Everyone’s wedding looks the same on Instagram. There’s a barn, church, hotel, museum, beach, or backyard, twinkly and softly lit by tea lights, or string lights, or Edison-bulb-filled candelabras. The bridesmaids wear $300 satin dresses in jewel tones or in a carefully curated mix of complementary pastels, and hold ribbon-wrapped bunches of roses, peonies, or lilies, depending on the season. The cake is an architectural marvel designed more for structural integrity than gustatory enjoyment. Mason jars are often involved, and at least one of the groomsmen wears quirky socks. The bride’s dress is silk or satin, trumpet or A-line, strapless or backless, and somewhere on the paint chip spectrum between Sherwin Williams’s Pure White and Benjamin Moore’s Swiss Coffee. The invariably accomplished bride—a teacher, doctor, software engineer, entrepreneur, take your pick—has spent the last year or more planning every detail of a day she has been conditioned to dream about since she was a girl. Sometimes there are two brides, or two grooms. Sometimes the bridal party is mixed, with groomswomen and bridesmen. Sometimes the bride and groom have chosen to write their own vows, doing away with words like “obey.” Perhaps the groom, too, has played a part in planning for the big day, or both parents are invited to walk the bride down the aisle.
But in most respects, the modern wedding goes on as if feminism never happened. In the past half-century, the mainstreaming of feminist ideals—namely, the insistence that women ought to be seen as more than potential wives and future mothers—has sat uncomfortably alongside the rise of what sociologists have termed the wedding-industrial complex: the ever-increasing significance, over-the-top-ness, and cost of modern American weddings.
Hidden behind the ubiquitous features of the Instagrammable wedding—from chalkboard placards listing the his-and-hers cocktails to personalized DIY centerpieces—modern weddings share another thing in common: a staggering price tag that goes up every year. Across socioeconomic groups, the modern wedding is the single largest expenditure many American families will ever make, other than paying for college and buying a home. (According to a survey by Brides magazine, the average American wedding in 2018 cost $44,000, up from $27,000 just the year before.) Marriage still inspires the biggest, and certainly the most expensive, celebration of a woman’s life.
This isn’t exactly breaking news. Marriage has long been the key to women’s social and economic security, and in many ways, little has changed. Well into the 1960s, an unmarried American woman applying for a home loan would have been laughed out of most lending institutions. Until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act passed in response to feminist activism in 1974, credit card applications could require a husband co-signer. For generations of American women, marriage promised economic stability, expanded financial opportunities, the potential for property ownership, and a shared claim to a man’s better-paid profession or higher wages. Of course, women today generally have easy access to credit, and women’s professional opportunities have expanded dramatically since the 1970s. But marriage continues to be disproportionately critical to women’s financial prospects. While men’s chances of reaching the wealthiest one percent of Americans correlate closely with career and educational achievements, for women, marriage is the surest route to the top.
Marriage may have been a milestone in a woman’s life, but until very recently the actual wedding wasn’t particularly special. Except for the wealthiest of women, for much of American history a wedding was a relatively low-key community affair, not that far off from a barn-raising or a corn husking: some quilting, a meal, music, dancing, and plenty of brandy or whiskey welcomed the new couple into the community. At the turn of the 20th century, Protestant reformers encouraged Americans to resist the creep towards consumerism in favor of simple nuptials. Brides might have worn white—which, before becoming a symbol of sexual purity, was a demonstration that the family was well-off enough to commission a new dress in an impractical color—but they’d plan to wear the dress again in their everyday life. There would be cake, but one baked at home by someone’s mother or aunt. The bride’s ring would be a plain metal band, invitations would go out a week or two beforehand, and the whole thing would be announced the following Sunday in church. This kind of simplicity did not just appeal to the evangelizing forces of temperance and restraint. Downplaying the significance of an event that had, until very recently, made a woman legally subservient to her husband also fit neatly into the feminism of the turn-of-the-20th-century “New Woman,” who agitated for female autonomy in personal, professional, and economic spheres.
The two years after the end of World War II sent more than 10 million American servicemen home, where they found their economic prospects buoyed by the G.I. Bill, VA Housing loans, and the United States’ new position as the unrivaled leader of the western world. Meanwhile, traditionalist propaganda encouraged women to leave their wartime jobs, hang up their skirt suits, and move to the suburbs as someone’s wife and a future someone’s mother. After all, a 1947 Pyrex ad opined, “successful marriages start in the kitchen.” “The Chef does everything but cook,” a 1961 ad for a stand mixer called the Kenmore Chef agreed, as a smiling couple canoodled by a Kitchen-Aid-like machine— “that’s what wives are for!” Vice President Richard Nixon went so far as to tell the Soviet statesman Nikita Kruschev in a public debate in 1959 that the nuclear family model—with breadwinning husbands and homemaking wives—was key to the American way of life. The intoxicating mix of future economic promise and nostalgia for the past sent couples to the altar in record numbers. By 1960, 72 percent of Americans over 18 were married, compared to less than half of that today. And, contrary to the advice of the prudent turn-of-the-century Protestants, their weddings were flashy, over-the-top affairs.
