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Friday, February 4, 2011

Review of "One Perfect Day"





One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding by Rebecca Mead (a contributor to The New Yorker, which quickly makes itself apparent, as I’ll get into later) is nothing if not, first and foremost, unsurprising. Did I need a book to tell me that the Wedding Industrial Complex (WIC) is out to sell an engaged woman everything she could ever possibly conceive of needing or wanting, no matter how trivial or unnecessary or – in many cases – utterly contrived? No. The WIC is a business; to be shocked that they’re trying to make money from customers is tantamount to being surprised that the Pope is Catholic and that Lance Bass is gay.

This is not to say that the book is not a worthwhile read. On the contrary, I did find parts of it very interesting. To start with, as mentioned, the concept of a business trying to sell as much as possible to potential clients is hardly surprising. What is rather interesting though is the way in which the WIC is selling its wares. To quote one particular wedding vendor, a bride-to-be is the “drunken sailor” of a customer; everyone wants to get her into their store, because she’ll buy anything and everything once they’ve got her under the magic spell of white polyester and a handful of silk flowers and a $250 tiara shoved on her head as soon as she’s got that dress on, because damn it they are not going to let her get away with the audacity of only buying a dress when the crown just "makes her look like the bride" (and that $250 pressured tiara is the sell that actually “pays the bills” as one boutique consultant points out).

Think you're nontraditional and can shop there without feeling that pressure? Think again, as Mead writes that, "One of my favorite pieces described how to market to the 'nontraditional bride' and warned readers that this kind of woman is dangerously apt to 'forget the wedding and prepare for marriage.'" Heaven forbid.

The wedding industrial complex isn’t messing around here. They’ll go after that drunken sailor until they’re blue in the face. But, Mead asks, “Who’s pouring the drinks?”

To back up a moment, I should mention that the WIC isn’t just peddling tradition with some tiaras on top. What they’re peddling may have the sticker that says “traditional” but in reality, what they’re selling is the “traditionalesque” – things that are not, in fact, traditional at all, but are dressed up to look and feel like the real thing. Disney is particularly good at this. As one Disney wedding official told Mead, "Disney prided itself upon its traditionalism when it came to weddings; but the traditions that were most determinedly upheld at Disney were those established by the company itself.”

And speaking of "traditions" being marketing as being old as time, let's not forget that De Beers created the whole diamond engagement ring thing. Diamond engagement rings are far from traditional in the time-sense. To quote Mead at length:

"The wedding industry has been assiduous in working to establish the trappings of the lavish formal wedding as if they were compulsory rather than optional. One of the most vivid instances of the wedding industry inventing a tradition -- the phrase derives from a celebrated essay by Eric Hobsbawn, the Marxist historian -- is the positioning of an engagement ring as an essential piece of matrimonial equipage. Americans started giving and wearing diamond engagement rings in the latter part of the nineteenth century, after the discovery of diamond mines in South Africa made the stones much more easily available than they had been hitherto. But it was in the 19030s that the advertising agency N. W. Ayer began to create on behalf of De Beers diamond company a decades-long advertising and public-relations campaign to convince the American consumer that a diamond ring was an indispensable token of romantic love's measure. Crowning N. W. Ayer's achievement was a phrase coined in 1947 by a copywriter named Frances Gerety that Advertising Age magazine was later to call the best advertising slogan of the twentieth century: 'A Diamond is Forever.'

Thanks to the efforts of Gerety -- who never herself married -- the imperative for a diamond engagement ring is today so well established that the current De Beers's marketing campaigns have focused not simply upon the necessity of a diamond, but the necessity of a really, really big diamond. (One recent advertisement shows a large stone and a smaller one side by side, the caption under the smaller reading, "Where'd you get that diamond?" and the caption under the larger reading, "Where'd you get that man?") The convention that a man should spend two months' salary on his bride's ring was also created by the jewelry industry, and the De Beers Web site, adiamondisforever.com, provides a handy calculator for figuring out two months' salary from an annual wage, helpful for any would-be groom who can't divide by six. (Where'd you get that man, indeed.)"

1947? Hardly a timeless ancient tradition.

