As we stagger into the third millennium, nothing is what it once was. That goes double for weddings. Once, weddings were a celebration of the transition of young people from parental control to their own control under the watchful eye of a beneficent Deity. Now, with the loosening of parental control, with the rise of cohabitation, the decline in church attendance, with the separation of sex and baby-making, and with the rise of a self-oriented consumer culture, the stage has been set for massive change in the way couples view marriage and the ceremony that kicks it off. Actually, the stage is far past set: we are well into Act II.
Author Rebecca Mead could have taken a number of approaches to this new culture. She could have been censorious about its narcissism, or applauded its liberation from its ancient anchors. Instead, she adopts a somewhat bemused, slightly aghast tone that allows her subjects to speak for themselves. And speak they do! Mead's main focus is the wedding industry, which is at an enormously-profitable dream machine. She obtained her information from a close reading of bridal journals, interviews with the industry's visionaries, attending trade shows and visiting sites from Wisconsin to Las Vegas to Aruba to China. What she sees is either refreshingly or depressingly the same all over. Brides (and an increasing number of men) are being sold on the idea that they must stage a dream wedding with all the "traditional" touches that expresses their personal sense of style. And the more money spent the better. Mead makes it clear however, that many of the features considered traditional are not all that old. Only since the 1920s, for instance, have the majority of American brides been married in white silk gowns. Some touches are plain obsessive, like the need to match the attendant's vests to the napkins. Mead calls these faux-ancient touches "traditionalesque"-- shallow imitations of tradition sold by people who have interests at heart other than launching couples into married bliss.
Mead takes us behind the scenes of the wedding industry and unveils the techniques that bridal planners and others use to keep their customers buying, buying, and buying. We meet low-paid Chinese workers laboring for pennies per gown in enormous factory settings. We meet the faux-ordained who tailor their services to their customers' desire for a churchy setting with but a veneer of religiosity. We meet the good people of Disney, that most profit-generating dream machine, who evolved from providing a few shots of the couple with Mickey and Minnie, to providing the entire princess package that includes a rented Cinderella coach ($2500 for a half-hour) with footmen and horses for brides who want to identify with their favorite character. We meet photographers whose repertoire of "iconic" not-so-candid shots varies little from wedding to wedding and videographers who slioce and dice their product into finely-edited packages that the couple must purchase separately and at great cost.
Mead often seems appalled by the crassness, venality and self-indulgence of American weddings, and only seldom finds a group that seems to understand that after a wedding comes marriage, which is more than the opportunity to watch wedding videos. She rhapsodizes over a British couple in Las Vegas, whose entire wedding party (including their parents and children) attended a ceremony in full Elvis regalia. For all the pop silliness of their choice, they seemed to understand the larger ramifications of their life together as a family, and Mead was touched.
Mead's writing is as elegant and dainty as the filigree on a lace doily. Sentence like this often appear, like pearls on a beaded white glove: "After a few hours, I was ovecome by a condition know among retailers as "white blindness," a reeling, dumbfounded state in which it becomes impossible to distinguish between an Empire-waisted gown with alencon lace appliqués and a bias-cut spaghetti strap shift with crystal detail, and in the exhausted grip of which I wanted only to lie down and be quietly smothered by the fluffy weight of it all, like Scott of the Antarctic." You have to admire a writer who can deliver an image like that and link it naughtily to a nearly-obscure historical simile.
Put all of this together and you get a well-written, fascinating and eye-opening look at one of America's most revered yet most abused traditions. After reading this book, one may indeed wonder whether the institution of marriage would be better off without the industry devoted to its initiation.