When my parents got married in 1973, it was a small affair held at the Methodist church in my mom’s hometown. Following the ceremony, guests gathered at a nearby country club for hors d’oeuvres, a slice of modest wedding cake, and a flute of champagne.
Though it was only about 40 years ago, their intimate gathering feels light years away from the extravagant events thrown today, where the wedding itself seems to take precedence over the reason for having it: embarking on a marriage. Yet even the typically simple ceremonies of my parents’ era were a far cry from what the American wedding was in the 19th and early-20th centuries. Though white gowns, embossed invitations, and spectacular venues are now more normal than not, this hasn’t always been the case.
When I was a kid reading the Little House on the Prairie books, I remember how sad and lonely the nuptials of Laura Ingalls and her husband Almanzo Wilder seemed. Laura wore the only nice dress she had, which happened to be black, and the couple horse-and-buggied over to the reverend’s house to make it official. Afterwards they had dinner at Ma and Pa’s. Where was the music, the dancing, the drinking? Where were the flowers, the princess-like gown, and the towering wedding cake? It was 1885, and except in the cases of very wealthy families, most nuptials were just like Laura’s. Weddings took place almost exclusively at home until the mid-1800s, when couples began marrying in their local church.
Today, of course, things are very different. A recent Brides magazine study determined that in 2011, the average American wedding cost $26,501, and according to a survey done by The Knot, nearly half of that went toward the wedding venue. A venue’s location has changed wildly as well. The same survey showed that last year a whopping 24 percent of couples had destination weddings. And it’s no longer simply friends and family who help put it together.
According to Rebecca Mead, author of Our Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding, the average wedding now involves 43 professionals.
But the culture’s contemporary extravagance was unimaginable prior to World War II. Until then, as Katharine Jellison points out in It’s Our Day: America’s Love Affair with the White Wedding 1945–2005, couples still “either married informally or staged weddings that were a patchwork of home-produced and purchased goods and services.” Oftentimes a bride and her mother would make the wedding meal themselves — if they served one at all, that is. According to Mead, a third of marrying couples eschewed receptions. Many brides didn’t even have a wedding dress (sixteen percent were married in clothes they already owned). According to “The Cost of Weddings” in a 1939 American Sociological Review, couples spent about $392 on average, which, even when accounting for inflation, is equal to less than a fifth of what weddings cost today.
In 1940, things began to change. As Jellison says, “Americans knew about the lavish white wedding before World War II, but the war caused more of them to consider it seriously for themselves.” Families had more money, marriage took on increased importance thanks to propaganda linking matrimony and family to the achievement of war goals, and many couples rushed to wed before fiancés were sent off to battle. “The embryonic bridal industry seized upon the stirring rhetoric of the times,” says Carol Wallace in her book All Dressed in White: The Irresistible Rise of the American Wedding. “
By the end of the war, a bride could be forgiven for believing that it was her patriotic duty to insist on a formal wedding, white satin and all.
Following this shift in the cultural significance surrounding marriage and nuptials, white weddings — which feature a gown, a catered reception, and a venue other than the family’s domicile — became de rigueur. But it wasn’t until the dawn of the ’80s, that they took the leap toward the lavishness that’s common today, thanks to the confluence of the decade’s affluence and the rise of celebrity culture.
It all started with an afternoon in 1981, when Prince Charles wed Lady Diana in an over-the-top ceremony as 750 million people watched. Though their wedding was, literally, fit for royalty, its extravagant standards raised the bar for all brides-to-be. A desire for a fairy-tale wedding dominated the decade, and the bridal industry rushed in to accommodate. According to Jellison, 1984 saw a record 2.5 million brides purchasing wedding industry products; between 1986 and 1996, the number of wedding gown manufacturers in the U.S. quadrupled and the number of bridal-wear retailers doubled. As she says,
“The 1980s thus saw dramatic expansion of the wedding industry and increased consumer adherence to the industry message that bigger weddings were better weddings.” It’s a message that continues today.
But despite that message, which has only been reinforced in the decades since, a small faction of couples are keeping some elements of the modern wedding while taking the venue back to its roots and saying “I do” at home. In 2009, Los Angeles artist and filmmaker Stephanie Hutin married her boyfriend Florencio Zavala on the deck of the Echo Park backhouse they live in. After considering a destination wedding, the couple decided on a more homegrown affair, particularly so their families, neither of which live in the area, could get a better sense of their life in L.A. “We don’t own our home but we feel like it’s an important part of who we are,” Stephanie said. “We decided [the ceremony] would be more intimate that way. People could really see where we live.”
A similar wish for intimacy also influenced my friend Jeanette (you might remember her bridal shower), who’s in the final stages of planning her at-home wedding. “We wanted to have our ceremony at a place where both of us will feel comfortable being in the moment,” she said. “If we’re stressed out, there will be that one thing that’s grounding us.” It’s not only the day of their nuptials they’re thinking about, either. “There are always ups and downs in relationships,” Jeanette said. “
When things aren’t so great, we’ll be able to look out our back door and think, ‘This is where we became a family.’
Now, according to Mead, the wedding industry pulls in a hefty 161 billion dollars a year. Reality shows like Say Yes to the Dress, My Big, Fat Fabulous Wedding, and even Bridezillas, perpetuate the idea of elaborate, expensive nuptials, none of which happen at home (unless home happens to be a fabulous mansion). Tabloids pay celebrities millions for their wedding photos, and some famous folks have televised, multimillion-dollar weddings, only to file for divorce 72 days later (ahem, Kim Kardashian). All of these elements influence our current wedding culture, and the bridal industry that feeds it. It’s enough to make you want to say “I do” in your backyard and ask your mom to bake a cake, which, with the current rise of DIY culture, isn’t too unimaginable. As Jellison eloquently put it, “In a world where both the perfect wedding and the perfect marriage are impossible to achieve, the continuing popularity of the white wedding truly represents the triumph of hope over experience.”