Probing Question: How has the American wedding changed?

bride and groom celebrate on the road
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If you're over the age of 30 you may remember being one of the 750 million television viewers worldwide who watched the broadcast of Princess Diana's 1981 wedding. From the cathedral to the carriage to the gown, the ceremony embodied the fairy-tale wedding ideal that many brides since have strived to emulate.

In the past twenty years, the extravagant "white wedding"—a term connoting the Western tradition of a white wedding dress, made popular in the Victorian era—has become the norm in America, says Beth Montemurro, associate professor of sociology at Penn State Abington. Until the 1980s, only the well-to-do engaged in lavish weddings, she explains. But thanks to the affluence of that decade and an increasingly celebrity-obsessed consumer culture, expensive weddings have become the standard.

"The lavish wedding has allowed people to have a little bit of celebrity for one day. The image of the indulgent wedding is so prevalent in the media, you feel like that's what you're supposed to do," Montemurro says. Reality TV shows like VH1's My Big Fat Fabulous Wedding or TLC's Say Yes to the Dress send images of the pricey wedding into living rooms across America.

The cost of the average American wedding climbed from $15,208 in 1990 to $27,852 in 2006, according to a Conde Nast Bridal Media research survey. However, as Montemurro points out, today's slowing economy and rising prices have left many couples and their parents feeling squeezed. Those who opt to pay for their dream wedding by credit card may find themselves dealing with steep debts even before the honeymoon tans have faded. So should we expect a return to a more demure event like those of generations past? Probably not, says Montemurro.

"If anything people are getting more extravagant," she notes. "If tight finances cause people to sacrifice in other parts of their lives, they start to feel like their wedding is the one day they shouldn't have to sacrifice anything. They feel it's a once in a lifetime event and they should indulge," she adds.

However, with 13 percent of men and 14 percent of women marrying more than once, weddings are increasingly not a once in a lifetime event. Now couples often pay for a formal ceremony the first, second and third time they're married.

"People like to legitimize the relationship, whether it's the first marriage or the third," she explains. "Instead of getting remarried quietly, as was the norm fifty years ago, people want to show a new marriage is worth spending money on." Delayed marriages have also perpetuated the trend of pricy nuptials. Typically, later on in life, people make more money and can spend more on their wedding, remarks Montemurro.

The recent trend of "destination weddings" has raised the bar for indulgence even higher. In a destination wedding, guests travel to the ceremony location for a long weekend, extending the marriage celebration—and the cash needed to fund it. In the past ten years, destination weddings have increased to 16 percent of all nuptials with the Caribbean, Mexico and Hawaii being the most popular locales.

In addition, multiple ceremonies have become a growing trend. Minorities now comprise 34 percent of the total U.S. population, with Hispanics and Asians being the fastest-growing groups. Notes Montemurro, many Asian couples pay for a traditional Chinese or Japanese ceremony and a big white wedding as well. Sometimes multicultural couples will scrap their traditional wedding altogether and choose to have only a Western-style ceremony.

Montemurro's book Something Old, Something Bold: Bridal Showers and Bachelorette Parties explores how pre-wedding events and rituals have also changed with society. Many women now have multiple bridal showers, which costs more money for the bride and her guests, says Montemurro. The term "bachelorette party" wasn't used until the 1980s, she notes. "It's the female answer to the male bachelor party, a symbolic acknowledgment that women give up the single life when they get married too."

"For the bachelorette party to become standard, society needed to accept that many women had a sex life prior to marriage," Montemurro points out. "They had to accept that women too are committing to monogamy with marriage. When we have gender equality, we have to acknowledge that both parties are gaining something and losing something."

In a backlash against the opulent wedding, some couples are choosing alternative nuptials. Environmental consciousness has created a recent trend of "green weddings," which focus on reducing the wedding's impact on the environment.

But while wedding styles come and go with changing societal norms, some things endure, says Montemurro. "The things that will stay the same are the things that have been there for the past 100 years: the white dress, the wedding cake and the celebration following the wedding," she predicts. "We find symbolism in these things, and I don't see them going anywhere."

Beth Montemurro, Ph.D., is associate professor of sociology at Penn State Abington, eam15@psu.edu

Last Updated September 08, 2008