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One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Weddingby Rebecca Mead
Synopses & Reviews
The 160-billion dollar behemoth that is the American wedding industry and the psychology behind the expense, stress, and folly associated with the typical American wedding.
Using the American wedding as a rosetta stone, in One Perfect Day writer Rebecca Mead poses a series of questions that cut to the heart of our national identity. Why, she asks, has the American wedding become an outlandishly extravagant, egregiously expensive, and overwhelmingly demanding production? What is the derivation of the nuptial imperative upon brides and grooms to observe tradition while at the same time using the wedding as a vehicle for expressing their personal style? What does an American wedding tell us about how Americans consume, relate, and live today?
One Perfect Day masterfully mixes investigative journalism and social commentary to explore the workings of the wedding industry — an industry that claims to be worth $160 billion to the U.S. economy and which has every interest in ensuring that the American wedding business becomes ever more lavish and complex. Taking us inside the workings of the wedding industry — from the swelling ranks of professional wedding planners to department stores with their online wedding registries to the retailers and manufacturers of wedding gowns to the Walt Disney Company and its Fairytale Weddings program — Rebecca Mead skillfully holds the mirror up to the bride's deepest hopes and fears about her wedding day and dissects the myriad goods and services that will be required for her role within it.
Weddings are no longer a rite of passage, no longer a transition from childhood to adulthood, or an initiation into a sexual or domesticintimacy, nor necessarily a religious ritual. The result of this cultural shift is that the event itself has taken on an ever-increasing momentousness shaped as much by commerce and marketing as by religious observance or familial expectation. The American wedding gives expression to the values and preoccupations of our culture. For better or worse, the way we marry is who we are.
"In its nascence in the American lexicon, the term 'Bridezilla' has inspired articles, reality television and watercooler tales of brides gone mad. This phenomenon piqued New Yorker staff writer Mead's interest, sending her on a three-year investigation of the current American wedding and the $161-billion industry that spawned it. 'Blaming the bride,' she writes, 'wasn't an adequate explanation for what seemed to be underlying the concept of the Bridezilla: that weddings themselves were out of control.' Interviewing wedding industry professionals and attending weddings in Las Vegas, Disney World, Aruba and a wedding town in Tennessee, Mead ventures beyond the tulle curtain to reveal moneymaking ploys designed around our most profound fears as well as our headiest happily-ever-after fantasies. Goods and services providers alter marital traditions — and even invent new ones — to feed their bottom line. Stores vie for bridal registry business in hopes of gaining lifelong customers. Women swoon for what retailers call 'the 'Oh, Mommy' moment' in boutique fitting rooms — an unsettling contrast to the Chinese bridal gown factory workers who make them possible, sleeping eight to a room and scraping by on 30 cents an hour. Part investigative journalism, part social commentary, Mead's wry, insightful work offers an illuminating glimpse at the ugly underbelly of our Bridezilla culture." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"About a dozen years ago, an old friend of mine was told by his daughter that she was going to get married. This suited him fine, but he balked at pouring untold thousands of dollars down the drain of a full-dress wedding. 'I'll tell you what,' he said to her. 'I'll give you a choice: You can have a wedding, or you can have $30,000 to help you get started on your new life.' Without a moment's hesitation,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) she astonished him — and me, too, when he told me the story — by replying, 'I'll take the wedding.' This, mind you, was no 'Bridezilla,' defined by Rebecca Mead as 'a young woman who, upon becoming engaged, had been transformed from a person of reason and moderation into a self-absorbed monster, obsessed with her plans to stage the perfect wedding, an event of spectacular production values and flawless execution, with herself as the star of the show.' No, this was a young woman of reason and moderation, a sensible person who nonetheless had been caught up in an early wave of the phenomenon that — all unknown to her father and me — was beginning to sweep across America: the rise of the wedding industry, 'shaped as much by commerce and marketing as it is by those influences couples might prefer to think of as affecting their nuptial choices, such as social propriety, religious observance, or familial expectation.' Who got the better of my friend's deal I do not know, as it seemed impolite to ask, but he hinted that even his daughter's relatively modest wedding cost more than the $30,000 buyout he'd offered her. Inasmuch as the marriage didn't last much longer than the wedding itself, it certainly seems to have been money down the drain. But it was very much an American wedding of our day, replete with that once-in-a-lifetime bridal dress, bridesmaids fetchingly fitted out, gifts for attendants of both sexes, an elegant luncheon and, of course, champagne — and, at the end, a nice fat pack of bills for dear old Dad. How all of this came to pass — how the American wedding escalated into an 'out of control' business that pumps an astonishing $161 billion dollars a year into the economy — and what forms it takes are the subjects of 'One Perfect Day,' a revealing and intermittently amusing piece of journalism. Mead is a staff writer for the New Yorker, and her prose is peppered with some of that magazine's oldest pet tics, in particular an excessive use of the reportorial first-person singular. But the book's strengths outweigh its irritating faults: It is a convincing picture of one of those strange parts of the American economy that make a great deal of money for a few people while going largely unnoticed by the rest of us. 