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I DO NOT PLAN to have another wedding; I'm standing pat at two. But I must confess that after spending a pleasant hour gazing at the photographs in a recent crop of wedding guides, I began to feel a bit of the old itch. There is something deeply seductive about a wedding: romance in its great last stand, not yet sullied by routine and responsibility. Even a photograph of that ill-fated girl Diana Spencer, standing on the steps of St. Paul's, her veil caught in a gust of wind and her father waiting to take her hand, can provoke in me a vague yet undeniable longing. But it took only a few minutes of actually reading the texts of these manuals to bring me to my senses. More than fondness for my husband keeps me from getting on the phone to price tea roses and a tent.
Planning a wedding is hell. Things are said. Doors are slammed. Quarrels about the most inconsequential things-yellow tablecloths or white? hors d'oeuvres set out on tables or passed around on trays?-are often pitched at such a level that it seems the combatants may never recover from them. Much of the anxiety, of course, is tribal. It is wrenching to have to open the sacred circle to admit an outsider. If, as Joan Didion once wrote, "marriage is the classic betrayal," a wedding isthe Judas kiss, public and terrible. But what brings people almost to the breaking point (emotional, social, financial) is that white weddings as they are currently practiced in America-with flocks of attendants, dinner dances for hundreds of guests, and a code governing every moment of the proceedings-don't come naturally to most. Perhaps they don't come naturally to anybody other than the members of the $70-billion-a-year wedding industry, who seem to have all but created the contemporary event, weaving together attractive bits of genuine tradition and bolts of pure invention.
Before World War II the idea that a girl of modest means would expect any of today's purchased grandeur would have been laughable. She would have been familiar with the elements of such a ceremony, would have seen lavish movie weddings and photographs of society and royal ones, but she would not have imagined that those events had much to do with her own plans. She would have been married much as her mother had been: with her best friend standing up for her and everyone looking forward to a nice party at the bride's home, the two mothers wearing corsages and ladling punch.
But times have changed, and middle-class couples are routinely trading the down payment on a first house for a single eye-popping party. Ilene Beckerman ponders the shift in the charming little book Mother of the Bride: The Dream, the Reality, the Search for a Perfect Dress. After being confronted with her daughter's hideously complex reception menu, Beckerman can't help herself: "When your father and I were married at your grandmother's house in Queens," she tells her aggrieved daughter, "we served deli platters. Everybody loved them."
Nowadays every aspect of a formal wedding has become so intensely merchandized as to render its original design and purpose almost unrecognizable. The bridal registry, for example, was once a means by which a young couple could acquire the basic accoutrements of good housekeeping. Now couples old enough to have fully stocked homes-not to mention full-grown children-register for loot. They can be seen trolling through Williams-Sonoma, Pottery Barn, and Target, carrying bar code scanners and zapping anything that looks good. The trend toward multiple showers means that a guest may return to a couple's registry several times. Web sites such as WeddingChannel.com and The Knot provide an opportunity for couples to showcase their weddings for their friends-and to put those friends a click away from the bride's registry, where a gift can be selected and paid for in a matter of minutes.
Everything is big. The wedding invitation, once the model of a certain kind of brevity, is now often a mere component of a thick dossier with multiple stamps. "What's this fat, unsolicited envelope in your mail, packed with forms that you must fill out and instructions that you must obey?" asks Judith Martin in her Miss Manners on Weddings. She concludes that it is, in fact, a wedding invitation from "people who have gone around the bend." In the many published accounts of people's experiences planning and hosting weddings, couples are constantly getting blindsided by the professionals, never imagining the pressure that vendors would put on them to consider various trifles absolutely essential. Just as the morticians whom Jessica Mitford described in The American Way of Death preyed on the grief and guilt of mourners, so do the wedding merchants capitalize on the emotional vulnerability and social anxiety that afflict people planning a formal wedding. If you love her, shouldn't you spend two months' salary on the diamond she's going to wear forever? Would you deny a cherished daughter the same sort of party that all her friends have had?
In a memoir detailing her engagement, wedding, and early married life, Something New: Reflections on the Beginnings of a Marriage, Amanda Beesley describes a moment of clarity in which the economics of her planned event came into sharp focus: she had spent a month's rent on her dress, and "the 'deluxe' Porta-Johns, with mirrors and running water," that she had selected "would have paid off two months' worth of my student loan." Setting aside the advisability of buying an expensive dress for anything that is going to involve Porta-Johns, no matter how whiz-bang, the confession is hardly unusual: young people routinely engineer weddings that are well beyond their means.
