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Jonathan Yardley
Plight your troth -- and empty your father's bank account.

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, June 10, 2007

ONE PERFECT DAY

The Selling of the American Wedding

By Rebecca Mead

Penguin Press. 245 pp. $25.95

About a dozen years ago, an old friend of mine was told by his daughter that she was going to get married. This suited him fine, but he balked at pouring untold thousands of dollars down the drain of a full-dress wedding. "I'll tell you what," he said to her. "I'll give you a choice: You can have a wedding, or you can have $30,000 to help you get started on your new life." Without a moment's hesitation, she astonished him -- and me, too, when he told me the story -- by replying, "I'll take the wedding."

This, mind you, was no "Bridezilla," defined by Rebecca Mead as "a young woman who, upon becoming engaged, had been transformed from a person of reason and moderation into a self-absorbed monster, obsessed with her plans to stage the perfect wedding, an event of spectacular production values and flawless execution, with herself as the star of the show." No, this was a young woman of reason and moderation, a sensible person who nonetheless had been caught up in an early wave of the phenomenon that -- all unknown to her father and me -- was beginning to sweep across America: the rise of the wedding industry, "shaped as much by commerce and marketing as it is by those influences couples might prefer to think of as affecting their nuptial choices, such as social propriety, religious observance, or familial expectation."

Who got the better of my friend's deal I do not know, as it seemed impolite to ask, but he hinted that even his daughter's relatively modest wedding cost more than the $30,000 buyout he'd offered her. Inasmuch as the marriage didn't last much longer than the wedding itself, it certainly seems to have been money down the drain. But it was very much an American wedding of our day, replete with that once-in-a-lifetime bridal dress, bridesmaids fetchingly fitted out, gifts for attendants of both sexes, an elegant luncheon and, of course, champagne -- and, at the end, a nice fat pack of bills for dear old Dad.

How all of this came to pass -- how the American wedding escalated into an "out of control" business that pumps an astonishing $161 billion dollars a year into the economy -- and what forms it takes are the subjects of One Perfect Day, a revealing and intermittently amusing piece of journalism. Mead is a staff writer for the New Yorker, and her prose is peppered with some of that magazine's oldest pet tics, in particular an excessive use of the reportorial first-person singular. But the book's strengths outweigh its irritating faults: It is a convincing picture of one of those strange parts of the American economy that make a great deal of money for a few people while going largely unnoticed by the rest of us.

"Bridezilla" is a very real creature, but the great majority of brides, like my friend's daughter, manage to keep things more or less under control, at least if you have a fairly permissive definition of "under control." In truth, to those of us of older generations, especially those with direct or secondhand experience of the Depression, the statistics are staggering. In her chapter about the bridal magazines and the expectations they raise, Mead writes:

"If a bride has been told, repeatedly, that it costs nearly $28,000 to have a wedding, then she starts to think that spending nearly $28,000 on a wedding is just one of those things a person has to do, like writing a rent check every month or paying health insurance premiums. (Or she prides herself on being a budget bride and spending a mere $15,000 on the event.) She is less likely to reflect upon the fact that $28,000 would have more than covered a 10 percent down payment on the median purchase price of a house in 2005 and would cover the average cost to a family of a health insurance policy, at 2005 rates, for a decade. The bride who has been persuaded that $28,000 is a reasonable amount of money to spend on her wedding day is less likely to measure that total against the nation's median household income -- $42,389 in 2004 -- and reflect upon whether it is, in fact, reasonable for her or for anyone to spend the equivalent of seven and a half months of the average American's salary on one day's celebration."

The somewhat unsettling truth is that, whipped along by the wedding industry, the American wedding has been turned into an ego trip for brides. Doubtless few if any people think of it that way -- not even the parents, who are stuck with astronomical bills yet are as caught up in the spirit of the big bucks bliss-out as everyone else -- but that certainly is the impression left by this book. The glossy bridal magazines -- which these days are as fat as phone books, crammed with advertisements -- exist to convince the bride that "it is her privilege, her right -- indeed, her obligation -- to become preoccupied with herself, her appearance, her tastes, and her ability to showcase them to their best advantage." The companies that seek the bride's business hope not merely for a one-day bonanza but for a lifetime's brand loyalty, which is why the department stores and the home-furnishing chains and all the other merchants of wedding paraphernalia court her so assiduously.

The wedding industry seeks "the furtherance of a wedding culture in which every bride is encouraged to think of herself as a celebrity for a day," one who is endlessly photographed and videotaped -- to mention in passing a couple of big wedding businesses -- and who "on her wedding day is a princess": Jennifer Lopez and Princess Di rolled into one irresistible bundle. The bride is (usually) young, in love, impressionable and vulnerable, eager to please and be pleased, hopeful and nervous. All in all, in the words of Colin Cowie, "the best-known wedding professional in the country," the bride "is a marketers' target. She is a slam dunk." "Wedding professional"? That's a new one to me, but inside the industry there are a handful of celebrity wedding professionals and zillions of wannabes. There is actually an Association of Bridal Consultants, "a national organization for professional wedding planners that claims a membership of about four thousand." These people "help brides and grooms navigate the business of preparing for a wedding, serving much as a general contractor does on a house renovation project." Their numbers are growing, "thanks in part to their endorsement in the pages of bridal magazines." Condé Nast, which publishes several of these magazines, reported in its 2006 American Wedding Study "that 18 percent of its respondents had engaged the services of a professional wedding planner."

Perhaps the services of these people are genuinely useful to busy brides and their families, permitting them to get on with life's real business while the wedding planner takes care of fantasy, though it's difficult not to see them as being paid for work that people are perfectly capable of doing for themselves. But that admittedly is the view of a person who also believes that interior designers, personal trainers and personal shoppers are vermiform appendixes. Millions of people now take it for granted that they will pay for "services" that in my youth were strictly do-it-yourself; perhaps the world has gotten better, and I simply haven't noticed.

Certainly it's gotten more expensive and more plugged into make-believe. It will not surprise you that Disney turns out to be an increasingly big player in the wedding industry, because one of its stocks in trade is what Mead nicely calls " traditionalesque-- a pleasing mélange of apparently old-fashioned, certainly nostalgic, intermittently ethnically authentic practices that may have little relevance to the past or to the future and are really only illustrative of the present in which they emerge." Thus, a Disney person told Mead "that Disney prided itself upon its traditionalism when it came to weddings; but the traditions that were most determinedly upheld at Disney were those established by the company itself," just like everything else in the ersatz universe of Disney.

It all puts me in mind of a song by the gifted Lucinda Williams, from her new album, "West." The subject matter is diametrically different, to be sure, but the sentiment is the same: "Some think a fancy funeral/ Would be worth every cent/ But for every dime and nickel/ There's money better spent." Ditto, in spades, for fancy weddings. ·

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com

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