College of LAS « Illinois

History

The Wedding Crash

Lavish weddings take a hit during recession.

wedding graphic

High-end bridal salons were first introduced in the United States during the Great Depression, says LAS historian Elizabeth Pleck. What’s more, Princess Diana inspired a comeback of the Cinderella wedding during the peak of the recession in the early 1980s—all of which seems to indicate that lavish weddings are recession-proof.

Not so, says Pleck, who teamed with Cele Otnes, a professor of business administration, to look at the dollars and dreams attached to weddings. The current recession has hit the wedding industry hard with the average U.S. wedding costing about $19,580 in 2009—a dramatic drop from $28,730 in 2007, according to the Wedding Report.

“Rituals are the last things to topple in a recession because they keep families together,” says Otnes. “But this recession has been deep.”

The result has been resurgent cost-consciousness, as couples look for any way to trim the budget and still retain the sense of lavishness—such as replacing full dinners with dessert receptions.

“A dessert reception is still kitschy; it’s still cool because there is a theme,” Otnes says. Although the desserts offered at such receptions are deluxe, they still carry a much lower price tag than serving beef Wellington or lobster Thermidor.

More and more brides are buying wedding gowns off the rack, rather than custom gowns. And some couples are replacing lobster and caviar with traditional American comfort foods, such as chicken and fish. Some couples are even imitating Japanese tradition by staging their cake-cutting photos using a lavish-looking, but inexpensive, artificial cake made out of Styrofoam and coated with icing. Then, during the reception, they serve slices of a modestly priced sheet cake.

Ironically, Pleck and Otnes say, another way to lower costs is to hold a destination wedding at an exotic locale. Fewer guests attend, and a shorter guest list cuts the cost of the most expensive aspect of a wedding—the reception.

“If Aunt Ethel can’t come because she’s not going to pay for the flight and hotel in Cancun, it’s cheaper for you,” Pleck says.

Some people are delaying their weddings, while others are setting their money aside for a house, rather than using a large chunk of their savings for their wedding day. In the wake of the recession, “some people were fairly concerned that they may never get the house,” Otnes says. “So they’re turning to simpler weddings and saving for a down payment.”

In previous generations, Pleck adds, couples married young and then began acquiring household possessions. But today, the wedding has become a capstone event that comes after the man and woman have acquired a house, furniture, and other things.

Although the lavish wedding has hit a major speed bump in this recession, Pleck and Otnes still see it as a lasting cultural icon because it makes “the perfect marriage” between our consumer culture and our ideal of romantic love.

People are still looking for a special experience that shows they have been transformed by a singular event, Pleck says. “It’s as if this transformation takes place in the way that a fairy godmother waves a wand over you and sprinkles her magic dust. You are moved out of ordinary time into magic time.”

Spring 2010