The 99%: Champagne Toasts and Caviar Receptions: Buying the American Wedding
Whether from schadenfreude, spectacle, or simple relief that the Duchess of Cambridge no longer has to defend her big day at the “wedding of the century,” Kim Kardashian’s 72-day prelude-to-divorce has been covered from all possible angles. The fascination is not merely with the brevity of the nuptials, but their price tag: the wedding cost $10 million dollars, or $138,888 per day of marriage.
Yet, as a proportion of their annual incomes, the Kardashian kouple may actually be more reasonable than many other Americans. In 2007, the average cost of the American wedding was over $28,000; while the recession caused a bit of a dip for a few years, the price is now back up over $24,000. These costs represent about half of the country’s median annual household (not individual) income; half of the money a couple makes in an entire year will be spent on their wedding. Kim Kardashian made $18 million on her faux fairytale, so the budget was only slightly over what she made on a single day. If she’s being unreasonable (and she is), so is everyone else.
The expensive wedding is everywhere on television—and not just the lavish nuptials of celebrities with money to spare, but the real-life weddings of people spending huge amounts of money. TLC brings us Say Yes to the Dress in both New York and Atlanta (as well as the most unnecessary spin-off ever in Big Bliss, which features only larger-sized brides—as if they couldn't just be on the regular show), as well as Four Weddings, where four different brides attend each other’s weddings and judge whose celebrations are best, effectively turning this important and personal moment into a competition. WEtv features nine shows exclusively about weddings, including Amazing Wedding Cakes, Girl Meets Gown, My Fair Wedding, and Rich Bride Poor Bride. The latter purports to be about wedding planning on a budget, but the tagline “No matter how big the budget, is it ever enough?” doesn’t really seem to challenge the idea that lovely weddings can be completely affordable. Taken all together, these shows and others present a sense that weddings must be perfect (I Do Over, for example, is not about remarriages but about helping couples have a second wedding when their first didn’t go as well as they’d have liked), will be judged (see Four Weddings), involve lots of conflict and bickering (see Bridezillas, In-Law Wedding Wars), are about the bride entirely (not the couple, which may or may not include a “bride”), and—of course—require heaps of money to be respectable.
A show like Platinum Weddings makes it clear that the weddings it features are extravagant, big budget productions. The now-canceled show featured weddings with budgets around half a million dollars and up, including $100,000 flower arrangements, eight-carat engagement rings, and luxury SUVs as wedding presents. On other shows that feature a range of wedding budgets, it’s still hard to tell the difference between the really rich and the middle-class couples spending beyond their means, simply because everyone is spending so much money. TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress takes place at Kleinfeld Bridal, a Manhattan shop where the dresses start at $1,300 and go infinitely upwards. The show has occasionally featured a $25,000 or $40,000 dress sale, but these are outliers (on the show, as well as in reality). SYTTD does, however, feature brides in the $5,000 to $10,000 range without pause, or brides who are buying multiple gowns with totals well above that range. There are brides that cry to their parents, make demands of their fiancés, and bargain with sales staff to either increase their budget or lower the price. Rarely do brides abandon a dress because it’s too expensive and choose something else—instead, they find a way to pay for it. On one episode, bride Syndall says, “If I love the dress, I’ll find a way to pay for it,” to which salesperson Randy responds, “It’s only $15,000.” On another episode, Fofie covets a dress originally priced at $24,000; her parents negotiate the dress on a damaged floor sample down to $14,000—and it’s considered a bargain. When Autumn’s two dresses total $51,000 (including an $8,000 veil), her fiancé jokes that he’ll have to “sell his kidneys off” to afford them. It may be a joke for him, but for most Americans the amount his fiancé spends on gowns to wear for one evening represents what everyone in their household will earn in a year.
These price tags are not about making weddings a class privilege—though I think they also do that. The idea of marriage itself is already subject to class differences, and whether or not individuals will choose to pursue marriage has more to do with other variables than whether or not they can afford a “dream wedding.” What these costs do, though, is push those who do want to get married to spend more than they can probably afford, to support an industry that is entirely about consumerism and manufactured fairytale fantasy, and to feel that their celebration is, in some way, subpar if it doesn’t conform to these ideals.
I’m writing this post while I plan my own wedding, and—because I believe acknowledging your own privilege is important—I admit that our budget is really limited only by our own preferences. When I mentioned to a friend I was writing this post, she reminded me that, when I watch those wedding shows, I don’t have to experience the sense that what those brides are buying and planning is out of my reach. I don’t have to feel that my wedding is inferior or doesn’t measure up (though of course, my point is that no bride should have to feel that way), and I don’t have to deny myself something that I really would like to have on my wedding day. What I have to do, instead, is remind myself that I don’t really want those things; the idea of spending exorbitant amounts of money on “my” day and myself doesn’t sit right with me. If we’re spending money, it will be on making sure the day is fun and worry-free for our guests, and that it aligns with our priorities in our marriage and our values in the rest of our lives. I’m sure there are many couples that share the same sentiment but for whom this isn’t feasible—for me, the work is about not buying the idea that what’s more expensive is inherently better or more magical or makes your marriage a better partnership. And, if I need a reminder of that last part, Kim Kardashian is always there to remind me.
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