A History of the American Wedding
Weddings, in some form or another, have existed for millennia, but the weddings of the past were not always like the grand, ceremonious weddings we are accustomed to today. Some wedding traditions, like the wearing of the bridal veil, have been in existence since ancient Judaic times, while other traditions, such as the lighting of the unity candle or the wearing of a white wedding gown, are fairly new. In many ways, the history and development of the American wedding from simple, homespun ceremonies to elaborate, public rituals are directly related to changes in the American mindset throughout the country’s history.
The first primitive weddings of which historians have record could generally be termed weddings by coercion or capture (Yalom 2001). Emotional commitment and communion between a marrying couple were not deemed important, and men would often visit a neighboring village for the sole purpose of carrying off a wife. Wives were desired for sexual release, procreation, and household labor. While the theme of “carry and capture” receded somewhat throughout time, women were bartered off as marriage companions in exchange for cash or livestock for several thousand years. The idea of a woman’s consent to marriage (and also divorce) would be later implemented in the era of Roman civilization, but weddings and marriage proposals were still largely based upon the commercial value of a wife. Pragmatism was a general theme of marriages, and it would not be until the 1800s that personal inclination would begin to hold much sway in marriage decisions (Yalom 2001).
Early weddings in America were generally private affairs, held at the home of the parents of the bride or groom. The new bride was normally publicly recognized at Sunday church services following her nuptials, but most weddings were intimate, family affairs. By the 1820s and 1830s, upper class weddings had begun to evolve a bit more into the recognizably modern American wedding (complete with a lavish cake, dinner reception, and toast to the bride and groom), but the ceremonies remained small and private. However, as the Industrial Revolution took hold and a definite middle class sprang up, weddings in America would gradually become more and more elaborate.
White Wedding Dresses and Wedding Vendors
While weddings in the early 1800s were generally simple affairs, this fact was less often due to a particular desire for simplicity than a practical need for minimalism. For example, when weddings were held in homes, only a limited number of guests could be accommodated in the home. This practical need for simplicity also extended to wedding dresses in the early 1800s. Many nineteenth century brides had only one best dress and, as a matter of course, they were generally married in that dress. Thus, it was not uncommon for brides to be married in black or other dark colors, as this best dress could also double as suitable funeral attire.
The nineteenth century bride’s desire for a white wedding dress increased rapidly in 1840, when the newly crowned Queen Victoria of Great Britain wed Prince Albert (Wallace 2004). Unlike the monarch before her, Victoria chose to be married in a splendid, white satin gown. In reaction, young women in England and America, enamored of the newly married queen’s style, immediately began clamoring for white wedding dresses of their own. Whereas the white wedding gown had previously been a luxury of only the richest (it was, after all, a very difficult color to clean and maintain with nineteenth century technologies), more and more middle class brides were beginning to select white as their color of choice in wedding dresses.
The latter half of the century also saw a rise in the use of wedding professionals or wedding vendors (as they are commonly known today). Weddings that would have been held in private homes a few decades earlier were now being moved to churches, where more square footage allowed for a larger number of guests and required a greater show. A bride who may have sewn her own wedding dress or simply used a dress she already owned was now likely to hire a dressmaker or even order a ready-to-wear wedding gown. Cakes and flower arrangements that would have been prepared at home were now being contracted out to confectioners and florists, and the “wedding industry” began to grow. As the turn of the century approached and the American middle class swelled, weddings began to look more and more like the extravagant celebrations of today.
Wedding Industry Booms
By the 1920s and 1930s, brides had largely turned to professionals to organize their weddings for them. However, while this trend had already been evolving for nearly four decades, it was not until the Jazz Age that wedding vendors began to see the true business potential of brides and their weddings. One of the clearest and earliest manifestations of the new conception of the bride as a profit center was the introduction of bridal departments in large stores. Many stores began to offer a whole section of merchandise devoted to the bride and her big day. Around the same time, catered weddings and engraved invitations became less of a luxury for only the very rich and more of a standard that all brides should aspire to. Wedding photographers also became a key part of the wedding proceedings and often scripted the entire progression of the wedding with their photograph cues.
This turning of wedding preparations to the professionals created an interesting side effect of uniformity in American weddings. By the 1950s, when a white wedding was the ultimate dream for an affluent, middle class bride, the American wedding was a cookie-cutter production that could easily be replicated for another bride by the professionals who had created it.
Weddings Diversify and Come Back to Center
As America weathered the social whirlwind of the 1960s, the traditional American wedding lagged somewhat behind. It would not be until the 1970s that the desire for diversity and uniqueness, which had been a hallmark of the 1960s, would enter the American wedding. During the 1970s, brides rejected the cookie-cutter standards of the 1950s wedding and began to opt for more unique ceremonies and wedding attire. More and more weddings began to move out of churches, and the idea of the “destination wedding” was born.
However, this trend of unique weddings would fade somewhat into the background as the fairytale wedding of Princess Diana of Wales to Prince Charles captivated the public in 1981 (Wallace 2004). The lavish beauty of the royal wedding immediately brought traditional, ceremonial weddings back into style. Every bride dreamed of replicating Princess Di on her wedding day, and no expense would be spared for the big moment. Weddings in the 1980s and 1990s continued to build on this idea of the perfect, dreamlike wedding day, and average costs for weddings began to soar. Weddings in the twenty-first century are no different. Today, a couple spends an average of $20,000 on a wedding (give or take a couple thousand), and nearly every detail of the wedding is taken care of by professionals. Indeed, American weddings have come a long way from the simple, homespun ceremonies of the nation’s early years to the elaborate celebrations of the modern era.
-- Posted May 8, 2007
Wallace, Carol McD. 2004. All Dressed in White: The Irresistible Rise of the American Wedding. Penguin Books.Yalom, Marilyn. 2001. A History of the Wife. Harper Collins.