I pulled my car into a vast parking lot on Madison's far west side and prepared nervously for battle. It was a warm afternoon in late September. The sun was shining, the world was still green. My last fall semester at the university had just begun, and sheer, invincible happiness was in the air.
At this moment, however, I found myself trapped in my own personal version of hell. While pals biked around downtown, frolicked in parks, and grilled out on porches that afternoon, I steeled myself for imminent attack.
I turned off the engine and sat, paralyzed, in my car. My temples throbbed. My tongue, papery with fear, stuck to the roof of my mouth. I popped a Xanax, swallowed hard, and, trembling, marched toward certain doom.
I was about to try on dresses.
My roommate had recently gotten engaged, and I was one of the chosen few who would be standing up in her honor the following May. Months earlier, when she asked me to be in her wedding, I was flattered. This would be my first friend to get married, and although that path wasn't one I personally ever wanted to take, I was happy for her, and genuinely excited to be a part of it.
But soon after accepting her offer, I began to realize with horror how much money I was going to have to spend just to stand up and tell the world, or at least a modest-sized chapel of about a hundred people, that I was her friend.
I've always been vaguely aware of the utter excessiveness that characterizes our modern-day wedding culture, without knowing the sordid particulars. But it wasn't until I was my roommate's bridesmaid, and another friend's bridesmaid, and a guest at four more weddings, all in two consecutive summers, that I realized just how accurate my preconceptions were.
The wedding industry is out of control.
The first step was getting fitted for my dress, a process like a cross between a doctor's exam and an encounter with the Spanish Inquisition. With our first steps inside David's Bridal, my fellow bridesmaids and I were assaulted by fuschia, teal, lavender and pearl, row upon row of bright, frilly, satiny, A-line, V-neck, empire-waisted, spaghetti-strapped monstrosities, all just pining to be yanked onto our resistant bodies.
I almost popped another Xanax when I noticed the staff: shiny, smiley, freshly dyed and powdered women in perfectly pressed pantsuits flocking to our group as we walked inside, almost visibly salivating at the prospect of how much money we'd be spending that sunny afternoon.
As someone whose body doesn't quite match up with those of fashion models, I found that nothing fit. I stood outside a fitting room in front of a small crowd, being poked and prodded by salesgirls, and after a sufficient amount of degradation had occurred, it was decided I would need alterations.
And then there were the shoes. Because my feet couldn't squeeze into the tiny Barbie heels that everyone else seemed to love so much (wedding-party doctrine dictated that we all had to settle on one style, mind you), I had to get a wider pair. That was $50 for dyed-pink arch-killers I'd never wear again, $10 extra to get them in size wide. Not only did I stumble out feeling dejected that my body was clearly not the wedding industry's ideal, I had nothing left in my college-student bank account.
I was a broken woman.
After dress, alterations, shoes, obligatory hair and nails, bridal shower (complete with appropriate gift), bachelorette party (including dinner, drinks, hotel room and entertainment), hotel for the wedding, a wedding gift, and all the little frills in between, I had spent just shy of $500. I staggered away from my first battle with the wedding industry bitter and penniless, but much wiser.
I vowed that there were two things I'd never do: 1) have a traditional wedding, and 2) agree to be in another traditional wedding ever again.
Alas, a year later, I learned something else: It's really hard to say no when someone asks you to be in their wedding. So, the following May, I did it again, and spent the same amount of money. And I'm done now. Forever. Seriously.
To get a better idea of just how excessive the wedding industry has become, last summer I went on an undercover mission upriver to the heart of darkness itself: the wedding show. I cajoled a male friend of mine into joining me at Bridal Expo Chicago, held at a Marriott in suburban Schaumburg. We would be an engaged couple, scouting out the prospects and planning for our "special day."
I ordered tickets online. I nearly fell off my chair when I got to the last question on the application: "How much do you plan to spend on your wedding?" The highest option was $50,000 or above. The lowest was $10,000. I selected the latter.
At work the next day, I cornered a coworker who had gone through the process. Having been to a bridal expo or two herself, she laughed knowingly when I told her about the application.
"They'll never take you seriously if you tell them that's all you plan to spend," she said. "Most weddings these days cost at least $25,000. Anything less is a joke to them." (According to The Wedding Report, a trade publication, the average wedding costs $27,490.)
The first thing I saw, when I pulled into the parking lot of the Marriott, was a stretch Hummer limousine out front. A crowd formed, as twitterpated brides- and grooms-to-be drooled over the freshly polished monstrosity. My faux fiancé Paul and I swam through the mob to get inside the hotel.
