One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding by Rebecca Mead
Penguin Press, 1st edition, 2007
Genre: Non-fiction, sociology
Synopsis & Review:
Using the American wedding as a rosetta stone, in One Perfect Day writer Rebecca Mead poses a series of questions that cut to the heart of our national identity. Why, she asks, has the American wedding become an outlandishly extravagant, egregiously expensive, and overwhelmingly demanding production? What is the derivation of the nuptial imperative upon brides and grooms to observe tradition while at the same time using the wedding as a vehicle for expressing their personal style? What does an American wedding tell us about how Americans consume, relate, and live today? One Perfect Day masterfully mixes investigative journalism and social commentary to explore the workings of the wedding industry-an industry that claims to be worth $160 billion to the U.S. economy and which has every interest in ensuring that the American wedding business becomes ever more lavish and complex. Taking us inside the workings of the wedding industry-from the swelling ranks of professional wedding planners to department stores with their online wedding registries to the retailers and manufacturers of wedding gowns to the Walt Disney Company and its Fairytale Weddings program-Rebecca Mead skillfully holds the mirror up to the bride’s deepest hopes and fears about her wedding day and dissects the myriad goods and services that will be required for her role within it.
Weddings are no longer a rite of passage, no longer a transition from childhood to adulthood, or an initiation into a sexual or domestic intimacy, nor necessarily a religious ritual. The result of this cultural shift is that the event itself has taken on an ever-increasing momentousness shaped as much by commerce and marketing as by religious observance or familial expectation. The American wedding gives expression to the values and preoccupations of our culture. For better or worse, the way we marry is who we are. (Jacket copy)
If you’ve been involved in planning a wedding recently, you might have found yourself bemused by an excess of consumerism. If you’ve missed out, you could peruse InStyle Weddings, Modern Bride, Martha Stewart Weddings, or even log on to The Knot.com, one of the most popular wedding planning sites online. Alternatively, turn on your TV and check out Say Yes to the Dress, Bridezillas, My Dream Wedding, Platinum Weddings (now followed by Platinum Babies, wtf), or any number of the myriad wedding-related shows out there that detail just what the American wedding should be. It’s bewildering, overwhelming, and even suffocating, like the “white blindness: Rebecca Mead describes after a sojourn in a bridal salon: “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.”
Mead lifts the veil of the wedding industry (aka the Wedding Industrial Complex), exposing the ugly face of pure consumerism beneath so many of the so-called traditions of American weddings. The appeal to tradition is an important aspect of the WIC method; they have created what Mead refers to as “traditionalesque”:
a pleasing melange of apparently old-fashioned, certainly nostalgic, intermittently ethnically authentic practices that may have little relevance to the past or future and are really only illustrative of the present in which they emerge. Tradition is one of those words like homeland or motherhood, that is most frequently invoked when what it represents is under threat, or is in abeyance; and the emphasis placed upon the notion of tradition by the wedding industry points to a contradiction at the industry’s core: The imperative of economic expansion demands the introduction of new services and new products, but those services and products must be positioned not as novelties but as expressions of enduring values.
From the expensive white gown—only to be worn once—to spare bouquets, special wedding garters, diamond engagement rings, and tiered cakes, to the “new” heirlooms, like the pewter heirloom medallion Mead mentions, the wedding industry is chock full of things, oh so many THINGS, that brides must acquire in order to ensure that they have that one perfect day. And for after that day is over, they are sold photography and videography packages that run into the several thousand dollar range, in order to preserve that one perfect day. (The chapter on photography and videography has some particularly chilling anecdotes about gouging money out of people for negligible services, anecdotes straight from the mouths of industry folk.) Granted, wedding pictures are lovely, and it’s wonderful not only to preserve those memories for yourself, but also be able to share them with those who cannot make it to your wedding, like farflung friends or elderly relatives (neither of my grandmothers will be able to attend my wedding). But the standard photography package now includes not just engagement pictures, but the bridal prep (every moment, from make-up and hair, to donning the dress), set comic and through the ceremony, family portraits, and reception, all the way to a Trash the Dress session a day or two after the wedding. The idea seems to be that if a couple doesn’t have the sort of intensive coverage a celebrity gets, that they are missing out on [manufactured] memories. And it’s a fear of missing out, or somehow failing to have a perfect day, that drives brides to ever-greater extremes and excesses. Much like New Year’s Eve (the amateur’s party night, remember), every wedding must be the best ever, it’s the bride’s one opportunity for perfection, for fairy tale bliss—and if it’s not, the participants have failed.
That stress ties into one of Mead’s hypotheses, that the wedding acts as a stand-in, or invented trauma to replace the actual traumas that weddings used to represent. Customarily, the wedding was the major transition of adult life, particularly for women, who made the move from the shelter of their parents’ home to that of their husband. Many also made the leap from virgin to sexually active (I enjoyed Mead’s statistics about sexual education and honeymoons in the mid-twentieth century), another major trauma for many sheltered women. Now that people marry later and later, and often from either their own accommodations to those shared with their spouse-to be, a wedding is less of a transition, a less traumatic experience unless you can have a meltdown over mismatched cocktail napkins.
Though more exploration of the relationship of American consumerism to the rise of the ginormous wedding, One Perfect Day otherwise very thoroughly explores many aspects of the WIC, using the words of WIC professionals to explain what it is that they’re doing and why (selling the American wedding; for money). A worthwhile book for anyone thinking about having a wedding any time soon, with many thoughtful and insightful discussions on spirituality, community, tradition, and family. It served to reinforce the very strong feelings I already have about weddings (mine in particular), and I was also tickled by the Problem of the Apache Prayer.
Read also: Offbeat Bride by Ariel Meadow Stallings
Cover: Nice and simple, based on traditionalesque wedding invitations and artificial elegance, with a receipt overlaying it. Very effective.
“The whole ideology of marriage has changed,” he said. “Our social responsibility has fallen by the wayside, and we have gotten way too goal-oriented and way too selfish. So in many instances, when people are married and have a career and have kids, they get to this age where they say, ‘This isn’t what I signed up for; I am moving on. This is not what I was expecting.'”
“Women are just as faithless as men,” he said. “A lot of women today will use a man just to have a child. They’d rather be married and divorced with a kid at forty-two than still waiting for it to happen.”
I asked Cowie what the success rate of the weddings he had planned was, and his voice lowered to a sardonic purr, somewhere between Bogart and Bacall. “Sweetheart, I don’t really care,” he said. “I just get ’em down the aisle.”
23 November – 28 November