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Every bride deserves a
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[JULY 19, 2003]  URBANA -- Today's weddings are connected more to the realm of entertainment and luxury consumption than to actual marriage, said Elizabeth Pleck, professor of human development and of history at the University of Illinois.

Pleck and Cele Otnes of the U of I Business School are the authors of "Cinderella Dream: The Growth of the Lavish Wedding in Contemporary Consumer Culture," due out in October from University of California Press.

"Women expect their wedding day to deliver an intoxicating brew of magic, memory, romantic love and perfection, not just for themselves but for their guests as well. It's the couple's chance to orchestrate and star in an extravaganza," said Pleck.

And, more often than not, money is no object. Gone are the days when the bridal party, elegantly attired for that time and place, adjourned to the basement of the church for the reception -- where overhead pipes were showing, guests were seated at tables with folding chairs, and tables were covered with white cloth and paper napkins.

Today's brides have adopted the perfectionistic standards advanced by bridal magazines, the bridal industry and Internet chat rooms where brides-to-be can discuss the details of their wedding plans as long as another prospective bride is interested. These standards are encouraged by the wedding industry, but they have their roots in our larger, romantic consumer culture, Pleck said.

Pleck said that today's couples model their weddings on celebrity nuptials, citing the brisk sales of People magazine's wedding issue. Many brides want a knockoff of Jennifer Aniston's gown or Carolyn Bessette Kennedy's gown. Or they may want a gown that's uniquely their own. Whatever they choose, "they want the sense that this is the dress, and they will be transformed by it," she said. "Some women can feel the magic at Filene's basement sale, but it doesn't happen very often."

Wedding spending falls into a category called guilt-free consumption, said Pleck. "There is no other single event that gives such license to spend. The excuse is that a wedding is a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

Except that many times it isn't a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The romantic appeal of weddings is so potent that second, third and even fourth weddings have become far more elaborate, said Pleck. That's not to mention the increasing number of vow renewal ceremonies done by couples who feel that they didn't get it quite right the first time or who enjoyed the experience so much they want to do it again.

"The rule used to be that you could have a big wedding if it was the couple's first marriage, if the bride wasn't pregnant, if the bride and groom were members of the same faith. If it was your second wedding, the bride could wear a modest blue suit with no veil. But all those rules have changed," said Pleck.

"The sense now is that there must be a beautiful reception setting, and the napkins must exactly match the color of the bridesmaids' dresses," Pleck said. She and Otnes have dubbed the over-the-top, perfectionist bride Brideszilla. Most people who work in the bridal industry have more than a passing acquaintance with her.


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"In the quest for perfection, it's not unusual for a bride to have her teeth whitened, to have Lasik surgery and to hire a personal trainer so that she can have the perfect body. There's really no limit to what people will do to create the perfect wedding," she said.

Pleck said that relatives also get caught up in the wedding frenzy and happily spend more money on clothing than they would ordinarily spend. She recalled a friend who had always prided herself on being a big budget shopper. When the woman's son was married, she bought a very fancy mother-of-the-groom outfit.

"This was the first time I didn't have to think about the price when I was buying something," her friend said. "I paid full price, I got lots of compliments, the dress looked expensive, and I felt good about it."

Pleck sees no point in trying to check wedding spending. It's a global phenomenon, she said, "and if you think American weddings are excessive, Japanese and Korean weddings are even more spectacular, with ice machines that billow up a white, cloudlike smoke over the couple during the ceremony."

"Extravagant weddings in these countries are associated with modernity. Families are smaller, the divorce rate is low, and as families move up into the middle class, they want to make a splash. A big wedding is a symbol of prestige, and the Japanese and Korean catering industries have come up with a lot of innovations to make weddings even more fantastic. Families in these cultures spend lavishly on weddings, and the spending contributes to the growth of their consumer economy," she said.

How well do the starry-eyed romantics and uncompromising perfectionists who plan these weddings do when they confront the day-to-day tedium of a real-life marriage? Pleck mentioned a conversation with a newspaper reporter who had had what the reporter called a starter marriage -- a very lovely wedding, no children and, within a year, a divorce.

The reporter had done a survey to find out if there was a relationship between extravagant weddings and successful marriages. She found that people who had quickie weddings and people who had lavish weddings were equally likely to be headed for divorce.

But there was one difference. Almost universally, couples who invested a lot of time and money on their weddings looked back fondly on the event. They would say: "Well, the marriage wasn't so great, but I really loved the wedding. It was the best part of our marriage. It was so memorable."

[University of Illinois news release]    

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