How did we get here? The idea that the formal white wedding might not be within the purview solely of society types began during the postwar rush to the altar, which saw droves of working people-who finally had a bit of money in their pockets-having weddings more elaborate than their parents'. The first American book devoted to bridal etiquette was published in 1948, heralding the notion that one might clip from an entire volume of social convention a single attractive chapter.
The hugely influential 1950 movie Father of the Bride traded on the new national interest in the particulars of this kind of event, and it portrayed the shift toward grander weddings. Although the bride's parents are well-off, they were married simply, "in your front parlor," Mr. Banks reminds his wife. She is unmoved by this memory or by her husband's pride in having worn a plain blue suit rather than a cutaway. Despite the old man's remonstrations, it is decided that their daughter, iconically played by Elizabeth Taylor, will not follow this family tradition. She will have a different kind of wedding, "with bridesmaids and churches and automobiles and flowers and all that." (Although the film's wedding provided a specific fantasy for a generation of young women, many of today's brides would turn up their noses at it. Refreshments consisted of finger sandwiches, ice cream, and tea cakes.) Facilitating the new preference for such affairs was the growing availability in the fifties of both mass-produced wedding gowns and rented formal wear for men. This kind of institutionalized formality, however, had a difficult time coexisting with the social upheaval of the sixties, and by the seventies the big white wedding (along with its dud pal, marriage) was in a period of retrenchment. Tricia Nixon's 1971 wedding in the Rose Garden was considered by many to be Squaresville itself.
The lights came back on in the summer of 1981, when alarm clocks rang in the dead of night so that millions of Americans could witness Charles and Diana plighting their troth in real time. The doings of the British royal family may constitute a poor template for contemporary American life, but the timing was right. The Reagans had just begun their stylish reign, and lavish entertaining had made a triumphant return. The wedding world changed and has stayed changed.
The problem is that we put the formal white wedding into cold storage for so long that we're a little unclear about what, exactly, is involved. Further, the social changes that have so profoundly reshaped American life in the past half century have mowed down virtually every institution that the traditional wedding once sanctified. To stage a white wedding as the form was originally conceived requires a woman young enough that her very age suggests a measure of innocence, the still-married parents who have harbored her up to this point, and a young man of like religious affiliation who is willing to assume responsibility for her keep. Trying to pull off this piece of theater in light of the divorce culture, the women's movement, the sexual revolution, and the acceptability of mixed and later marriages threatens to make a complete mockery of the thing. It's like trying to stage a nativity pageant without a baby and a donkey: you can do it, but you're going to need one hell of a manger.
The modern bride, of course, doesn't dwell on any of this. She is, after all, the daughter of one of the most profound cultural shifts in American history, and this is part of her birthright: the freedom to sample, on an à la carte basis, the various liberties that young womanhood offers. She can gratefully accept a handful of condoms from her guidance counselor and also be assured that no one will laugh when she shows up at her wedding, on her father's arm, wearing a floor-length beaded white gown. And besides, there's no time to think about all this-there's so much to do! Sending welcome baskets to the hotel rooms of out-of-town guests, learning the precise way to tether a gold band to the ring bearer's satin pillow, discerning which participants must be thanked not only with a note but also with a gift-there's no end to it.
Fortunately, in view of this bewildering array of wedding essentials, a standing army of professionals has been quietly assembled during the past two decades, one consisting of salespeople and "wedding coordinators" and Web site designers and also authors who have flooded the market with wedding books so numerous that they would force the library at Alexandria to resort to auxiliary storage. Most of the books fall roughly into three categories: etiquette books that attempt to pistol-whip the masses into decent behavior; glossy wish books that hope to imbue the readers' events with the authors' own good taste; and gritty down-and-dirties that address the awfulness of it all head-on, albeit comically.
A faction of renegade brides realizes that the wedding business is a racket and rejects the notion of busting the bank for one 5-hour party. The problem occurs when they try to procure bargain-basement opulence, to cut corners ruthlessly on a fancy party rather than throw a simpler one. The suggestion offered by a bargain wedding expert that one might offer a full bar but issue each guest two drink tickets is just a bad, bad idea. I encountered a description of a Vera Wang sample sale that made the event sound like a little corner of hell, with punchy, exhausted brides waiting in line for hours in hopes of scoring a bit of picked-over cut-rate couture.
It's hard to get it right when it comes to this particular intersection of money and class. No less an authority than Weddings for Dummies sums up the problem nicely-or, rather, Epictetus does: "Know, first, who you are; and then adorn yourself accordingly." Leave it to one of the ancients to put a fine point on a modern problem: weddings today are often made comical or ghastly by their obvious overtones of strenuous social climbing. The editor in chief of Brides magazine, Millie Martini Bratten, told me that the modern wedding represents "a chance to reach beyond your station," and she's right. Class aspiration is nothing new, but there was certainly a time when a girl who aped the ways of rich folk on her wedding day would have won herself more derision than respect.
