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Let's Play Aristocrat!

Swerve magazine
Shannon Rupp

As I opened the fat, creamy envelope containing an excessively artful black-and-white photo of a mid-30s couple capering in a field, I felt that faint queasiness that tends to arrive in April and doesn’t quite recede until late September. Call it the wedding flu.

I find the so-called traditional wedding tacky, and this invitation was no exception. It begged me to “witness a celebration of love,” an ominous phrase that implied any number of unfortunate sights. I felt a cold shiver of embarrassment run down my spine at the Photoshopped image of people who looked only vaguely familiar doing something I’d never seen them do in real life, presumably at the bidding of the photographer. Hard to believe this cringeworthy display of narcissism was costing at least $5,000 of the $23,300 spent on the average Canadian wedding. Worse, it would likely be followed by pictures of the bride and her crew in those usually unflattering strapless gowns brandishing bare arms that resemble a packet of pasty sausages.

When it comes to weddings, “traditional” is little more than a marketing term, something I first noticed decades ago when one of my childhood friends announced she was getting married at the tender age of 20. She wanted a traditional wedding, she said, and had a thick book of rules on how to get it.

“Hang on, whose tradition is this?” I protested, as visions of frilly purple bridesmaid gowns danced before my horrified eyes. “If you need to study up on something, I’m pretty darn sure it’s not your tradition!” But logic has no place in wedding mythology. Nor does history.

The unromantic facts are that when the wedding industry sprang up in the 1920s it was part of a bid by department stores to cash in on an ever-growing middle class. The First World War destroyed what was politely referred to as the social order, and postwar lawyers, shopkeepers and small business owners wanted to give their daughters a society wedding. Nothing said you had arrived like a splashy formal party that showed you were successful, prosperous and a candidate for the local newspaper’s society pages—an excellent step on the way to a city council run.

By “society” they meant captains of industry and robber barons of all sorts—the people novelist Edith Wharton called New York’s 400 families—even though by the time Hemingway invented F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quote, “The rich are different from you and I,” anybody with money could enter the world we now associate with Gossip Girl and Rory Gilmore’s grandparents.

Department stores often hired young ladies from “good families” to act as consultants in their new bridal shops and teach an untutored petit bourgeoisie the social niceties, while promoting a lot of ad-made myths about what was traditional. White wedding gowns, for example, are a relatively recent custom, popularized by Queen Victoria in 1840—but her wedding dress had nothing to do with being a virginal bride. Truly traditional weddings are about displaying wealth and status, and white was the most expensive dress colour because it was hard to keep clean. Only someone with a big wardrobe and a fat income could afford the luxury of white which, as Jane Austen’s characters often note, is very elegant. (They mean posh.)

The wealthiest suitors have long given engagement rings as a kind of down payment, not a token of love. For women, it represented insurance in case the man reneged on his proposal. A jilted woman was devalued in the marriage market and might even have to resort to suing for breach of promise. So, on the ring front, the elite prefer valuable rare gems like rubies and sapphires. Diamonds gained cachet among hoi polloi in the late 19th century courtesy of the newly discovered mines in South Africa that made them cheap and plentiful. Mining companies needed to expand the market for sparkly rocks, which they weren’t really successful in doing until 1947, when a never-married DeBeers copywriter named Frances Gerety hit on one of the all-time great ad slogans: A diamond is forever. That romantic notion boosted sales forever, although the cynicism of songs like “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”—which alludes to the real reason for engagement rings and other baubles—probably didn’t hurt.

The theatricality of white weddings made them a natural for Hollywood, and no picture had a bigger business impact than Spencer Tracy’s 1950 film, Father of the Bride, featuring a supernaturally beautiful Elizabeth Taylor in the big meringue gown. Suddenly legions of women from modest backgrounds, who had never attended a formal party let alone thrown one, wanted that special day in the limelight.

Things might have gone on indefinitely as a dull round of stiff, uncomfortable luncheons and dinner dances at which people pretended to be the gentry, if it hadn’t been for the celebrity princess. Diana came with a glass coach, a real prince and a palace PR machine that branded this a “fairytale wedding” in hopes it would reinvigorate the monarchy. Royal weddings have always provided the template for all society nuptials, so after 1981 there was no wedding excess too wretched, even for the cheap knock-offs. You’d think Diana’s stormy marriage, ugly divorce, and horrific death would be a cautionary tale. But talk to any 20-something who morphs into Bridezilla when the engagement ring is slipped onto her finger and you’ll discover a little girl who played with Princess Di paper dolls.

By the time Steve Martin did the 1991 remake of Father of the Bride— which had swans waddling about his suburban California yard to suggest the estate of a 19th-century English gentleman—Spencer Tracy’s modest afternoon reception with sandwiches and Champagne looked positively frugal. The cake had risen from $400 to $1,200, and the snooty wedding planner with old-money pretensions had evolved into Franck, a consultant-to-celebs with an incomprehensible foreign accent and a kind of emperor’s new clothes schtick.

Apparently the satire was lost on Disney World. As Rebecca Mead reports in her delightful investigation of the wedding industry, One Perfect Day, Franck’s Bridal Studio has come to life at the amusement park, where they’ll orchestrate a Cinderella wedding. Literally. It comes complete with carriage and themed decor—you know, like a children’s birthday party, but with booze. For an additional fee, Mickey and his friends will make an appearance at your reception, too.

If the infantile fails to entrance the bridal pair, there’s always the imaginary past. Mead tells of Gatlinburg, Tenn., a small town devoted to the bridal biz where couples can opt for the 19th-century hillbilly experience. It’s not quite clear why anyone would want to pretend to be related to Hatfields and McCoys while getting married, but I’ll assume it’s the same longing for a romanticized rural life that made Marie Antoinette play at being a milkmaid.

Even if nostalgia doesn’t mug the modern bride, she’s likely to be sold on the “traditionalesque,” a word Mead coins to describe all the newly invented faux-traditional practices that exist only to boost bridal bills. Mead’s book was written in 2007, so she doesn’t include some disturbing traditionalesque trends of recent years, including the trash-the-dress photo shoot, in which brides do fashion-mag-style pictorials of themselves dirtying The Dress in edgy settings.

More than a few of us find such play-acting pageants hard to witness, and I admire an outspoken friend who long ago called a halt to attending these insults to authenticity. “I’m not interested in playing an extra in someone else’s fantasy,” she explains to anyone foolish enough to question her.

I consider this a sound policy for life, not least because I used to listen to the hilarious tales of a pal who practises personal injury law and was often hired to deal with fantasy-wedding fallout. He represented one defendant (formerly known as the bride) after a bridesmaid in a fake-country-estate-themed wedding claimed permanent disability due to being thrown from the open carriage when the horse bolted. “You’d think the hoop skirt might have broken her fall,” he noted dryly. Based on his stories, I’m sure the trend of releasing doves has given way to butterflies, because you never know when the birds will go all Hitchcock.

Since that engagement photo didn’t bode well for the fakery to come, I was about to send my regrets along with a nice gift when I saw that they had registered for scuba equipment. (Of course they had.) Now I’m sending them Mead’s book. May they enjoy the irony as much as I enjoy their fantasy.

"Let's Play Aristocrat" was first published July 17, 2012 in Calgary's Swerve magazine (Postmedia)

17 Jul 2012