The postwar years were the heyday of what social scientists call “the white wedding:” long white dress, formal ceremony, champagne toasts, fancy reception. The model for the white wedding originated in Victorian Britain, but it was mid-century Americans who elevated it to its fullest, and most extravagant, form. Jewelers spent the late 1940s convincing grooms-to-be to seal their engagements with a carat or two of pressure-cooked carbon. De Beers, the world’s leader in diamond mining and sales, adopted the slogan “A Diamond is Forever” in 1947, immortal words that became one of the 20th century’s most recognizable marketing campaigns. Jewelers also invented the groom’s wedding band, which was uncommon in the United States until the end of World War II. Advertisements from jewelers like J.R. Wood & Sons told soldiers returning from Europe of a new trend sweeping the nation: “The companion wedding ring. The double ring ceremony has caught on.” Soldiers were the tastemakers of the nation, the ad exclaimed. “Plan now to dramatize this trend!”
By the Korean War, American soldiers had been successfully convinced to wear their hearts on their left hands. Off-the-rack wedding dresses replaced the custom-tailored gowns of decades past, making trains of tulle and satin and lace accessible across classes. By 1975, more than half of first-time brides purchased new, ready-made dresses. Wedding catering took off, and by the mid-1950s, receptions featured on-trend dishes like chicken a la king—a mid-century specialty of diced chicken and mushrooms cooked in a sherry cream sauce and served over noodles—and an elaborate, multi-tiered cake.
As the post-war economy boomed, the American public’s access to and enthusiasm for the trappings of a middle-class life increased as well: household appliances, clothes, and beauty products flew off the shelves. Weddings were no exception. The trappings of a lavish wedding went mass market in the post-war years, and just as surely the mass market went lavish. Weddings—and the dresses, rings, flowers, catering, and gifts that came to define them—that might have been accessible to only the wealthiest Americans a generation earlier became standard, even expected, for the middle class and for those who aspired to join it.
By the 1960s and ’70s, feminists started to question the consumerism and extravagance of post-war American weddings, and the traditional gender roles inherent in American marriage. In 1969, on the day after Valentine’s Day, a feminist group called WITCH—the spectacularly-named Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell—staged a protest at a bridal fair at New York City’s Madison Square Garden to protest women’s traditional roles in American society. With their faces covered by black lace veils, the protestors sang “here come the slaves, off to their graves” to the tune of the traditional bridal march. Mocking the conventional wedding day release of white doves, they let 100 white mice loose into the crowd. But for all their 1960s counter-cultural flair, WITCH was not just intent on highlighting the oppression inherent in conventional beauty standards and the gender politics of post-war marriage, or, as they called it, “legal whoredom for women.” They also echoed 19th-century Protestant reformers who thought that “the evil of elaborate and showy weddings” threatened the “sacredness of marriage.” For the women of WITCH, it was not only the sacredness of marriage that was at stake, but also the sacredness of women’s independence and free self-expression.
Many of the demands that emerged from the feminism of the late ’60s and ’70s have stuck around: equal treatment and pay in the workforce, reproductive freedom, greater support for those who choose to become mothers, and a more equal gendered division of labor at home. And the most basic belief of the second wave—that women should be recognized as more than just mothers and wives—has gone mainstream, at least for everyone to the left of Mike Pence. But weddings have become even more expensive and more important in women’s lives than ever before, and it’s been a while since anyone has thought to bring mice to a bridal fair. The mainstreaming of feminist ideals and the wedding industrial complex seem, at first, like odd bedfellows.
Blame it on the 1980s. The ’80s saw a major cultural backlash to two decades of feminist deconstruction of gender roles, and introduced new ideals of womanhood that recalled the immediate post-war era with nostalgia. In 1988 and 1989, Good Housekeeping ran a series of full-page advertisements featuring photographs of mothers in their homes with their children. The accompanying text described the “new traditional woman:” a “contemporary woman who finds her fulfillment in traditional values that were considered ‘old-fashioned’ just a few years ago.” In 1985, Executive Bride, an aptly-named guide for a new generation of brides-to-be, told readers: “Even if you find it hard to picture yourself, a hard-driving professional woman, in something as traditional, as corny, as, yes, romantic as a wedding, you know you want one.”
