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?

According to Mead's interviews with recent brides, the point is up for grabs. Weddings can be a celebration of family, of self, of religion, or just an excuse for a huge party. But each bride discovers that the wedding industry's survival depends on serving up endless expectations. The new wedding culture encourages brides to embrace the most romantic ideals of marriage, but then insists that so much more is needed to start a life together.

"We think we are better than that, but then we get caught up," one bride told Mead. "I feel so betrayed by the wedding industry. They are feeding me, and I am sucked into it, but I love it."

Meanwhile, Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays, childhood friends from Greenville, Mississippi, strike a decidedly different tone in Somebody Is Going to Die If Lilly Beth Doesn't Catch That Bouquet, a portrait of southern wedding etiquette that follows their account of southern funerals, Being Dead Is No Excuse (2005).

One of the most important pieces of advice they give to anyone attending a southern wedding is to never-- nevah!--congratulate a southern bride. "To do so is an insult to southern womanhood," the authors write. "It hints that the bride has caught, rather than been caught. ... Congratulating the bride is the height of rudeness, and rude is the worst epithet there is in the Delta." The polite acknowledgment is to express to the bride and groom best wishes for their happiness.

Mothers are heavily involved in every step of the wedding planning process (including choosing the husband) but Metcalfe and Hays encourage mothers to smother their disdain if they don't approve. One mother told everyone in Greenville that her daughter's boyfriend didn't have the breeding of the family hunting dog. When her daughter accepted a proposal from him soon afterwards, she drove the length and breadth of town explaining that her future son-in-law descended from a Confederate general.

Meanwhile, the groom should remember that his role is to stay out of the way and pay the minister. His family is there to bankroll the rehearsal dinner and look nice--but otherwise be unobtrusive. His mother may enjoy some of the spotlight, but she should remember the bride and her mother are the real stars.

As always in the South, food is of the utmost importance. Metcalfe and Hays include Top Ten lists of food to serve at the Delta wedding reception (cheese straws, open bar, mints) and food to avoid (Cold Duck champagne, wings, and anything on a Saltine or Ritz cracker). Before a wedding the bride should at least pretend she knows how to cook, so the authors sprinkle recipes for southern staples like tomato aspic and shrimp remoulade throughout.

Unique as they are, Delta weddings have not been immune to recent national trends. "While weddings in the Delta have always been major social events, in recent years they've taken along the patina of a pageant," Metcalfe and Hays write. "Why have weddings turned into such extravaganzas? Because they are no longer life-changing events.... With the lovebirds already chirping at the same address, it is the [wedding] itself that must create that drama of the special, but not quite sooo special day, as it once was."

Rachel DiCarlo is managing editor at Hudson Institute.

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