'Bridezilla' is a very real creature, but the great majority of brides, like my friend's daughter, manage to keep things more or less under control, at least if you have a fairly permissive definition of 'under control.' In truth, to those of us of older generations, especially those with direct or secondhand experience of the Depression, the statistics are staggering. In her chapter about the bridal magazines and the expectations they raise, Mead writes: 'If a bride has been told, repeatedly, that it costs nearly $28,000 to have a wedding, then she starts to think that spending nearly $28,000 on a wedding is just one of those things a person has to do, like writing a rent check every month or paying health insurance premiums. (Or she prides herself on being a budget bride and spending a mere $15,000 on the event.) She is less likely to reflect upon the fact that $28,000 would have more than covered a 10 percent down payment on the median purchase price of a house in 2005 and would cover the average cost to a family of a health insurance policy, at 2005 rates, for a decade. The bride who has been persuaded that $28,000 is a reasonable amount of money to spend on her wedding day is less likely to measure that total against the nation's median household income — $42,389 in 2004 — and reflect upon whether it is, in fact, reasonable for her or for anyone to spend the equivalent of seven and a half months of the average American's salary on one day's celebration.' The somewhat unsettling truth is that, whipped along by the wedding industry, the American wedding has been turned into an ego trip for brides. Doubtless few if any people think of it that way — not even the parents, who are stuck with astronomical bills yet are as caught up in the spirit of the big bucks bliss-out as everyone else — but that certainly is the impression left by this book. The glossy bridal magazines — which these days are as fat as phone books, crammed with advertisements — exist to convince the bride that 'it is her privilege, her right — indeed, her obligation — to become preoccupied with herself, her appearance, her tastes, and her ability to showcase them to their best advantage.' The companies that seek the bride's business hope not merely for a one-day bonanza but for a lifetime's brand loyalty, which is why the department stores and the home-furnishing chains and all the other merchants of wedding paraphernalia court her so assiduously. The wedding industry seeks 'the furtherance of a wedding culture in which every bride is encouraged to think of herself as a celebrity for a day,' one who is endlessly photographed and videotaped — to mention in passing a couple of big wedding businesses — and who 'on her wedding day is a princess': Jennifer Lopez and Princess Di rolled into one irresistible bundle. The bride is (usually) young, in love, impressionable and vulnerable, eager to please and be pleased, hopeful and nervous. All in all, in the words of Colin Cowie, 'the best-known wedding professional in the country,' the bride 'is a marketers' target. She is a slam dunk.' 'Wedding professional'? That's a new one to me, but inside the industry there are a handful of celebrity wedding professionals and zillions of wannabes. There is actually an Association of Bridal Consultants, 'a national organization for professional wedding planners that claims a membership of about four thousand.' These people 'help brides and grooms navigate the business of preparing for a wedding, serving much as a general contractor does on a house renovation project.' Their numbers are growing, 'thanks in part to their endorsement in the pages of bridal magazines.' Condi Nast, which publishes several of these magazines, reported in its 2006 American Wedding Study 'that 18 percent of its respondents had engaged the services of a professional wedding planner.' Perhaps the services of these people are genuinely useful to busy brides and their families, permitting them to get on with life's real business while the wedding planner takes care of fantasy, though it's difficult not to see them as being paid for work that people are perfectly capable of doing for themselves. But that admittedly is the view of a person who also believes that interior designers, personal trainers and personal shoppers are vermiform appendixes. Millions of people now take it for granted that they will pay for 'services' that in my youth were strictly do-it-yourself; perhaps the world has gotten better, and I simply haven't noticed. Certainly it's gotten more expensive and more plugged into make-believe. It will not surprise you that Disney turns out to be an increasingly big player in the wedding industry, because one of its stocks in trade is what Mead nicely calls 'traditionalesque-- a pleasing milange of apparently old-fashioned, certainly nostalgic, intermittently ethnically authentic practices that may have little relevance to the past or to the future and are really only illustrative of the present in which they emerge.' Thus, a Disney person told Mead 'that Disney prided itself upon its traditionalism when it came to weddings; but the traditions that were most determinedly upheld at Disney were those established by the company itself,' just like everything else in the ersatz universe of Disney. It all puts me in mind of a song by the gifted Lucinda Williams, from her new album, 'West.' The subject matter is diametrically different, to be sure, but the sentiment is the same: 'Some think a fancy funeral/ Would be worth every cent/ But for every dime and nickel/ There's money better spent.' Ditto, in spades, for fancy weddings. Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj(at)washpost.com" Reviewed by Kevin PhillipsKim EdwardsDiana McLellanRon CharlesBunny CrumpackerGeorge PerkovichMichael DirdaJonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"Rebecca Mead's insightful, entertaining book is a fine companion to Jessica Mitford's classic, The American Way of Death. It's been said that all great stories end in death or marriage — and as Mitford and Mead have shown us, either way, in the USA, somebody stands to make a buck." Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness
"I guess we need smart, talented, mischievous young British women to move to America to show us what sentimental suckers we are: just as Jessica Mitford exposed the funeral industry with her American Way of Death in the 1960s, Rebecca Mead has produced the definitive deconstruction of our crazy national wedding industry. One Perfect Day is a thoroughly reported expose, sure, but it's also got heart and charm and tons of laugh-out-loud funny scenes." Kurt Andersen, author of Turn of the Century
"Weddings, Mead argues...are reflections of who we are, and the wedding industry is a reflection of the culture we have created: ruthlessly organized, product-oriented, fiscally irresponsible, but still, somehow, retaining a bit of romance." Booklist
Astutely observed and deftly witty, One Perfect Day masterfully mixes investigative journalism and social commentary to explore the workings of the wedding industry?an industry that claims to be worth $160 billion to the U.S. economy and which has every interest in ensuring that the American wedding becomes ever more lavish and complex. Taking us inside the workings of the wedding industry?including the swelling ranks of professional event planners, department stores with their online registries, the retailers and manufacturers of bridal gowns, and the Walt Disney Company and its Fairy Tale Weddings program?New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead skillfully holds the mirror up to the bride?s deepest hopes and fears about her wedding day, revealing that for better or worse, the way we marry is who we are.
The 160-billion dollar behemoth that is the American wedding industry and the psychology behind the expense, stress, and folly associated with the typical American wedding
Using the American wedding as a rosetta stone, in One Perfect Day writer Rebecca Mead poses a series of questions that cut to the heart of our national identity. Why, she asks, has the American wedding become an outlandishly extravagant, egregiously expensive, and overwhelmingly demanding production? What is the derivation of the nuptial imperative upon brides and grooms to observe tradition while at the same time using the wedding as a vehicle for expressing their personal style? What does an American wedding tell us about how Americans consume, relate, and live today? One Perfect Day masterfully mixes investigative journalism and social commentary to explore the workings of the wedding industry-an industry that claims to be worth $160 billion to the U.S. economy and which has every interest in ensuring that the American wedding business becomes ever more lavish and complex. Taking us inside the workings of the wedding industry-from the swelling ranks of professional wedding planners to department stores with their online wedding registries to the retailers and manufacturers of wedding gowns to the Walt Disney Company and its Fairytale Weddings program-Rebecca Mead skillfully holds the mirror up to the bride's deepest hopes and fears about her wedding day and dissects the myriad goods and services that will be required for her role within it.
Weddings are no longer a rite of passage, no longer a transition from childhood to adulthood, or an initiation into a sexual or domestic intimacy, nor necessarily a religious ritual. The result of this cultural shift is that the event itself has taken on an ever-increasing momentousness shaped as much by commerce and marketing as by religious observance or familial expectation. The American wedding gives expression to the values and preoccupations of our culture. For better or worse, the way we marry is who we are.
In researching One Perfect Day, Rebecca Mead goes deep behind the scenes of the $161 billion wedding industry to discover how the American wedding is manufactured. Targeting business conventions, trade shows, factories abroad, and more, Mead studies the data produced by the wedding industry, for the benefit of its advertisers, on the consuming patterns of brides and grooms; reads thousands of words in trade publications and industry websites to reveal how the industry thinks and talks about their clients when they are out of earshot-as "a drunken sailor"; "a slam dunk"; or more pointedly, "a marketer's dream."
