The Magazine

With This Bling...

The wedding business and the business of weddings.

Nov 19, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 10 • By RACHEL DICARLO
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One Perfect Day

The Selling of the American Wedding

by Rebecca Mead

Penguin, 245 pp., $25.95

Somebody is Going to Die if Lilly Beth Doesn't Catch That Bouquet

The Official Southern Ladies' Guide to Hosting the Perfect Wedding

by Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays

Hyperion, 272 pp., $19.95

A friend of mine told me recently, about three months after getting engaged, that she had her whole wedding--almost five months away--completely planned. She had the venue, food, invitations, and her dress and shoes. What else do I need, she cheerfully asked? I repeated this exchange to a few married women, who were nonplussed. Can you really plan a wedding that quickly? And how can you do it without a planner?

My lovely engaged friend wouldn't relate to many modern brides, and especially not to the brides Rebecca Mead describes in One Perfect Day, a book in which Mead, a staff writer for the New Yorker, sets out to explain why the American wedding has morphed into such a demanding, elaborate, time-consuming, and expensive affair.

Along the way, Mead also explores the rise of the "bridezilla," a term that has soaked into the American vernacular to describe the engaged woman who abandons reason and sanity in monomaniacal pursuit of staging her dream wedding. Who, or what, spawned her? And who, exactly, is happy about the way in which Americans now wed?

All roads lead to the wedding industry's $160-billion-a-year stable of retailers, planners, and specialty vendors, who have every interest in creating as many bridezillas as they can by convincing women to spare no bit of time or expense in orchestrating their big day.

"Weddings have been transformed from outside interests into machines for making money," Mead writes. "Blaming the bride wasn't an adequate explanation for what seemed to be the underlying concept of the -bridezilla." With a lethal English wit, Mead examines the wedding industry's inner workings--from the gown business to registries to photography and videography rackets to the bridal magazines and websites referred to by many young women as "wedding porn."

Then there are the burgeoning ranks of wedding "professionals" or planners, who are called upon to rescue an overwhelmed bride and lately have usurped the role of traditional wedding planners--like mothers, sisters, and the brides themselves.

"It's not the little ladies, the church social secretaries with the phone book anymore," one male consultant told Mead at a convention for the Association of Bridal Consultants. "There are more men, and more straight men. There are more business degrees. ... Do you realize how many people are successful consultants because we have provided them with education and support?"

As you might expect, wedding professionals often help complicate, rather than expedite, the wedding planning process. Trained to cope with the complexities of the modern wedding, and armed with a wellspring of options and ideas, planners drive a stressed-out bride further up the wall. One planner told Mead that 43 different businesses are involved in coordinating today's wedding. Not surprisingly, the cost of the average wedding has nearly doubled in the last 15 years to $28,000--up from (adjusted for inflation) $15,000 in 1990.

Planners also disseminate the notion that the wedding day presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for self-invention. So the idea has spread that, while a bride should insist on all the de rigueur traditional bridal purchases, like a gown and a ring, she should also plan the wedding to reflect the couple's individual style--and to fuel the wedding industry's bottom line.

This trend of blending the traditional with the individual--or the "traditionalesque" as Mead describes it--helps explain the wild popularity in some quarters of weddings with themes, like the Renaissance or even sports. For couples really willing to open their wallets, Walt Disney World's Fairy Tale Weddings program will tailor a wedding--held at a Disney World location, of course--to include any of a couple's favorite elements of Disney movies and characters. So for the Cinderella theme (Disney's most popular), a bride and groom may choose to arrive at the castle via glass pumpkin coach, have Major Domo walk the rings down the aisle in a glass slipper, and then preside over the reception from twin thrones.

Which brings up another question: Besides being a boon to the economy, what exactly is a wedding for?