Where once a bride could design a memorable day using an etiquette guide and a good caterer, the specialized wedding media of today feed a $161 billion per year industry enriched at the expense of many of the people it purports to serve.
While recommending that their readers work from a budget, at the same time wedding media flood them with glossy images of apparel (one tip: spring for a dress with a glamorous back because guests will be looking at it throughout the ceremony) and exotic locations for "destination" weddings, which are costly for guests as well as the couple, but are up fivefold in 10 years.
The average cost of a wedding has nearly doubled since 1990 to about $27,000, according to the 'American Wedding Study 2006" conducted by the Conde Nast Bridal Group, publisher of Brides, Modern Bride and Elegant Bride magazines.
What the glossy magazines don't point out is the pointlessness of such expenditures. As they soar into wedded bliss, some couples simultaneously sink themselves into debt. Only 30 percent of brides' parents still foot the bill. More than a third of marrying couples admit spending more than they had planned, according to the American Wedding Study.
And since finances have long been the No. 1 point of conflict for couples, confronting a stack of bills on their return from the Disney World destination wedding is not a good way to begin a loving partnership.
The money spent on nuptial extravaganzas could be better used as a big chunk of the down payment on a starter home, with some funds reserved to support local arts, culture and community needs.
In a book that has been compared to Jessica Mitford's "The American Way of Death," a 1963 classic on the excesses of U.S. funeral rites, New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead deconstructs the wedding business in "One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding," published by Penguin in May.
She discusses aspects of what Conde Nast calls "the wedding life cycle" that its bridal magazines are apt to ignore. One stage of the process, for instance, could be Chinese sweatshops where gowns sold in the United States are made by workers who sleep eight to a room and earn 30 cents an hour. Another stage is the overspending by brides and their relatives as they get caught up in status-conscious anxiety.
Mead's book has attracted deserved attention from media outlets such as USA Today, the Columbus Dispatch, the Christian Science Monitor, the International Herald Tribune and ABC's "Good Morning America." But it's a lonely outpost in a crush of commercial messages in traditional and new bridal media, including cable TV.
"Get Married" debuted in April on the WE cable network and then on Lifetime and, of course, has a companion Web site. The show has a "look and book" segment, essentially an infomercial, featuring honeymoon and wedding resorts with an 800 telephone number so viewers can book on the spot.
There's a "celebrity wedding" segment on both the show and the Web site where lots of brides-to-be can experience vicarious thrills. When I visited the site, the "get married" poll asked, "Which celebrity couples' nuptials was the most surprising?" Among the pairings were Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, Heidi Klum and Seal. If you register at the site, you can also view "touching details" from celebrity romances. Blecch.
What the site and many like it, such as TheKnot.com, do is collect information from site visitors for merchandising purposes and to encourage them to buy from their online stores.
Newspapers have long capitalized on weddings by creating special sections that attract advertising from florists, caterers, party venues and bridal shops.
In its pitch to advertisers to buy space in weddings sections to be published three times throughout 2007, the Washington Post said, "Imagine our readers planning the perfect wedding without first-rate ideas and information. Never! 'Weddings,' a very special advertising section in the Washington Post Magazine, is devoted to inspiring and guiding Washington brides. This resource will help make their day dazzling. Join us for the excitement."
Regional publishing companies have blended ideas from daily newspapers like the Post and national bridal titles to create regional bridal magazines. Hawthorn Publications launched Gala Weddings magazine last fall for brides-to-be in New England, who "are often paralyzed by uncertainty while making the first major planning decisions," says Cori Russell, editor in chief.
Russell's comment typifies much of the media content targeting prospective brides. It tends to patronize them, as if they haven't the first clue on how to plan a party and need detailed accounts of glamorous celebrity weddings to give them ideas.
The "princess" mentality innocently enjoyed by little girls reaches its apex in most media for brides. With articles such as "50 Must-Take Wedding Photos," "Find the Perfect Dress," and "See the Hairstyles That Made Our Best-Tressed List," bridal media set them on a course to be queens for a day, with apparently endless amounts of money to shower on themselves and far from the double-shift realities that face them as actual married women.
Showing more respect for prospective brides (and to planet Earth) is Portovert Magazine, rolled out online at the beginning of 2007 with advice for the environmentally and socially responsible. "Wed with the world in mind," urged its Web site in a promotion for World Environment Day.
The site encourages visitors to have a more intimate wedding, not a big bash; use natural textiles from fair-trade sources; print invitations on recycled paper; and keep the wedding close to home to reduce the carbon emissions released by guest travel and lodging. And rather than promoting a gas-guzzling stretch limo for the wedding party, Portovert will tell you how to purchase a carbon offset that will fund investments in renewable energy.
Brides magazine published its first major feature on green weddings in its February-March issue, but neither it nor its competitors are liable to continue showcasing simpler, eco-friendly weddings over the splashy blowouts that are its, and its advertisers', bread and butter.Portovert's sustainable philosophy is wide in scope: financially, emotionally and ecologically. But right now such weddings are just a fraction of the million-plus weddings that take place in the United States each year. If their go-green message starts catching on in a big way, they're sure to leave mainstream bridal media seeing red.
Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of "Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism" (Strata Publishing, 2002).