The wedding industry was savvy, catering to a new hard-driving, professional, and yet traditionally feminine bride. Since the counter-cultural movement and feminist critiques of the 1960s and ’70s, some women had sought to remake their weddings from the postwar norm to more closely reflect their preferences and values. In some cases, this simply meant marrying somewhere other than a church, perhaps in nature. Some brides opted to do away with the traditional ceremonial language of duty and obedience and instead emphasize partnership in their vows. Others rejected traditions such as being “given away” by their fathers, or being announced to friends and family as “man and wife.” By the 1980s, bridal consultants and magazines, fashion houses, caterers, and jewelers found that they could profit by actively encouraging women to dispense with traditions that felt old fashioned and to personalize their weddings to suit their tastes. American women enthusiastically embraced this call.
The wedding industry offered modern brides a sense of individuality and integrity while continuing to market the promise of a lavish, magical celebration by and for her. The white wedding no longer even needed to feature a white dress; it would earn its glamour and social value precisely by reflecting the bride’s unique priorities and style. If American women had begun to challenge the conventions of weddings in part because of their politics, the bridal industry succeeded in resignifying politics as a matter of taste.
The wedding industry worked hard to assure women that there was no conflict between their executive status in the boardroom, liberated sex lives, and the traditional gender norms and beauty standards on display at their wedding. In fact, they were the necessary components of the woman who “had it all.” It’s not a coincidence that the ’80s also saw the birth of the bachelorette party, an inversion of the socially-sanctioned night of debauchery that grooms had been enjoying for the better part of a century. Bachelorette parties did more than open up a thriving market for penis balloons, though that may be their most enduring legacy. They also acknowledged explicitly and in public that women had sex lives before marriage and that weddings represented the bride’s choice of monogamy as much as it did the groom’s. Women had claimed the right to have ambitious professional lives, and had demanded more equal marriages. But a woman’s wedding day gave her a once-in-a-lifetime shot at asserting her power in traditionally gendered terms. In her white dress, with her hair coiffed, body on display, and surrounded by her fawning friends in matching satin, the bride reassured the world that while she might now be living a feminist life, she hadn’t lost her touch with the features of a fully feminine life.
If the new burden to be both a feminist and feminine wasn’t enough, from the luxury-obsessed ’80s to the Instagram-obsessed 2010s women faced increasing socio-economic pressure to throw elaborate weddings, often well beyond their financial means. The persistent climate of economic precarity that we occupy, along with the erosion of the social safety net and of middle-class economic security, has left American families eager to maintain, if nothing else, the appearance of success. As much as the traditional bridal industry, social media, and its appeal to commodify our lives for others now shapes an image of what weddings should look like. They are elaborate, often exotic, but apparently carefree affairs, and above all masterfully orchestrated - the successful wedding leaves no placemat, dressing room, or even sock unstyled or unnoticed. Weddings offer a chance to perform our ability to transcend the realities of the everyday, and to magic ourselves into lives that are more glamorous, economically comfortable, and socially important than the ones we actually live.
But the magic of the white wedding cannot be reduced to class aspirations alone. Cinderella walking down the aisle toward her Prince Charming and her happily ever after is a relatively recent tradition, a conservative fantasy of gender roles that directly contradicts our notions of women’s rights, gender equality, and even of what are now relatively mainstream ideals—if not lived realities—of equality in marriage. While brides may no longer necessarily promise to “obey” their husbands, weddings are still routinely understood to be “her day,” and fundamentally a reflection of her value.
The lesson modern weddings try to teach us is that we need to honor our Cinderella fantasies and our feminist ideals in equal measure: that in order to have it all, women must do it all. In an age when neo-liberal feminism reigns—with its insistence that we could solve structural inequality if we’d just “lean in” a little more—this should hardly come as a surprise. The 21st-century woman must perform success in order to attain it, commodifying everything from her house plant collection to her community leadership to her professional achievements. In the end, it may be that the wedding industrial complex and today’s feminism of “leaning in” and “having it all” are not such strange bedfellows after all. Our LinkedIn profiles and framed degrees serve as evidence of our professional success, but, as sociologist Karen M. Dunak writes, it is only by “getting married” that “you show family and friends that you have a successful personal life.”
Peggy O’Donnell is a writer, historian, and non-TT faculty at the University of Chicago. She is currently working on her first book, Without Children: The History of Not Being A Mother, forthcoming in two years from Seal Press. She tweets, occasionally, @peggyohdonnell.
Sarah Stoller is a writer and historian of women, gender, and feminism. She’s finishing her PhD on the history of working parenthood at the University of California, Berkeley and can be found on Twitter @sstohla.