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Book Review: One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding

As you know, we've been paying a lot of attention to weddings this season on the Sugar Network. This week, we're wrapping up our coverage by talking about what happens when the honeymoon's over and the newlyweds begin their lives together.

Of course, one of the things the happy couple might be doing upon their return home is paying the wedding bills. With the plethora of vendors involved in assembling a modern wedding, the costs can add up fast. But how did American weddings become such a major investment, with an average cost comparable to a year's education at one of the nation's top universities?

That's the question New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead sets out to answer in One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding. Mead traces the anatomy of a standard wedding, from the first attempt to capture an engaged woman's attention through bridal magazines to the department stores' attempts to secure a customer for life by providing a gift registry, and analyzes how the flowers, gowns, and honeymoons add up to a $161-billion industry. By putting weddings in their historical context, Mead also suggests that what we think of as a "traditional" wedding with all the trimmings might not be so traditional at all, with marketers inventing new customs to serve our fantasies of happily ever after. To read more about Mead's revelations — and learn about the book's one major shortcoming —

Some of Mead's revelations are sobering. In one chapter, she visits a videographers' convention where those in attendance are ordered to double their prices to prey on the families who will want "only the best" for their daughters. In another, she visits a bridal parlor where she discovers a supposedly high-quality gown with a "100 percent polyester" price tag and traces the creation of others to a sweatshop floor in China. She reports on the glee with which wedding vendors react to the ever-rising cost of the average American wedding, figuring that if people are told they should expect to spend upwards of $27,000 on a wedding, they'll assume they have no choice but to do it. It's fairly terrifying — though maybe not entirely unexpected — to see all of the ways in which head honchos in the wedding industry refer to brides as consumers and customers, people who only exist to fill their coffers — hopefully long after the wedding day has passed.

But in Mead's takedown of the wedding industry, she fails to include one major segment of the wedding population: the brides — and grooms — themselves. The engaged couple Mead portrays is totally at the mercy of the wedding industry, hemming and hawing over the perfect shade of napkins and ultimately pulling out the credit card again and again in search of some fantasy of a perfect wedding (and, therefore, a perfect marriage). But save for some anonymous interviews at the very end of the book, Mead never asks real-life brides and grooms why they feed the machine. And she never talks to any couples who have chosen to have their weddings outside the corporate wedding culture; to hear Mead tell it, she and her husband — who got married in a courthouse ceremony, as Mead makes clear at the end of the book — might be the only such couple in existence.

Ultimately, Mead does a fine job of exposing the corporate side of wedding culture. But when it comes to achieving a true understanding of why couples often choose to marry in an elaborate, expensive way, the book falls short.


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