The wedding merchants know that selling "class" would set off alarms in most people's heads, so what they proffer instead is "tradition," and the modern bride pays cash on the barrelhead for it, never realizing that the wholesale acquisition of other people's traditions is an enterprise fraught with pitfalls. (If she put down Legendary Brides for a minute and picked up The Great Gatsby instead, she might think twice.)
Genuine tradition is not for sale, because no one needs to buy it; it's moored in the customs of one's own family (remember them?). If Dad feels like a complete chump in his Sir Elegance tux, you've just learned something about your tradition. What the altar-bound of today end up buying from their numberless vendors is a dog's breakfast of bridal excess-part society wedding of the twenties, part Long Island Italian wedding of the fifties. It's The Philadelphia Story and The Wedding Singer served up together in one curious and costly buffet.
When the etiquette experts are asked about these hybrid events, how can they possibly know to which standards the questioner is hoping to hew? Often couples want to throw weddings that will be interpreted as "social" (WASP classy) but that include whatever "ethnic" elements look good to them. Miss Manners, by her own admission, tends "to become snappish during wedding season," and I don't blame her. When she attempts to construct a firebreak, she gets blasted. She informed one mother of the bride that her daughter's plan to carry a "money bag" with her during the reception constituted nothing less than "simple social blackmail." "She is counting on the guests forking over under the threat of embarrassment. This is not exactly what we call hospitality." But another Gentle Reader scolded Miss Manners for failing to do some research on other cultures in which such a custom is commonplace: "If Miss Manners thinks her uppity manners prevail everywhere, she has another think coming." Emily Post-now in the guise of her great-granddaughter-in-law Peggy Post, in Emily Post's Wedding Etiquette-deals with ethnic variances by abandoning her station and going PC. Peggy lumps the lucrative customs-including the "money dance," which, if successfully completed, results in "bride and groom ... covered with cash"-together with central elements of Jewish and traditional African American weddings in a separate chapter called (you guessed it) "Multicultural Weddings."
Bridal salespeople toss around the words tradition and heirloom with a galling vulgarity that is particularly evident in a captivating Learning Channel series called A Wedding Story. Each episode of the documentary-style program follows one couple through their courtship and engagement (as recounted during crosscut interviews with bride and groom), and the cameras tag along to the rehearsal, the ceremony, and the reception. The couples often have solid but not especially high-paying jobs (Wedding Story careers have included hairstylist, nurse, and police officer); they spend what must be a staggering portion of their incomes on these events, and they can often be glimpsed at the very point of purchase.
In one episode an engaged couple, Ivette and Joe, are led into a jeweler's inner sanctum to get a first look at the ring they have ordered. But as the salesman relinquishes it to them for inspection, he rattles off a bit of boilerplate: "This is the beginning of your family's heirloom. This is what you're going to pass on to your children and your children's children. It is the thing tha.17;s.
Of course, the woman who long ago branded tradition as a commodity on the American open market is Martha Stewart, and she established a beachhead in the wedding business early on. With her uncanny ability to predict-and often to forge-the hottest societal trends, she was on top of the white-wedding craze not long after Princess Diana braced herself and thought of England. Stewart's 1987 publishing phenomenon, Weddings, helped to cement her reputation as one of our most important cultural figures. Its pride of place in the wedding-wish-book canon has been challenged only by the publication of a second volume, The Best of Martha Stewart Living: Weddings.
In fairness, Stewart has always been great at fanning the mini-flames of actual tradition. In the introduction to her first book, Entertaining, she wrote that when she wants the "comfort of childhood" to come flooding back, she whips up some of her mother's Polish specialties, some nice "pierogi or stuffed cabbage." One has long sensed, however, that it is other people's traditions that she really has her eye on, and the autobiographical sketch in Weddings gives a clue as to whose traditions they are. When she decided to marry Andy Stewart, "it seemed appropriate to be married in St. Paul's Chapel at Columbia in an Episcopalian service, mainly because we didn't have anyplace else to go." It sounds like a lovely affair, but surely it would have been "appropriate," strictly speaking, for an Episcopalian (or-talk about "appropriate"- two of them) to be married in St. Paul's Chapel at Columbia in an Episcopal service.
Excerpted from To Hell With All That by Caitlin Flanagan Copyright ©2006 by Caitlin Flanagan. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted December 6, 2008
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