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My Quest for an Indie Wedding

I'm walking off the beaten aisle.

Jenn Farrell 21 Mar

Jenn Farrell is a Vancouver–based freelance writer and editor. Her first book, Sugar Bush and Other Stories, is out now from Anvil Press.

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Something green, blue, handmade, new.

Full disclosure -- I've been married once before. Obviously, it didn't work out and there's no need to go into detail, but let's just say the wedding itself was a pretty good indicator of how things were going to play out. Despite my cringes at the memory of that disaster-riddled day, one friend still insists it's the best wedding she's ever been to. Too bad "unintentionally hilarious" wasn't the theme I'd been going for.

Nearly 14 years later, I have a much better sense of what I want -- and don't want -- in my second wedding this August. While rigid formality is not the goal (nor is the price tag that goes with it), neither is a disorganized booze-fest. I wanted something that could reconcile my love of all things pink and "girly" with my feminist sensibilities. I wanted to create a sense of occasion that had personal relevance by doing a lot of things myself. I wanted a green wedding, as opposed to using mass-produced, disposable plastic crap. And I didn't want to go too far down the Martha road either, and make our guests feel like they're the set dressing in our magazine photo shoot.

So maybe it's surprising, or naive, that I registered for the annual Wedding Fair at the Westin Bayshore last month. It sounded like an easy one-stop shop. Instead, we got a peek inside the world of the wedding cult. Because if a cult is defined as a group that controls its members through psychological and financial means, has an overbearing devotion to a person or idea, requires its members to suspend their own critical judgement, and uses group pressure, coercion and the withholding of information, then we're just lucky to have missed the Kool-Aid booth.

Fun is too inexpensive

Cultish devotion to the idea of "the perfect wedding" was everywhere. Magazine covers, brochures and signage splashed the p-word around more than any other -- more than spectacular, more than intimate, and way more than fun, an adjective that, in retrospect, I can't recall seeing even once.

And no wonder. Fun is something that everyone defines for themselves. You can have fun without spending four grand on a photographer or covering otherwise acceptable chairs in yards of tulle and organza ribbons. Perfection, on the other hand, is something defined by "the experts." And it's a moving goalpost where you're always just one more dollar (or thousand) away from reaching it.

After a dizzying day of fashion shows (featuring faux wedding parties, complete with creepy child-models wearing tiny tuxes), filling out entry forms (presented in an inch-thick bundle), and picking up pamphlets, we were done in. The groom-to-be was especially downtrodden, and I could see the tempting lure of a quick elopement behind his glazed eyes. I soon realized the source of his fatigue when he took a bathroom break and handed over the two shopping bags he'd been lugging. The straps dug deep into my fingers, and I looked down at what felt like twenty pounds of promotional paper. I vowed to switch every bulb in the house to a compact fluorescent to offset the environmental impact.

And after all that, we didn't feel like we were any further ahead in our decision making.

In the days that followed, I recycled most of the pamphlets and did some thorough online research. I'm all for personalization, but one false move and you're one of those greasy-haired weirdos from TLC's A Wedding Story, subjecting your guests to a three-hour Civil War re-enactment.

Perfection-free markets

So I was chuffed to discover that a new wedding fair would be setting up shop in Mount Pleasant at the end of January. Called "Virsouq," it promised alternatives for the modern, "indie" bride. Here would be the local, green retailers and service providers I'd been looking for, all in my neighbourhood for one day!

And then, just as I was getting ready to buy my tickets, it was gone. "Postponed," read the website. But I wasn't about to let it go that easily, so I tracked down Laura Ballay, the show's organizer, to find out what happened.

Recently, after she and her partner moved back to Vancouver, Ballay spent some free time looking at online resources for Lower Mainland brides. What she found was a dearth of options and a frustrated group of women who feel that the wedding cult hasn't kept pace with the tastes and needs of modern, non-traditional and green brides. "The 'princess story' doesn't fit in any more," says Ballay. More and more people are looking to get married in unconventional ways -- and those are the weddings that we, as guests, will remember."

She says Vancouver is known for its thriving local markets and strong independent retailers -- Portobello West, fashion, crafts, farmers' markets and Christmas fairs, for example. "People here accept that you don't need to go the mainstream route." But there was nothing at all for weddings. "And there are so many kinds of weddings -- non-traditional commitment ceremonies, elopements, gay and lesbian -- so I thought, maybe I should do something about that!"

High low vows

Ballay hoped to offer a mix of high- and low-budget options, as well as handcrafted and locally made goods and services that couldn't be found at mass-market fairs. Instead of cornball bridal fashion shows, Virsouq would have ongoing demonstrations and workshops in flower arrangement, invitation making, and so on.

But while feedback from many small, local retailers was positive, many were reluctant to participate. "A lot of vendors didn't want to sign up or get involved until they could see one first, or at least see who else had committed," she says. This lead to a lack of mix (she heard from a lot of photographers, for example, but no caterers), combined with what Ballay admits was a lack of lead-time. It was the beginning of the end for Virsouq.

Recently, a new I Heart Indie Weddings fair was announced for January 2008 in Seattle. But alas that's a bit long to wait. So I'm out on my own again. After reviewing the jaw-dropping prices for local venues, the whole affair has been moved to a friend's backyard in Maple Ridge. We'll rent a couple of tents in case it rains, use my mother's mismatched tablecloths, and we've chosen a florist and caterer who are both known for their charitable works in the community. My fiancé's music connections helped us secure an awesome local band. My crafty friends will be helping me make inexpensive invitations and centerpieces. Décor will be provided by everyone digging their Christmas-tree lights out of the garage. I'm making the wedding cupcakes myself. Logistically, it's turning out to be more complicated than I thought. But lurking on website forums and message boards has helped a lot -- sometimes with real ideas, and sometimes just to have a laugh at how ridiculous the whole industry really is.

So far, my one concession to wedding mania has been my dress. After initially refusing to set foot in a bridal boutique, but not having much luck elsewhere, I fell hard for a strapless retro-looking fitted gown in ivory silk. (The saleswoman assured me that the dress, with a train and lace-up back was "informal" enough to wear again. Where will I wear it -- to my coronation?) Given the relative simplicity of the rest of our day, I'm probably going to look a bit over-the-top. And as it turns out, that suits me just fine.

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