At the registration desk we were given a giant bag to hold all of the materials and catalogs we'd be receiving, and the kindly lady behind the counter pinned a huge silver "VIB" sticker to my chest. This told the world that I was one among about 500 "very important brides" there, ready to consume.
In the expo hall, the majority of the brides-to-be were in their early 20s. Most had their mothers in tow. Most were white and, apparently, middle class (we were, after all, in Schaumburg).
And almost every girl there had a huge diamond nestled on her finger. I tried to imagine how much debt these kids were going to wrack up to pay for their special day.
I was swarmed by exhibitors. First was a large, enthusiastic chap from a DJ company, promising me the best rates and even knocking off a hundred bucks if I signed up that day.
"So, how much would it be?" I asked as he curiously checked out my eyebrow ring.
"With everything included, it would only be $1,300 for five hours!" he spat with a genuine grin. He really did believe he was offering me a bargain - and, I found out as the day wore on, he was.
The walls were lined by exhibitors pushing everything from jewelry, flower arrangements, centerpieces, invitations, skincare, teeth whitening and napkin choices to hotels, exotic honeymoon packages, dishware, furniture and real estate. The most impressive was a cake company all the way from Amsterdam (I briefly entertained the idea of asking if they offered "space cake," but bit my tongue), whose representative informed me that a standard cake-cutting fee was added on to all orders. Between cake and cutting, the average cost was $655.
It wasn't until I approached After Hours, the nation's largest tuxedo vendor, that my reaction to the day's events went from amazed to appalled. All the sales reps, disturbingly handsome young men decked out in immaculately pressed tuxedos with fresh flowers in their lapels, flocked to young brides like vultures to roadkill.
Set up next to their table was a makeshift phone booth filled with fake paper money. Young women were eagerly herded one by one into the booth where, once the door closed behind them, a high-speed fan was turned on, sending the paper swirling around the booth. Each woman had 10 seconds to grab as many bills as possible, and after her turn, a charming sales rep gathered her winnings and totaled what she caught. This price was then knocked off her tab.
I couldn't help but stare, slack-jawed, as the wide-eyed women furiously scrambled inside the booth. Cameras in the hands of mothers and sisters flashed while future brides grabbed as much loot as their flailing arms could muster, having to be practically torn away when their turn ended. I watched from a healthy distance as nearly a dozen women were wrangled into signing contracts, whipping out their Visas and spending thousands of dollars without a second thought, and happily prancing off into buyer's oblivion.
I could only hide in the background for so long before I was eventually wheedled into taking my shot in the booth (when in Rome, right?). I halfheartedly grabbed at a few slips of paper to appease a grinning audience, fighting back the bile rising in my throat. And although I successfully kept my Visa at bay, I stumbled away from the scene in disgust, part of my soul officially dead.
But the worst was yet to come. As the expo wound to a close, I found myself in a pack of 50 or so young women being herded to the main stage, where the fashion show was to take place. Paul had had enough, so I excused him from his role as fiancé, and he quickly retreated to the hotel bar. I braced myself to face the fashion show alone.
It was, simply put, appalling. The lights dimmed and the lively chattering of 500 brides-to-be fell to a hush. Blue spotlights rose and shone down upon two of the most plasticized people I have ever seen. The masters of ceremonies, a man and woman tanned to perfection, with bleached blond hair and blindingly white teeth, beamed and quipped playfully while models pranced about the stage to the evocative beats of Nelly Furtado. Tall, dark, chiseled young men and rail-thin women with surprisingly large and perky breasts strutted, turned, posed, and strutted some more, garnering collective "oohs" and "ahhs" from a clearly seduced audience.
As I surveyed the crowd, made up mostly of very normally shaped women, I couldn't help but shake my head as their eyes lit up at each model who swaggered down the runway, sporting the latest in hot new, and no doubt exorbitantly expensive, wedding fashion.
The kicker, though, occurred in the last few minutes, when a boy of about 4, hair gelled and all dolled up in a junior-sized tux, was escorted out on stage and proceeded to dance suggestively to Justin Timberlake's "SexyBack." When the boy writhed out of his suit jacket and threw it into the audience, hips gyrating like his adult male counterparts, I made my exit.
As I attempted to digest what I had seen at the expo, my thoughts wandered back to my roommate's wedding. It was hardly extravagant by wedding-industry standards, but it cost a pretty penny.
She held her wedding just a few days after graduating from college. She was 22, with student loan payments looming in the near future and a fiancé who managed a low-end restaurant, so funds were tight. But that didn't stop her from having the event she wanted.