The Apache Wedding Prayer Blessing is a good example of the “traditionalesque” in ceremonial form. The prayer (“Now you will feel no rain, for each of you will be shelter to the other. Now you will feel no cold, for each of you will be warmth to the other. Now there is no more loneliness, for each of you will be companion to the other. Now you are two bodies, but there is one life before you. Go now to your dwelling place,to enter into the days of your togetherness. And may your days be good and long upon the earth.”) is by no means a traditional blessing at all. And it’s certainly not an Apache one. Rather, it’s as American as they come, right out of the James Stewart film, "Broken Arrow," which is a cowboy film written by non-Indians for Hollywood (and the blessing was written specifically for the film). So, I suppose if one is looking to have a Hollywood feel to a ceremony, the blessing would be a good choice. But traditional Apache? Not so much. (An actual Apache wedding involved the man and woman each eating some corn meal mash.) But it’s touted as traditional, because it feels traditional, and looks traditional, and sounds traditional. So, that’s what it’s "sold" as (not literally, but figuratively). And eventually, as the years go by, I suppose it will become traditional in the sense of people using it over the years and years and years. But not stretching back so far as ancient Apache times, as seems to be the way it’s being described. There's nothing wrong with the blessing itself -- it's quite pretty. And plenty of people use readings from poetry and books and even movies in their ceremonies, and there's nothing wrong with that either. It's the spirit in which it is being published around as a traditional blessing that's a little bewildering.

The book provides interesting statistics showing what people have spent in the years gone by versus what they tend to spend now, citing the statistically flawed methods used by the WIC; they tend to group many expenses outside of the wedding in with the wedding itself, so they can say people spend, on average, $28,000 on a wedding, when in reality it may not be that much, and the fact that they’re pulling these averages from their own pool of people who respond to their magazine surveys, which means that they people spending that much are buying their magazines, which says something already about the type of wedding that the people surveyed are planning – they aren’t going to pull data from people going to the courthouse, or people planning online without the aid of glossy magazines, they aren’t pulling data from people who might just be using what the church has available without, again, the glossy magazines; their pool of people surveyed isn’t as large as they’d like us to think. But why enlarge statistics? Simple. If a woman is convinced that people on average spend that much, she’ll become more and more comfortable with it as “fact” and will simply feel there’s no way around. Out comes the cash.

The one thing that particularly bothered me about Mead was her snobbery – she was aghast that people would spend 30k on a wedding, just as aghast at those who would spend 15k or 5k (when she herself says she threw a party and didn't just go to the courthouse). And what about those people who said they didn’t have any help from parents in paying for a wedding? Definitely not hard-working people. *Obviously* those people were all people who had parents pay for college and were given jobs early in life – those people were all obviously fooling themselves if they thought they should be proud of themselves for paying for it on their own! They should have been ashamed, it seems according to Mead, since obviously the only way to afford to pay for your entire wedding yourself is to be fed with a silver spoon for everything else so you can save up the money. Courthouse weddings? At some times in the book, she seems to applaud them (she had one herself, though then later threw a large party for guests at home) but then at others, again seems to drift to the idea that they’re still spending too much if they throw a party that’s lavish later (even though she did…). It comes across as a little bit snobby. And what's worse, you can't seem to win with her! You're damned if you throw a big party, but damned if you throw a tiny one, too. But then, she’s a staff writer for The New Yorker, so it’s sort of par for the course, I suppose.

As for the part where we’re supposed to be shocked that David’s Bridal has its dresses made overseas in Chinese sweatshops (which Mead visits personally to see women getting paid for the weight of pins they pull out of dresses, and by the skirt – something 40 cents a day – and lean over to carefully hand-bead yard after yard of fake white silk so that when it gets to David’s they can slap that sticker on that says “hand-beaded!” as though someone in the back room lovingly stitched it with a cup of tea and some Mozart playing on the cd player)…I think at this point it’s fairly common knowledge. Thus is the name of the game of capitalism. It’s sad, but…such is the name of the game. Again, it goes back to business; why would the WIC be any different from the thousands of other things being made overseas in sweatshops? It’s a special day, but notthat special. Product is still, at the end of the day, product, whether that product is a basketball shoe or a wedding dress.

On the whole, I’d recommend this to anyone interested in seeing behind the scenes for the marketing aspect, although the sociological aspect is what really drew me to the book and I was not disappointed there either, as the marketing is in part what has lead to the bridal culture being what it is (the WIC has created the bridezilla and it keeps them in business). Snootiness aside, it’s really worthwhile (and being a bit of a snooty snob myself from time to time, it didn’t really bother me that much). The insight into how the business has commandeered the word "traditional" is a very interesting read in and of itself. It gives a good solid look at the wedding industrial complex from a large variety of angles -- it's a business first and last, and essentially, the name of the game is money, not matrimony.


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