Cinderella Dreams: The Allure of the Lavish Wedding
by Cele Otnes
While many industries in the U.S. are feeling the effects of a prolonged economic downturn, the wedding industry continues to enjoy a boom, with the average cost of weddings (including honeymoons) in the U.S. now approaching $22,000 (theknot.com). A few years ago, I was asked to write a book as part of the Life Passages series at the University of California Press that explores why weddings arguably have become the most economically and sociologically significant rites in cultures that embrace an ethic of consumption, both for consumers and the businesses that comprise the wedding industry. The result was Cinderella Dreams: The Allure of the Lavish Wedding (2003), with Elizabeth Pleck of the department of History at the University of Illinois.
Previous research on the meaning of the wedding typically argues that lavish weddings are primarily ways for families to either communicate their current social prestige, or to attempt to elevate their social status. Other explanations for the popularity of the lavish wedding that have been offered include: the wedding day is the reward for a woman whose future will be characterized by sacrifices for her husband and family (Rothman 1984), and the lavish wedding supports the institution of marriage even as divorce rates are soaring. In our book we provide four additional arguments to account for the popularity of the occasion. These are:
1. Weddings are celebrations both of our love of consumption, and of the consumption goods specifically designed to celebrate our culture’s fascination with love -- such as luxurious food, drink, attire, and travel (Illouz, 1997);
2. Weddings (as well as engagements and honeymoons) allow consumers to inject magic in our lives (see Belk, 1991). For women especially (but increasingly for men as well), weddings provide a way to bring the Cinderella myth, and all it implies, to life, even if just for a short time. Moreover, the fact that “encore” weddings (those that represent a second, third, or even greater number of trips down the aisle) are gaining in popularity demonstrates the seductiveness of wedding-related magic at different stages of consumers’ life cycles.
3. A wedding allows us to participate in a ritual that “freezes time” (Gillis, 1996), and to remember ourselves through photographs, videos, and other memory-capturing artifacts as youthful, beautiful, celebrities within our own social circle. Moreover, the memories created by weddings allow us to link to the memories of other weddings within our own social networks, through the use of artifacts such as family bibles and jewelry.
4. Weddings enable us to strive to achieve perfection in a consumption event, which is an ideal that is cost-prohibitive to most consumers in more mundane consumption contexts. Simply put, the ethic that may lead many consumers to buy used cars or homes, or take a vacation at a local lake resort rather than a trip to Europe, is typically tossed out of the window when a wedding is being planned. This is because the complex of businesses that profit from lavish weddings has successfully reconceptualized the lavish wedding not just as a rite, but also as right for citizens in consumer cultures. As such, consumers have been given cultural permission to indulge in perfection-oriented consumption in this context, without the guilt hangover that might normally accompany a spending binge.
To support the four reasons for the popularity of the lavish wedding discussed above, we examine the creation of many aspects of the wedding industry – from advertising for De Beers diamonds, to the emergence and current state of wedding-oriented retailing, to the growth and evolution of the honeymoon industry, and the ways Hollywood and other cultural producers have communicated the desire for, or resistance of, lavish weddings. Our research combines the study of marketing-related archival material with data secured through interviews with consumers and industry practitioners. We believe this approach enables consumers to gain both an historical and a current understanding of the intricacies of the wedding industry, and of the benefits and drawbacks of living in a consumer culture in general. For example, the book demonstrates how consumption-oriented cultures typically foster a sense of entitlement, of ascribing to the belief that we creating ourselves through having, and of the valorization of lifestyles increasingly defined by customized, aesthetically-driven consumption. Moreover, we discuss how the lavish wedding has been adapted (or, less commonly, resisted) in ceremonies that occur across the globe.
Belk, Russell W., “The Ineluctable Mysteries of Possessions,” Journal of Behavior and Social Personality, 6 (6), 1991, 17-55.
Gillis, John R., A World of Their Own Making: Myth, Ritual, and the Quest for Family Values, New York, Basic Books, 1996.
Illouz, Eva, Consuming the Romantic Utopia: Love and the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1997.
Otnes, Cele C. and Elizabeth H. Pleck, Cinderella Dreams: The Allure of the Lavish Wedding, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003.
Rothman, Ellen K., Hands and Hearts: A History of Courtship in America, New York, Basic Books, 1984.
Campbell, Colin, The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism, Oxford, B. Blackwell, 1987.
Friese, Susanne, “A Consumer Good in the Ritual Process: A Case Study of the Wedding Dress,” Journal of Ritual Studies, 11 (Winter 1997), 51-62.
Ingraham, Chrys, White Weddings: Romancing Heterosexuality in Popular Culture, London, Routledge, 1999.
Pleck, Elizabeth H., Celebrating the Family: Ethnicity, Consumer Culture, and Family Rituals, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.
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