Money, to paraphrase the Beatles, can’t buy you love. But it can certainly buy a lavish wedding, as noted in Rebecca Mead’s new book, One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding. Indeed, according to Mead, America’s wedding industry exceeds $161 billion annually — an enormous sum that suggests how much weddings have become not only big business, but big fantasy. When people spend huge sums for a perfect wedding day, they are buying into a costly set of unspoken ideas about what a perfect wedding day means.

The American wedding industry — with its professional planners, elaborate online registries, exotic honeymoon destinations and glossy staged memories — forms the subject of Mead’s book. A transplanted English journalist who has made a career writing for the New Yorker, Mead is a self-appointed student of American culture looking for insights into trends, patterns, values and ways that may be described as distinctly American. In her decade at the New Yorker, she has written on such American institutions as the spring break business, Shaquille O’Neal and the Christian diet industry. One Perfect Day grew out of a 2003 article that was originally published in the magazine known for launching narrative nonfiction writers onto the bestseller lists. Itis Mead’s first book.

Following in the footsteps of John McPhee, Susan Orlean, Lawrence Wright and other New Yorker writers who have parlayed clever articles into successful books, Mead has expanded a witty essay into a long exploration of a seemingly simple question: “What,” she asks, “does the American wedding tell us about the rest of American life?” Her answer: “The way we marry reveals a great deal about prevailing cultural expectations of love, hopes for marriage, and sense of the role of family.”

In order to develop this thesis, Mead immerses herself in American wedding culture. She attends industry conferences and marketing seminars, learning, among other things, that 43 different businesses are involved in the standard wedding and that the “bride is a powerful brand ambassador” whose loyalty can and should be captured for life. Mead also frequents online bridal chat rooms and tours Disney World’s Wedding Pavilion, where couples can rent Cinderella’s coach for $2,500 or arrange for Mickey and Minnie Mouse to attend their reception for $1,000 per half hour. She visits the Bridal Mall — Connecticut’s largest bridal store with more than 800 different wedding dresses — which she describes as a “petting zoo” where aspiring brides may be found “cooing over the tulle.”

She explores David’s Bridal, the country’s only vendor of entirely off-the-rack wedding dresses and the chain where more than 20% of American wedding gowns are bought and sold. She travels to China to tour a wedding gown factory, and shadows various traditional and alternative clergypeople as they go about the work of marrying. Tireless in her pursuit of the modern wedding’s meaning, Mead attends an Elvis-themed ceremony in a Vegas wedding chapel; stops in Gatlinburg, Tennessee (the self-proclaimed Honeymoon Capital of the South); and flies to Aruba, whose economy has been booming ever since it changed its marriage laws in order to market itself as a tropical wedding destination.

What she finds is that in an era where premarital sex, cohabitation, divorce and remarriage have become the norm, weddings no longer signify the major life change and unending, sacred commitment that they once did. In addition, she concludes, the symbolic unmooring of marriage corresponds to the increasing secularization of American life: About 40% of Americans are “unchurched,” a fact that dramatically compromises the once unassailable status of marriage as a religious rite even as it opens up opportunities for customized adaptations of the wedding ceremony. The result, Mead suggests, is that brides and grooms are ever more willing to pour money into their weddings in order to anoint them with meaning. For many, weddings are at once intensely expressive and deeply conformist, offering couples the chance to embed their personal style of longstanding — if ultimately borrowed — tradition. 

Lifetime Brand Loyalty

These observations are all part of Mead’s attempt to explain the psychology behind a phenomenon that Americans already instinctively recognize: that weddings are prime opportunities for price gouging, that wedding marketing plays on couples’ unwillingness to give their big day short financial shrift, and that as a result, couples know that they are being sold the semblance of meaning. The process, Mead tells us, is particularly transformative for the bride, whose wedding planning converts her into a “new kind of consumer.”

Indeed, enhanced patterns of consumption may be the most lasting commitment most modern marriages produce. Engaged couples, Mead tells us, registered for $9 billion in gifts in 2006; brides-to-be also spent far more money than their unbetrothed female counterparts. And wives stay the consumerist course: Studies show that 85% of women who register with a particular brand will remain loyal to it for the next 50 years. In other words, the brand loyalty that marketers induce during wedding planning is far more likely to last than the marriage itself.

It wasn’t long ago that weddings were fairly spartan affairs. In 1939, one-third of all brides did without an engagement ring, a reception or a honeymoon, and 16% of couples got married in clothes they already owned. But in 2006, Americans spent an average of $27,852 on their weddings — more than twice that of 1990, despite the fact that the wedding industry is what one bridal consultant describes as “the purest example of an inelastic market.” The number of weddings has remained relatively constant for decades, and yet the price and scope of weddings has expanded exponentially. Today, the average bride spends $800 on her dress. Collectively, engaged couples spend $4 billion on furniture, $3 billion on housewares and $400 million on tableware every year.

