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White Wedding Willies

'Tradition' merely parts fools from their money.

By Shannon Rupp 28 Jun 2007 |

Shannon Rupp is a contributing editor to The Tyee.

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From Mickey Mouse to 'trash the dress.'
  • One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding
  • Rebecca Mead
  • Penguin Press (2007)

White weddings in the so-called "traditional" style have always creeped me out, but thanks to Rebecca Mead's new book, One Perfect Day, I now know exactly why.

Mead recounts, in exhaustive detail, the many ways in which adults play-act their way through clumsy scripts written by a cynical wedding industry. Merely donning a dress that makes you "look like a big meringue," (as the witty Kristin Scott-Thomas character phrased it in Four Wedding and a Funeral) is enough to open the floodgates to all sorts of over-priced absurdity that seems designed to make everyone involved look like fools.

As is the way with fools, they're soon parted from their money -- a wedding industry survey reveals that those who traipsed down this aisle in 2006 spent an average of $27,000 on their costume parties. But that's hardly news. You'd have to be blind to miss what Mead dubs "bridezilla culture" given that the phenomenon has made its way into reality TV. (That alone should serve as a warning that no one with a brain should be doing this sort of thing.)

Disney 'traditional'

If you've been spared what my pal Patti calls "wedding pageants," check out The Knot to learn about theme weddings that, like the interior design world's dreaded theme rooms, seem like pranks played on the bridal party.

Mead recounts how Disneyland offers what should be called The Infantile Wedding, featuring Cinderella's coach for the bride's trip to the castle (plexiglas windows, six white ponies, three footmen in wigs and livery, $2,500). The wedding tat is all Cinderella-themed (just like a five-year-old's birthday party!) and there are a host of Disney characters to visit the reception for optional photo ops ($1,000 each). Although in the name of good taste they won't let Mickey Mouse officiate. According to a brand marketing manager: "We certainly pride ourselves that the ceremony is very traditional."

Apparently, she said it with a straight face.

"Traditionalesque" is what Mead calls the newly-minted "traditions" invented by the industry to open additional revenue streams in this inelastic market. Although it could be possible that the folks at Disney do consider their own bridal salon, "Franck's," traditional. It's named for the Martin Short character in Disney-Touchstone's remake of Father of the Bride, starring Steve Martin. The film came out in 1991, which means it has been influencing the easily led for more than a decade -- which I suppose could be one definition of tradition. Certainly its predecessor, the 1950 version starring Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor, is often lauded (or cursed) for spreading nuptial mania. And more than 50 years of doing anything, even if the inspiration was a Hollywood movie, probably does qualify as tradition. Mind you, that 1950 movie presents an afternoon tea dance that is much too modest by today's wedding standards, hence the need for a remake.

Trash the dress!

Or multiple remakes, given some of the new trends, including "trash the dress" photo sessions at which pissed-off brides take out their post-wedding withdrawal on the big meringue. The fashion-style shots feature them muddying, burning, or swimming-in their $2,500 designer creations.

New Agers are all about commerce, so naturally, Mead found a New Age Wingnut Wedding, done by a freelance "interfaith" minister, Joyce Gioia, known for her Unity Candle ceremony. She includes smatterings of patter from different faiths, cultures, and her own whimsical imagination, and frequently adds a prayer that is supposedly Apache or Navajo.

Hilariously, Mead tracked down the origins of this prayer and it turned out to be native only in the sense of Hollywood Indian. It's the invention of the screenwriter who wrote the 1950 movie Broken Arrow, starring James Stewart and Deborah Paget.

Incidentally, does this qualify as politically incorrect appropriation of voice? Shouldn't someone from the PC police get on this?

Then again, anything that prevents people from writing their own vows -- an announcement that never fails to make my skin crawl -- should probably be encouraged.