Mead reports from:
Behind the scenes at the Association of Bridal Consultants' "Business of Brides" conference:
Wedding planners learn how to target the upcoming "Echo Boom" bridal market, estimated at 4,200,000 brides by 2018. ("It seems like the less money people have, the more they spend," says the association's director of corporate relations, page 36)
"Top Fashion" wedding-dress factory:
Mead visits a factory in Xiamen, China, where migrant workers who live eight to a room in dormitories turn out 100,000 dresses a year. A skilled seamstress earns six dollars a day making dresses that sell for a national average of $1,025. (pages 98, 81)
* Disney World's Wedding Pavilion:
Mead explores how Disney built up its now-mammoth wedding program in the 1990s to combat threats to its theme-park preeminence. ("Couples are highly brand-receptive in this stage of their lives...If you handle their wedding and honeymoon correctly you create cherished friends," says the co-founder of Disney Fairy Tale Weddings, page 71). Note: rental of Cinderella's Coach: $2500 per ceremony.
* Behind the bridal registry:
Department stores see registries as a means of gaining access to young, impressionable consumers who are forming brand loyalties-what one industry report calls "Your New $100 Billion Customer: the Engaged Woman" (page 117)
* Las Vegas, Nevada:
Site of a 122,000 weddings a year, where competition is so great that hand-billers stalk the courthouse steps and Britney Spears's swiftly-annulled nuptials are used as a marketing tool (page 170)
* The honeymoon and destination wedding industry in Aruba:
This Caribbean island is so eager to capture its share of the American wedding market that it changed its marriage laws-now one out of every three weddings conducted in Aruba is for tourists. "I call it the 'new elopement," says one industry expert (page 200)
* The phenomenon of "vow renewal":
Mead visits Sandals Royal Caribbean Hotel, in Montego Bay, Jamaica-a wedding factory, hosting between 5-10 ceremonies a day, of which 1 in 6 is a vow-renewal ceremony. Brides and grooms get to re-enact the "once in a lifetime" moment of marriage as often as their budget will allow (page 216)
* A class for would-be wedding planners:
Attendees are taught to size up clients by making house calls-the fancier the bride's home, the bigger the budget-and to persuade brides to attend their "how to plan your own wedding" seminars ("She's going to come out of the course going, Oh, God, I don't want to do that. Just show her what it involves and she'll be scared to death," page 51)
* "Vows" magazine and other trade publications:
Mead reveals how trade magazines urge retailers to squeeze more dollars out of each bride: "Just when a bride thinks she'll have to spend no more, it's your job to remind her that her bridal image looks incomplete"(page 83). The number of brides-about 2.3 million a year-cannot be increased by marketing efforts, and rates of marriage are on the decline, so each bride bears more of the burden of increasing industry profits.
* A seminar for wedding dress retailers in Las Vegas:
Chip Eichelberger, a motivational speaker, offers advice on the pacing of a sale-"If you get them excited about the three-hundred-dollar dress it's hard to get them excited about the three-thousand-dollar dress"-and how to act upon "the 'Oh, Mommy,' moment," when a bride falls in love with a gown (page 78-79)
* Hebron Church, also known as "The Chapel on the Hill":
A struggling rural Wisconsin church is forced by economic pressures to moonlight as a commercial wedding chapel (page 145), while the ranks of freelance wedding ministers-some with credentials acquired online-who will perform crowd-pleasing "spiritual" ceremonies replete with rituals invented for the camera begin to swell (page 130).
* Gatlinburg, Tennessee:
The "honeymoon capital of the South," a Bible-belt mountain destination where there are annually 5 weddings per year-round-resident. The wedding-chapel business was founded in 1979 by the controversial Reverend Ed Taylor, a former Baptist minister. "I think it is dangerous, spiritually dangerous, to use the Lord in that manner-in order to gain business, and to use it as a marketing tool," says a rival chapel owner (page 162)
* Behind the scenes at the Wedding & Event Videographers Association International annual convention:
Videographers are advised to double their prices ("I was blind to the fact that people want the best for their children," says one successful videographer), told how to incorporate comic shots (the "gift steal" and the "runaway groom"), and learn how to slice and dice raw footage into multiple video products to increase profits. The value of video is promoted as "preserving memories" that will otherwise be "lost." "You have to get [them] initially, before they spend $3000 on napkins" (page 185)
About the Author
Rebecca Mead has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1997. Before that, she was a contributing editor at New York magazine and a writer for the Sunday Times of London. She received her B.A. from Oxford University and her M.A. from N.Y.U.
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