Weddings! And symbolism, and lavish spending

In terms of gender role performance, I think I’m about 30% girl-typical, 25% boy-typical, and 45% neutral. One of the ways in which I’m girl-typical is that I’m interested in weddings. When I was little, I read all of Emily Post’s Etiquette multiple times, but especially the wedding section. I would draw dresses and come up with exact, detailed plans for what my flowers would be, and what the wedding party would wear, and what our invitations would look like, and all of that. Sometimes it was a breezy casual beach wedding, sometimes it was an elaborate formal affair with 25 pearl buttons on my dress. I didn’t ever think that what I was planning was the actual wedding I would actually have someday; I just enjoyed making the plans. (I did the same thing with families, planning how many kids and their names and how I’d space them and where we’d live and which kids would be musical and which would be introverts and all of that.)

To be actually planning my actual wedding gives me a weird, disjointed feeling: kind of like when you rehearse a performance over and over, and then you finally go on stage and it feels entirely different from the rehearsal, but also weirdly the same, and you can’t quite convince yourself that this time it’s the real thing.

To me weddings, like a lot of rituals, provide a unique opportunity to express yourself in the context of your culture. Each wedding is a blend of “things you do because that’s what your culture does” and “things you do because it appeals to your individual taste.” Rituals are all about symbolism, and being, as I am, something of a junkie for symbolic self-expression, I think a ton about what the symbolism of each aspect of the wedding ritual is and how I want to embrace, reject, or modify that symbol. It becomes a very particular expression of identity. Planning my hypothetical future wedding was about trying on different possible identities; planning an actual upcoming wedding is about settling on one; looking back on my wedding as I attend other people’s will be about comparing and contrasting what my wedding said about me with what their wedding says about them.

So! If all of that sounds ridiculous and/or boring to you, you can skip this and any other post tagged “wedding” I may write in the future. If you’re still here in the next paragraph, I am going to assume you have at least a passing interest in in-depth discussion of contemporary US wedding customs and the symbolism therein.

First contemporary US wedding custom: Spending a ton of money.
It’s easy to dismiss this one as out-of-control advertising and rampant materialism and whatever else, and that’s all certainly part of it, but let’s eschew the knee-jerk dismissive response shall we? What I see in the “obscene cost” aspect of weddings is a desire to play rich for once in your life. It’s like your own private Oscar ceremony, your chance to live like a movie star for one day, where all attention is on you and everything is lavish and decadent. Most Americans can’t afford to do this more than once in their lives, and the wedding has become the time when you do it: live in glorious splendor, spend like a millionaire, and remember it all your days.

I am not uncritical of the lavish-spending custom; in fact I have been known to throw around words like “ridiculous” and “insane” as well as the above-featured “obscene.” And, as I’ll discuss in a minute, I am entirely not on board with it for my own wedding. But I do understand, I think, where the desire comes from, and I can see my way to conceding that once in a lifetime, spending half a year’s salary on a really great party could be a good choice for some people. The downside, of course, is that the market created by people who want to have the star-for-a-day wedding experience makes it rather difficult for people to have a less expensive wedding if they choose. “Wedding” anything can be expected to cost more than the same thing NOT intended for weddings, just because the producers know that consumers will pay it. A modest wedding still costs thousands to tens of thousands of dollars, depending how you define “modest.”

My personal spin on this custom: laughing in its face as it speeds by.
I don’t really have an option here: we’re broke and pretty much on our own for footing wedding costs. But even if I had money to spend, even if I had quite a lot of money to spend, I’d be shooting for the four-digit end of the wedding-cost spectrum. The idea of a big, expensive wedding last appealed to me in early college years: since then I’ve been thinking of my wedding as “celebration with friends” rather than “chance to live it up big.” We have a lot of people who love us and are excited to participate and contribute, so we’re drawing on their various talents, and letting it be a pretty homespun affair. I’m keeping track of all our expenses, so that when people ask me “How can I possibly throw a wedding for less than $X?” I’ll be able to tell them how we did it.

3 thoughts on “Weddings! And symbolism, and lavish spending

  1. love it! my brother is getting married an week before you. his wedding cost is about 1k, due the dress of 600. and beer. Everything else is given or made by the two families. i look forward to going to your wedding, not to compare to others, but to rejoice in the celebration.


  2. My second wedding was a justice-of-the-peace event, but my first wedding was under $2,000 and it is a very good memory. We had this rule of thumb: “Let’s spend where it really matters to us, and save everywhere else.” I bought a white lace dress for $50 on clearance—a lucky find. (I think it was on clearance because it looked so much like a wedding dress but wasn’t a wedding dress!) We printed the invitations on the computer (but nice paper). We got deli trays from the grocery store (I’ve heard people speak so disparagingly of such things, but I love rolled up deli turkey on little squooshy dinner rolls more than almost anything else!). My mom made the cake: she bought a set of tiered pans, but those were still a small fraction of the cost of buying a cake (and it was yum). And so on. It ended up being like a project WE did.

    I was so happy with all of it. And then years later an acquaintance made a remark about my “cheap church basement wedding,” and I was really hurt, and still am. I think you’re right: the “spending more” idea can really seep in and hurt the “spending less” wedding.

    I think part of it is that people think that spending more means the wedding is more significant: like, you spend less if you’re marrying someone you’re settling for, but if you found The Perfect One then naturally you go over-the-top. I also think there may be a layer underneath of insurance: if this wedding is super super expensive, the marriage is a good bet and won’t fail.


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