Nostalgia nonsense

Traditionalesque weddings of all sorts are big on nostalgia -- that longing for a romanticized past that never existed -- and can be found at various wedding supply businesses and theme parks. Whole towns have become costume wedding venues, as is the case with Gatlinburg, Tennessee, "the honeymoon capital of the south," which does 18,000 weddings a year (about five times the population). The industry draws on the town's "hillbilly heritage" and includes the option of being married in a mountain shack by a grey-bearded preacher with big black hat and a frock coat to match.

I read that chapter twice, but I still couldn't understand why anyone's idea of romance is being surrounded by a cartoon community of fake crackers. Just what is it about a theme park featuring the sort of people who go to family reunions looking for a date that says "wedding" anyway?

Like so much of what Mead reports, these practices are inexplicable. While One Perfect Day is packed with wonderful details about the wedding biz -- a woman who marries repeatedly isn't a divorcee she's an "encore bride" -- it raises almost as many questions as it answers.

A class on class

I would have appreciated more analysis as to why American society evolved these celebrations of tackiness. But perhaps because she's a transplanted Brit, Mead has learned the word "class" is verboten in the U.S., so she never mentions something that her research makes obvious. The American wedding is another reflection of that country's addled notion of democracy, in which like they to prove "everyone is equal" by aping the upper classes (which paradoxically, they pretend don't exist).

She reports that social historians found that upscale department stores began marketing the "traditional" wedding to middle class customers in the 1920s, but Mead fails to mention that what was sold as traditional was actually the 19th century society wedding.

For people who like to blame the media for everything, this is one case where they could be right. From the mid-19th century onward, newspapers covered gossip about high-profile, society figures (which often included entertainers) as a lure for readers anxious to get a glimpse of the rich and famous. (The lives of Edith Wharton's descendants and the current posse of parvenus are still documented in The New York Times, which has a special section for weddings and vows, including online videos of prep school products telling the story of how they met. Jon Stewart and Co. couldn't come up with anything funnier than this, which is why it's also worth noting that the paper gave Mead's tome a defensive, dismissive review.)

Mead notes that Chicago's retailing giant Marshall Field's established the first gift registry in 1924 and the bridal salons that followed were aimed at "affluent and aspiring clients" and usually staffed " members of the social elite." For example, in 1927 B. Altman, the famous New York department store, hired Marie Coudert Brennig, the daughter of a baron and the niece of Conde Nast (the founder of the publishing empire that launched Vogue and Vanity Fair) to guide the social-challenged in how they too could have a blue-blood wedding.

Party problems

But Meading doesn't answer the question I've always had about the wedding biz. Why do Americans (and by default, Canadians) who aren't WASPy church-goers; who aren't part of New York's "400 families" who, in turn, borrowed their notions of social etiquette from British aristocrats; who never learned to dance as a necessity for things like debutante balls; who don't know an engraved invitation from a laser-printed one; and who have never attended a formal luncheon or dinner, let alone thrown one, want to get married this way? Why not throw a party in the style you're accustomed to?

Some of the bridezillas quoted mention things like they've "always wanted to be a princess" or they want to be "a celebrity," but that alone is mystifying in a society that prides itself on being classless. It also raises the question of why someone with the emotional development of a six-year-old is getting married, but that's a whole other discussion.

While Mead's book doesn't explore their rather pathetic aspirations, the reporting is fascinating. Her description of predatory wedding peddlers who are as obsequious as funeral directors to the brides' faces, but ridicule them as easy marks -- a "drunk sailor" a "marketer's dream" or a "slam drunk" -- when talking amongst themselves, might even steer smarter fiancées away from the whole vile industry.

Given how many people hate these tackstravaganzas, I predict the book will be a bestseller -- if only as an engagement gift. I've already ordered a few copies, including one for a newly engaged second cousin of mine. My brother asked what I was getting her and, for once, the question didn't start me cursing the whole cringe-making ritual.

"I thought I'd buy her a clue," I said, brandishing the book.

"Well, that's one less wedding you'll have to attend," he said, enviously.

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