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Buying the Traditionalesque The expanding cost of an American wedding
Buying the Traditionalesque
The expanding cost of an American wedding
by Molly Templeton
ONE PERFECT DAY: The Selling of the American Wedding by Rebecca Mead. The Penguin Press, 2007. Hardcover, $25.95. Paperback, 2008, $16.
To a wedding skeptic, much of what Rebecca Mead covers in One Perfect Day won’t be a surprise. Not in simple terms, anyway. We skeptics are already looking sideways at the things women (and to a lesser extent, men) are told a wedding requires. You must have centerpieces, favors, matching flowers and invitations, decorations, elaborate cakes, a veil, a manicure and the perfect white dress, which is going to fit like a dream on account of all the weight you’re going to lose before the wedding. Of course you’re going to lose weight. Right? Because everything has to be perfect. Just like the wedding magazines and wedding planners and honeymoon brochures tell you.
But Mead’s well-researched, engaging book isn’t meant to surprise those of us who look dubiously at veils and tulle; it’s meant to look critically at what has become the expected norm in the American wedding, and who is selling that norm to brides-to-be. Mead’s trek through the wedding industry is a strange adventure, a careful exploring of the place where capitalism and consumerism butt heads with romantic idealism and tradition, often resulting in something she calls the “traditionalesque”: “a pleasing mélange of apparently old-fashioned, certainly nostalgic, inter-mittently 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.” The diamond engagement ring, the white dress, the wedding registry — Mead looks at how each has become established as a traditional part of the American wedding, and at who is profiting from the resulting sales.
Weddings, in Mead’s sometimes tart tone, have bred a nasty marketplace where the people selling to the bride refer to her in less than flattering terms and look constantly for more ways to make money off of this stressed-out, perfection-craving creature. From making the videographer seem vital to inventing the vow-renewal ceremony, the wedding industry creates more things that need paying for and more ways to expand the very specific market that the newly engaged offer. One Perfect Day also addresses love and romance and, indirectly and directly, the question of what a wedding (and a marriage) is for: Is it for love? Is it for family? Is it for family and friends, for the couple, for practicality? But the book serves mostly to illustrate how the wedding, at least in its traditionalesque form, is becoming just another thing to be marketed and sold.
Mead isn’t entirely a skeptic; in the epilogue, she reveals that she got married during the process of writing the book, which puts a whole new spin on the enjoyably disapproving tone that sometimes slips through when she’s discussing bridal gown shops’ tactics for getting brides to buy yet more things. Her own wedding was a small thing with a fun party but no white dress, no centerpieces, no specifically puchased tiny bottles of bubbles. But ultimately, it’s not her own wedding experience from which Mead draws the most interesting conclusions — and questions. Just when you think she’s going to go the entire book without discussing same-sex pairings, Mead dives in, too briefly but thoughtfully, to the gay-marriage debate. There, she finds not just what you expect after the preceding chapters — sales folk who see another market — but “a debate that weighed the very purpose of marriage.” Mead writes, “It was striking to see that, during these wedding-boom years, some of the people who were thinking the hardest about what it meant to get married were those who were unable to marry the partner of their choice.” She’s not so naïve as to think, as she says, that “all gay weddings or commitment ceremonies are performed in a spirit of perfectly accomplished self-examination,” but asks, in the end, if there’s not something else a wedding could be, beyond a legal decision or a religious statement: “What if every wedding was a cherished victory won?” It’s an interesting question, but one that leaves this skeptic wondering, if it’s victory we’re after, who is the battle with?