It’s all just so damn perfect. And in that context of unnatural perfection, insecurities can creep into your mind. You might feel awkward about how luxurious an event is if that level of luxury is out of your reach. You might find yourself feeling less adequate than those at the center of the celebration, whether because they seem happier, wealthier, or just more “together” than you.
What’s easy to forget when attending weddings is that they are not real life. In fact, they check all the boxes of an orchestrated theatrical performance.
Having hosted a fairly normal wedding myself, I can attest to the fact that seemingly minor details are the result of extensive effort, cost, or both. As I scrambled to give directions about where the table settings should go and finish the vows I’d put off to the last minute, I experienced the distinct sensation that I was putting on a dramatic production in which I was screenwriter, director, and lead. There’s an imaginative set that’s designed to make you feel as if you’re someplace far away from the tedium of everyday life. There are music cues and painstakingly-curated soundtracks and sometimes live musicians. There are, it goes without saying, costumes. And as with live theater, all of this is carefully arranged to tell a story.
It’s the story of two people’s commitment to each other, yes. But it’s also a story about class.
About how they’ve succeeded, insofar as our society defines success. The story says: not only have these people found everlasting love and fulfillment, but they (or their families) have the resources to host their loved ones in style. It says: these people have good taste, and they have their sh*t together to such an extent that they can create this experience for you.
That doesn’t make weddings bad. As we’ve talked about here before, rituals are an essential element of human culture, and there’s no denying that there’s something enchanting about being swept up in the collective joy of one. But if we forget that they are just that – performance – we run the risk of thinking, “This is normal. This is everyday life for these folks, and I’m a loser for not being married/rich/part of a big, happy extended family.” And while it’s very possible that the couple in question is, in fact, wealthy and happy, unless they’re Kardashians, they surely don’t drop $34,000 to enjoy a regular day (which is what the average wedding cost in 2021 after factoring in all expenses, according to The Knot).
The modern wedding, with its thousand dollar floral arrangements and single-use favors, is arguably a prime example of “conspicuous consumption,” the economic theory that people choose costlier products for no other reason than to show others that they can.
In other words, if we were only trying to maximize utility and minimize cost, we could clothe ourselves in burlap sacks. But most of us pay a high premium for clothing, and in the case of wedding gowns, for clothes we will only wear once. Sure, there are more generous takes (maybe a couple just wants to give their loved ones a beautiful experience). Two things can be true. Either way, the expenses are undeniably not practical and are hard to extract from our social need to signal certain virtues and values about ourselves.
Even the tradition of wearing a white wedding dress has its roots in class aspiration.
Contrary to popular conception, brides did not wear white throughout most of history. Royalty did, and not because it symbolized virginity or even purity, but because it was costlier and harder to keep clean, so wearing it signified wealth and status. Up until the mid 19th-century, no one, not even royals, bought wedding gowns only to wear them once. That all changed when Queen Victoria got married (to her first cousin lol) and illustrations of her in a pale gown were spread far and wide. Suddenly, magazines were rewriting history, saying that brides had always worn white and inventing symbolism around it. And every woman who could afford it could be queen for a day. Nearly a century later, we’re still emulating Queen Victoria and recreating the fairytale in our minds.
By understanding the history of the Western wedding, we can recognize that it has never been just about love and commitment.
It has also always been about money. The pomp and circumstance around the event broadcasts that the bride has made it. She’s found a good partner and, crucially, this has secured her a good (read: financially comfortable) life.
The tradition of the bride’s family paying for the day’s festivities just underscores the implication that she is an expense that her husband’s family is essentially taking off of her family’s hands. The economic symbols may feel irrelevant at a time when many couples pay for their weddings themselves, and both people in a relationship typically work, with many women in heterosexual marriages even outearning their partners. Still, traditional symbolism tends to linger for far longer than it is practically relevant. Without remembering where it comes from, we may only vaguely sense its emotional implications.
A normally-confident single woman might find herself wondering why none of her accomplishments seem to be enough. A perfectly privileged person might worry that they’re not so well-off simply because they don’t have quite as much as their wedding hosts seem to have. Add in the fact that there’s no other milestone that we celebrate with anywhere close to the level of extravagance for which we celebrate marriage, one can see how this tradition continues to reinforce several outdated messages: that a woman’s greatest victory in life is to secure a spouse, and that the more wealth surrounding her and this spouse, the better.
To be clear, I don’t begrudge any particular couple for having a traditional or even an elaborate wedding. At the end of the day, this is the culture we live in and it’s understandable that people want to commemorate significant moments in their lives using the rituals and symbols that we’ve collectively established over many decades. Some may evade the problematic history of weddings by eloping or forgoing marriage altogether, and if that feels right to them that’s a great solution. But if one feels pulled to participate in traditions, not doing so could result in a real sense of emotional loss that I don’t think is trivial, even if some aspects of an event may seem to be. But those who feel uncomfortable with the class and gender dynamics of weddings, whether they’re hosting or attending one, are left with a hard choice – to renounce it all, or to embrace it knowing that they are inevitably reinforcing some values that they don’t agree with.
I loved my wedding, but I also recognize that it was only one day in my life, and a highly atypical one at that. My life since has not become magically easier, nor has my relationship been free of stress. Days later, I was back to scrubbing the toilet and squabbling about whose turn it is to take out the trash. But if someone judged my life only by my Big Day, they might run the risk of thinking I, too, live like a queen.
I’ve also loved every wedding I’ve attended, and felt genuine joy for the couples hosting them. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little awkward, at times, about the spectacle of abundance. Not bad, or judgey, even. Just awkward. Because there is so much that is truly meaningful about weddings and the love and community they represent, but if we focus too much on the material elements, those meaningful things can almost be choked by the thorny vines of patriarchy, capitalism, and the American need to project status and dominance over others.
Perhaps there is a middle ground between rejection and blind embrace of a ritual, which is to at least recognize explicitly that these events are performance, not reality. At the very least, we can give ourselves the space and grace to feel whatever we feel about them, however complicated those feelings may be.
Annie Midori Atherton is a writer, content producer and parent living in Seattle. She’s interested in exploring how our broader culture impacts everyday life and questions of why we are the way we are.