embroidered hand towels or a floral quilt. A Rockefeller, Morgan, or Carnegie daughter had to allow time for items to be made for her or for a trip to Paris in order to secure the desired linens, lingerie, and dresses from the House of Worth. In 1878, when young Frances Folsom returned from Europe with her mother prior to her marriage to Grover Cleveland, they reportedly had the "rumored trousseau carefully packed in their trunks." If a girl was from a family of modest means, the bride, her relatives, and other women friends usually made a quilt and woolen blanket for the bed and hemmed a few towels. She might also have been given bowls, pewter dishes, a coffee pot, some tablespoons, and perhaps a mirror from her parents.
Wedding gifts were typically received only from members of the family and a small circle of intimate friends. More widespread gift giving did not begin until the 1880s. As a result, until that time, future brides "shopped, and sewed, and packed, and sewed, and cleaned house, and sewed some more." Setting up the household was especially important before the marriage, not only because women were expected to create well-feathered nests for their hard-working husbands, but because children typically followed within a year or two of the wedding. And while the bride and groom were busy with gender-specific tasks, they devoted little time to planning the ceremony or even inviting guests. Nineteenth-century weddings were often simple affairs, and relatives who lived far away rarely traveled to them.
The Industrial Revolution brought advances in transportation, communications, and manufacturing, as well as a proliferation of sewing machines and machine-made goods. With all of these developments, it would be logical to assume the bride's workload would have shrunk and the engagement period consequently would have shortened by the early twentieth century. But paradoxically, a higher standard of living, the development of advertising as a vehicle for the creation of consumer desire, and improvements in retailing merely shifted the arena for completing engagement-related tasks from home production to shopping. Instead of relying on her own skills or those of her mother, the bride now turned to seamstresses and department stores for her "necessary luxuries." As historian Regina Lee Blaszczyk observed, home furnishings, linens, crystal, china, and glassware became consumers' "major vehicles for expressing class affiliation and individual style." Retailers raised the required standard of goods for a household from a homely frying pan, iron kettles, and pepperboxes to a wide range of aesthetically pleasing items typically used on special occasions.
Moreover, retailers had quite a bit of help from authorities who also shaped brides' ideas of outfitting the household. Solid farm folk rarely described the gathering of a bride's bundle before the marriage as a trousseau. But there was some agreement that she would bring some fancy lingerie and items for the household to the marriage. Emily Post began her list for the trousseau with "trimmed lingerie, tea gowns, bed sacques, pajamas," items of "gossamer and lace ... for the sole admiration of her husband." Then came the specifications of household items, divided for three classes of brides: the wealthy, the average, and the moderate. In the most extravagant category, her recommendations included the following:
One to three dozen of the finest quality, embroidered, or otherwise trimmed linen [or silk] single-bed sheets, with a large embroidered monogram. If linen, it is dyed to match the color of the rooms. One to three dozen of the finest quality single-bed linen sheets, plain hemstitched, large monogram. Twelve to eighteen blanket covers of thin washable silk in white or in colors to match the rooms, and edged with narrow lace and breadths put together with lace insertion.
The socially catastrophic events of the Depression and World War II meant different types of work besides acquiring household luxuries pervaded the engagement period. Moreover, there was an increase in the number of "telescoped" courtships and engagements (those lasting a few short months) during World War II, when couples quickly married before a man was shipped overseas. This compression, along with the increase in women's employment, limited the amount of time available for setting up a household. Yet even during turbulent times, the work of the engagement was shifting from women's unpaid labor into the social and commercial realms. As we have previously discussed, the two most visible causes of this shift were the increase in access to automobiles and the spread of dating, romance, and a culture of couplehood in this country.
Given that engagements were no longer associated with the relatively somber realms of religion, law, labor, or betrothal contracts, why have the "recommended" engagement periods continued to lengthen since the 1950s? Given that many women live with their fiances before marriage, haven't they already acquired the goods necessary for setting up a household? The answer to this second question is probably "yes." Because this is so, the engagement has evolved from being a time for "getting to know you" to "getting it all done" to "getting it all done right," and now to "getting better or different things" than the couple currently owns. In short, the paramount function of the engagement is now to allow enough time for the wedding and honeymoon to be meticulously planned so the couple may revel in romance, magic, memories, and perfection.
Changes in the wedding checklists published in Bride's clearly illustrate this point. In 1959, the magazine recommended the bride begin planning a mere two months before the wedding and specified twenty-one tasks for her to complete. By 1970, the number of months had increased to six, and the number of items on the "to do" list to forty-seven. Although these numbers stayed relatively stable in the 1970s and 1980s, by the 1990s the magazine was advocating a twelve-month planning calendar with forty-four tasks, including such signs of the times as "Inquire about ATMs near your honeymoon site" and "Check final details with wedding professionals." And while the number of points on the "to do" list seemed to decrease throughout the 1990s, this was only because similar tasks were consolidated (e.g., "Book consultant, caterer, photographer, videographer, florist, and musicians"). Even among second weddings, engagement periods are becoming more common, as these types of weddings have come to resemble first marriages in their elaborateness.
Not surprisingly, those rituals of the engagement that have survived are the ones best able to reinforce the increasingly lavish nature of the wedding. One item, the diamond engagement ring, seems "quintessential" in that it is key to fulfilling the promise of romance and magic for the bride. In countries from the United States to China, when a woman becomes engaged, she will probably receive an engagement ring containing a semiprecious or precious stone. Most likely, it will be a diamond; consumers in thirty-four countries spend approximately $74 billion a year on these gemstones. The "average" diamond ring is now over a carat and is often the first (and sometimes only) piece of expensive jewelry a woman owns. Moreover, these rings are now so inextricably intertwined with the engagement ritual and so devoid of meaning in any other sphere that they have little if any resale value. In fact, if a woman divorces, the only acceptable way to dispose of her engagement ring is to pass it on to a daughter or other female relative. Reusing or even resetting diamonds that have lost their meaning as emblems of a romantic relationship is typically not an option because of the stigma of failed romance these diamonds carry.
Excerpted from Cinderella Dreams by Cele C. Otnes Elizabeth H. Pleck Copyright © 2003 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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1. Romance, Magic, Memory, and Perfection
2. The Rise of the Lavish Wedding
3. The Engagement Complex
4. The Rituals of Wedding Shopping
5. The Wedding Weekend
6. From the Cabin to Cancún
7. Hollywood Hosts a Wedding
8. The Lavish Wedding Goes Global
9. Variations on a Theme
10. The Allure of the Lavish Wedding