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November 26, 2014

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The country has gone nuts over nuptials

I’m getting married this weekend, and I’m starting to wonder if I’m the only bride in the world who hasn’t spent a year deliberating about what type of silverware to use at the dinner. To tell the truth, I suspect I’m an incompetent bride. I’ve missed all 170 episodes of “Say Yes to the Dress.” I failed to subscribe to Bride, Modern Bride and the Knot. Other cardinal sins I’ve committed include shopping for my wedding dress alone and answering honestly when the salesperson asked what I thought of a gown that looked just like a giant badminton birdie.

At one bridal store, where they ring a bell and applaud when a bride buys a dress (Pavlovian conditioning?) I confessed that I didn’t want to force my bridesmaids to buy anything. The saleswoman looked shocked. I might as well have announced that I planned to send my six dearest friends trotting down the aisle naked.

No wonder the average cost of an American wedding has skyrocketed — from about $11,000 in 1980 (adjusted for inflation) to more than $26,000 today. When did our society get so nuts over nuptials? And why have we become obsessed with perfect weddings just as the institution of marriage is fading?

Only 51 percent of American adults are married today, down from 75 percent in 1960. It is more acceptable than ever to stay unmarried forever, as single moms and dads, live-in lovers, or people who just prefer to carry on alone. Yet popular culture is infatuated with weddings, spawning an entire genre of reality TV shows, a flurry of movies, and a new bride Barbie doll.

Have we created a cult around weddings precisely because we’re afraid that marriage is going extinct? Or do we fetishize them because they are among the few traditions we have left?

In fact, “traditional weddings” are a recent phenomenon, according to Vicki Howard, associate professor of history at Hartwick College who authored “Brides, Inc: American Weddings and the Business of Tradition.”

Throughout the 1800s, she said, the vast majority of Americans married at home wearing everyday clothes. Or held immigrant feasts with simple food from the old country. Then the Industrial Revolution created an elite class that could afford lavish weddings like those put on by royalty. A wedding industry began to emerge.

Factories started mass-producing silk for wedding dresses. Suddenly, the well-to-do could afford gowns that mimicked the elite. That prompted the elite to get even more ostentatious. A nuptial arms race broke out.

In the 1920s, a group of jewelers, dressmakers and publications sprung up to help wealthy brides throw ever-more fabulous weddings. Marshall Field started the first gift registry in 1924 to capture not only the bride but all her friends. The magazine Brides started in 1934.

These companies, henceforth referred to as “the Wedding Industrial Complex,” had an interest in making wedding “traditions” more and more elaborate and expensive.

“In the 1920s, the jewelry industry tried to invent the male engagement ring,” Howard said. It flopped. But by World War II, jewelers succeeded in selling the notion of a male wedding ring. Prior to that, only women wore them. It stuck partly because of the war. Married soldiers wore rings into battle. Then celebrities such as Humphrey Bogart and Shirley Temple’s husband bought them. A new norm was born.

“Business is quite powerful in shaping social practice,” Howard said. “They are setting the standards and the values that people judge their lives by.”

So why not outfox the Wedding Industrial Complex and refuse to have a wedding at all? Ultimately, my fiance and I decided it was important to make a commitment in front of friends and family. We also wanted to throw a really good party. Somewhere in the midst of making placecards and counting guests, it dawned on me why Americans are so obsessed with weddings. We hunger for a sense of community. In a culture with so few formal rites of passage, opportunities to gather our far-flung tribes are rare. Birth, death and marriage are all we’ve got.

So I bought a white dress (half-off). And we booked a venue and a band in New Orleans, one of our favorite cities. But we have promised ourselves that we aren’t going to judge the value of our lives by the silverware at our wedding. Apologies to our guests in advance. It will be plastic.

Farah Stockman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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