H&M is making a $99 wedding dress. Here’s what that says about economics.

The floor-length, vaguely Grecian-looking white gown that H&M debuted today isn’t the discount retailer’s first foray into the wedding business — but it’s certainly H&M’s first wedding dress at a decidedly H&M price point.

The dress will be sold online and in select stores starting later this month. It costs $99.

H&M's new wedding gown will sell for $99. (Courtesy H&M)
H&M’s new wedding gown will sell for $99. (Courtesy H&M)

Ninety-nine dollars! Never mind that you can rarely find even a bridesmaid dress for less than $150. (As a bridesmaid-to-be, desperately trawling the Nordstrom’s clearance rack, I’m an authority on that subject). H&M is doing more than marketing to budget-conscious brides — they’re essentially turning the psychology of weddings on its head.

Here’s the thing: Weddings are really, egregiously, horrifically expensive — but that cost doesn’t necessarily derive from the expense or extravagance of the materials. In 2011, Planet Money’s Caitlin Kenney set out on a quest to find out why her wedding dress retailed for a whopping $3,500. The fabric, per a wholesaler, cost about $500. The labor accounted for an additional $700. And yet the store had marked it up nearly 200 percent.

The reason stores get away with this, Kenney found, springs from two economic concepts: asymetric information (the buyer knows virtually nothing about wedding dresses) and signaling (the “message” that an expensive dress sends, both about the bride’s social status and her seriousness about the marriage).

And when you think about it, signaling dictates a lot of the expense of a wedding — which, by some statistics, are averaging $28,000 a pop. Why else would anyone, of any means, spend that much money on a single day — unless it was vested with some extraordinary importance far exceeding its actual value?

“I think that on average there is a lot of status and signaling going on wedding day,” the economist Veronica Guerrieri told Planet Money. And it’s not merely couples signaling to their guests — it’s also the wedding industry signaling to couples.

That’s what will make this H&M dress so interesting, particularly if it’s received well. It promotes — on a massive, mainstream scale — values that run opposite absolutely everything the wedding industry stands for. H&M is essentially telling brides that what they wear on their wedding day has no bearing on how much they love their spouse-to-be. By extension, H&M is kind of undermining a core cultural and psychological tenet of consumerism: that our worth is determined, in large part, by the things we buy.

H&M, the $59-billion Swedish multinational, may not have thought through these issues when it introduced the dress. The brand’s first wedding offering, a $349 collaboration with Viktor and Rolff, certainly didn’t have the same populist overtones.

But hey, the point stands! And the dress is kind of cute, to boot.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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