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Queen for a Day

From $7,500 gowns to twirling waltzers, a skeptical look at the modern wedding ritual.

Neil Shister

As far as contemporary spectacle goes, can anything compare with a wedding? More than a mere civil or religious event, the day represents the confirmation (or sometimes, the repudiation) of a contract--not between the marrying couple, as one might first think, but between the bride, her parents, (to a lesser degree) the groom's family, and their social aspiration. Of course, in a society officially dedicated to egalitarianism, social ambition can't be too readily admitted. Instead, it calls for a language of fantasy, as a reading of some key sources of wedding wisdom shows.

"A wedding is a couple's day of days," proclaims the latest edition of Emily Post, raising the bar of expectation up to the stratosphere. You can hear this same allegiance to make-believe in the voice of the new editor of Modern Bride. In her inaugural column she announces that her editorial mission is to help readers replicate her experience of perfection: "I really did have the wedding of my dreams, the wedding that had been floating around my head for years before I met my husband."

There are, to be sure, dissenting views. Thus Miss Manners, the Washington Post's mistress of nouvelle etiquette: "Few of those who prattle about the 'happiest day' seem to consider the dour expectations this suggests about the marriage from its second day on. . . . At any rate, someone whose idea of ultimate happiness is a day spent at a big party, even spent being the center of attention at a marvelous big party, is too young to get married."

Unlike her colleagues, Miss Manners thinks that a few reminders of reality can bring some sanity to the proceedings (after all, 50 percent of first marriages will dissolve). But such reservations barely qualify the dominant message pumped out by the popular culture: that the wedding day is the moment for "once in a lifetime" grandeur. Caution gets lost, overwhelmed by the deluge of luxuriant images (mostly advertisements) such as those crammed into the 900-plus-page June "Special Planning Issue" of Brides Magazine.

Virtually every page in this publication, thick as a metropolitan telephone directory, restates the idealized image of this special social compact: on this day, the right people wed well amidst opulent splendor; thenceforth, they live happily within the terms of their sacred bond. The bride marries in an ivory chiffon gown with exquisite lace (cf. Vera Wang, page 790, $7,500 without veil), sets her table with attention to the rule of "two-plus-one" (blend two ornate elements like china and flatware with one simpler item like glasses), and furnishes in "the chic and easy elegance of bamboo and rattan" (the stool in this ensemble is priced at $1,200).

To be fair, hints of alternatives to dewy-eyed innocence creep in around the edges. Most noteworthy is a new fashion statement that adds sexuality into the mix with a healthy dash of "come hither, big boy" naughtiness. Strapless gowns, low-cut backs, fur-trimmed bodices, bustiers. But these are all incidental to the grand intent of the Fall '98 look which, say the editors of Brides, is "to capture the drama of glorious excess."

This drama, I claim, stages a conventional, though suspect, cultural aspiration to upward mobility, disguising it as "high romance." Not everyone agrees. I've tried my theory out on several women, and they tend to object. One insisted that it's more about control, the wedding being the one day in her life the bride gets to call all the shots. Perhaps. But why these shots? The language is overwhelmingly about "taste and style," code words for class; "control," I suspect, is a subtext in a grander conversation about upward mobility.

Ethnographers tell us that wedding ceremonies integrate the new couple into their social community--ethnic, religious, geographical, even generational. Ritual aspects such as dress, food, and entertainment serve to solidify the bonds of that community by articulating accepted styles, providing a coherent definition of "who we are," and bringing in new members to embrace that definition.

In contemporary America, such primary reference groups and stable communal symbols appear to be dissolving. As norms from different groups overlap with marital cross-breeding, today's marriage ritual allows considerably more latitude for personal statement than in the past. But culture abhors a vacuum and, despite the appearance of free invention (vows exchanged by a waterfalls officiated by a native American healer), a larger code still governs the event. The mass media conveys the message, and its content is the celebration of affluence.

The bond that pulls together the readers of publications like Brides--the popular-culture language they are taught to speak by the mass-media wedding advisors--is an outsider's idealized view of the uppermost leisure class. The popular fantasy is that on her wedding day, every bride is a member of that class: a Princess, surrounded by props and accoutrements--flowers, linen, champagne--that represent and signify her membership. Much of the excess associated with the popular-culture version of the American wedding can be understood as an effort to appear--if only for one day--part of a fantasized elite. Once ancestral, the group allegiance is now virtual, a social construct of the community to which one wishes to belong.

Consider the following excerpt, published in Salon, from an advisory sent by a bride-to-be to various members of her wedding party. To prepare for the Bridal Dance, she writes, "each person can please do his or her part by learning to waltz correctly in three-quarter time. Now, when I say waltz, I do not in any way mean two steps here and two steps there, always standing in one spot . . . each usher will be twirling his partner while moving in a large circle and maintaining even spacing between each couple. Turn on some old-time movies and you can see how it is supposed to be done."

That the principals at this woman's wedding have apparently reached their adulthood without mastering the "twirl" doesn't exclude it from her vision of the event. All it takes is a little instruction and attention "to some old-time movie," and soon they will be waltzing with the consummate self-assurance of couples at a debutante cotillion, second nature masquerading as first. Members of the bridal party may not know how to twirl, but in the idealized world of the wedding day, they will be expected to perform as though they have been doing so all their lives. Why? Yes, because this is what the bride has always dreamed of. But why, to expand the order of questioning, this dream? Dare one suggest that it is for the sake of appearance, to impress those in attendance (clueless about how to twirl) with the bride's innate superiority by virtue of superior manners?

The letter continues. There are instructions how to dress. For the bridesmaids ("Keep the heel size reasonable--of course, no platforms of any kind"). For the ushers ("Black silk socks and black dress shoes polished to a high shine.") Even such basics as footwear can't be taken for granted. Finally, the bride-to-be aptly defines the intent of the event. "Won't each of you come with Z. and me to fantasyland--a place where dreams come true and fun abounds for everyone? Where the bride is Cinderella and the groom is Cinderfella for an evening. You are going to attend a ball at "Buckingham Palace" (pretend) and the King and Queen have invited only 'royalty'--YOU!"

Father of the Bride, the Steve Martin re-make, speaks volumes about how mass popular culture immunizes its audience from the social consequences of its fantasies. The guest list, helped along by a fancy wedding consultant, numbers five hundred, at a cost of $250 a head. Poor Dad. But Mom and Bride, although sweet and loving, won't be deterred. "A wedding isn't about money," the producers tell the audience again and again, "it's about love!" In this case, $125,000 worth of love (the average annual income of approximately four American families). As this is a picture from Disney, the masters of high-gloss mass fantasy, no lasting damage to either relationships or net worth occurs by the end and even Dad is content that he did the right thing.

In real life, events rarely play out so smoothly or without regret. A friend of my wife's family married last year. No expense was spared. The bride had included in the wedding a slew of details taken from Vogue or Gourmet (the intermezzo sorbet course served in spun-sugar bird nests). My wife recently saw the bride and congratulated her on a spectacular event. "Thanks," the woman answered, "but we're so stressed out now living in a tiny apartment, I wish we had used that money for a down payment on a house."

Originally published in the October/November 1998 issue of Boston Review

 



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