Written in the tradition of charismatic muckrakers who have made their names and their fortunes tracing the cultural damage done by American big business, One Perfect Day tries to do for weddings what Jessica Mitford did for funerals and what Eric Schlosser did for fast food. The not-so-hidden message of One Perfect Day is that weddings reveal the weakness of modern American life. Mead’s frequently snarky tone spreads the blame more or less evenly between the money-grubbing callowness of wedding marketers and the dumb willingness of brides and grooms to be exploited by them. Copying the narrative style, humor and ambient anti-capitalism that put The American Way of Death and Fast Food Nation on the map, Mead wants to argue that the wedding industry is a signal example of how the market cheapens American culture by commodifying our most vital traditions.

It’s a tidy, if familiar, argument. The trouble is that the facts just don’t bear Mead out. Estimated to be worth around $10 billion annually, the British wedding industry is also booming; Britain’s gay and lesbian wedding market alone is worth more than $1 billion a year. That’s more comparable to the American wedding industry than it may seem. While Mead’s book says the American wedding business is worth more than $160 billion each year, that amount is based on an exceptionally expansive — and largely unelaborated — understanding of what that business is. Her original article cited the far more modest figure of $50 billion, a number that covers “all the accoutrements of the wedding” plus honeymoons and gifts. This smaller figure tallies more precisely with other sources, and, in fact, works out to be proportionate to Britain’s wedding industry: If Americans spend about five times what the British do each year on weddings, the United States’ population is also about five times that of Great Britain.

Other Examples of Excess

Britain’s big wedding business is hardly surprising. As Mead herself notes, the tradition of the lavish white wedding originated with Queen Victoria, who wore a white silk and lace confection with an 18-foot train when she married Prince Albert in 1840. And no single nuptial event has done more to solidify the idea of the wedding as a moment of fairy tale excess than Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s 1981 ceremony, which was watched on live television by 750 million people around the world.

But Britain is not alone: Ireland’s wedding business is booming, too. A nation where divorce only recently became legal and where it remains exceptionally difficult to procure, Ireland can hardly be accused of pouring money into weddings in order to stage the semblance of marital permanence in a world where vows are losing their meaning. And yet Irish weddings are increasingly an occasion for the very kinds of costly excess that Mead defines as quintessentially American.

As of 2005, the average Irish wedding cost 20,000 euros — or about $30,000. While Ireland is a nation of only about four million people, the Irish wedding industry runs about 500 million euros annually. The number of professional Irish wedding planners has increased tenfold in recent years. And, like Aruba, Ireland has even changed its laws in order to cater to the wedding industry. Until last year, the only two places you could legally get married in Ireland were the church and the registry office. As of 2007, couples are no longer so confined in their choices: They can now wed at the beach, on a cliff, in a hotel or anywhere else that suits them. 

Nor is the wedding boom confined to wealthy Western nations. Rather, it follows the path of global good fortune, and may be found wherever economic growth is creating opportunities for elaborate, public declarations of often newfound status. India, for example, has given birth to a massive new middle class of around 300 million people –which in turn has produced an $11 billion wedding industry that is growing at the rate of about 25% each year. A standard Indian wedding now costs about $34,000 — before the dowry. Among the wealthy, weddings can run upwards of $2 million. Wedding malls are opening across the country, and lenders offer special loans just for weddings. Japan and China are experiencing comparable wedding booms as well.

Looked at in this context, the flaws in Mead’s argument — and the agenda underwriting them — become visible. Extravagant weddings are a global phenomenon, popular wherever prosperity and accompanying social mobility can be found. As Indian image consultant Dilip Cherian told the Christian Science Monitor in 2005, “Weddings have become the single most visible expression of a person’s social standing and wealth, an expression that is both acceptable and expected.”

Mega-weddings are, like mass-made luxury goods and gourmet sushi, symptoms of a mindset that is ultimately more global than local. While the details of extravagance may vary from place to place, the broad, documented fact of nuptial lavishness transcends national boundaries. In Ireland, a couple might book a castle for the big day; in India, brides may spring for elaborate henna body art and hand-beaded saris; in America, trendy couples may opt for a “green” ceremony featuring organic food, natural fibers and recycled paper. But all are essentially participating in a shared sense of the wedding as an expressive personal display.

All of which is to say that the wedding industry is not exactly what Mead makes it out to be. It is not distinctly American. It is not the result of a godless, divorce-prone culture that has lost its grip on the seriousness of marriage. It is not even uniquely Western. Looked at from a more global perspective, lavish weddings — and the industries that grow up around them — seem to be about displaying and solidifying social position in a world where such things are fluid and changeable.

Instead of focusing exclusively on the idiosyncratic vagaries of American weddings — so that, by the end of the book, we are slogging through palpably thin chapters on wedding photographers and destination weddings — Mead would have done well to expand her focus to the regional wedding industries that are cropping up all around the world. This is not to say that she should have written a different book, but to suggest that a comparative approach would have enabled her to make necessary distinctions between national markets and global ones, culturally specific patterns and widespread international trends. As it stands, One Perfect Day is marred by tautology: Because Mead locates certain patterns in American weddings, she assumes that the phenomenon she charts is limited to, and defined by, American culture.

Oscar Wilde once said that marriage is the triumph of imagination over intelligence. One might say that One Perfect Day is the triumph of wishful thinking over evidence.