The ceremony was held at a small church in our hometown of Mount Horeb, and it was a modest affair. But when the church doors closed, my roommate and her wedding party piled into a stretch SUV, where champagne and beer flowed like water. I stuck to the leather seats and supportively choked down a can of Bud Light, trying not to bust through the seams of my tightly altered dress while stifling acrid comments about the vehicle's gas mileage and plasma TVs.
The reception, held at the Sheraton downtown, boasted all the ingredients for a pretty posh little party. Indeed, according to The Wedding Report, the most expensive item on a disturbingly long list of standard wedding costs is the reception, which on average runs about $14,000.
Experiences like that remind me that being young and poor doesn't stop people from having the kinds of galas that all the catalogs tell them they should have. These weddings have all the necessary flair and detail, but tend to leave the new couples buried in years of debt.
These aren't trust-fund kids whose parents fork over the cost. These are kids from small-town Wisconsin, who may or may not have college educations and decent-paying jobs, but who have the same kind of profligate weddings that much of society expects.
So what is this about? Clearly, the chunk of change spent on modern-day weddings is yet another example of what sociologist Thorstein Veblen labeled conspicuous consumption: that is, lavish spending typically for the purpose of putting on a display.
It may also have something to do with the consumption patterns of the wealthy, including their weddings, which have a trickle-down effect on all Americans. So says Cornell University economist Robert H. Frank in his book Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class. Thanks to the conspicuous consumption of the well-off, he argues, standards for the rest of society begin to increase, and the subsequent "relative deprivation" - that is, the dissatisfaction a person feels when comparing him- or herself to others - causes the less well-off to consume more, often beyond their means.
And while a recent Wall Street Journal article suggests that the average wedding cost ($27,490, recall) may be skewed by those million-dollar affairs of the rich and famous, the median cost, an arguably more meaningful measurement, is still a princely $15,000. And that, especially for kids in their early 20s, is still an awful lot of money.
Back at my friend's wedding, after finishing a three-course meal, sucking down as much free beer as I could handle, and dancing the customary "YMCA," I couldn't help but wonder how long it would take these two newlyweds to pay off the costs of a single day.
As the hard sell at the wedding show suggests, young people feel tremendous pressure to marry. In some circles it's a requirement on a par with going to college or landing a first job. And just as powerful as the imperative to marry is the stigma of being single.
But not everyone gives in to the pressure. Take, for example, a Madisonian of my acquaintance named Bethany, 23, who is a reformed bride-to-be. (Mortified at what happened to her, she asked that her last name not be used.) She got engaged during her senior year of college, at age 22. Then came an epiphany.
"I really loved him, and we had been together for a couple years," she says. "Marriage seemed like the next step, the next place to go."
But after spending $7,000 in only five months of engagement, she decided to break if off. "I just realized that I was not ready for marriage," she says, "and not ready to be with one person for the rest of my life. I was with one person throughout college, it was a big part of my life, and I just felt isolated. I was pretty young, he was pretty young; we weren't financially stable."
Still, she notes, the process of planning a wedding can be intoxicating. "It became a job to organize this grand day," she says. "It was so easy to focus on the day itself, and not think about what I actually felt. It took me a while to figure out that when that grand day is over, there are a lot of other days after that. And I just wasn't ready for that. Living with somebody, making that commitment. I think people fall in love with the planning of the event; it makes you forget about the planning of your lives."
And as if calling off a wedding wasn't stressful enough, she was unable to return her $1,200 dress. "I called twice, and talked to a different person each time," Bethany says. "They both used this scripted line, saying, 'You fell in love with the dress.' The bridesmaid dress place said the same thing, trying to convince the girls to keep their dresses."
Her DJ was also nonrefundable.
The experience left Bethany disillusioned. "These companies make brides feel like young, pretty objects," she says. "I didn't feel like I was ever taken seriously."
Dresses, flowers - everything the wedding industry sells is overpriced, she says: "It's such a business, the nastiest sort of business, because they play off your emotions."
Of the weddings I've attended, it was the most nontraditional one - a commitment ceremony between my aunt and her female partner - that seemed to me to represent what a wedding ceremony should be all about.
There in the backyard of their humble Stoughton home, in the presence of about 30 friends and family members, two women in their 50s declared their love and commitment to each other. No dresses, no tuxes, no DJs, limos, or three-course meals. Nary a bridesmaid or best man in sight. Just a New Age minister, some homemade food, a bucket full of beer, and two women holding hands, with plans to spend a weekend in the Dells to celebrate. The only hint of tradition was an exchange of rings, and even those were modest.
My aunt's partner Kitty beamed after the ceremony, as we piled our plates with sloppy joes and sheet cake. "Less than 500 bucks for the whole thing," she said.