It’s a fairy-tale opener with a contemporary coda: Once upon a time, Prince William, the twenty-something who will be king, married the comely commoner, Kate Middleton, in a grand ceremony in Westminster Abbey. The event inspired two sorts of media reactions: first, a barrage of intense interest, including giddy scrutiny from wedding experts and the large pool of people who have written books about the royals, and second, grumbling about the press coverage on the grounds that it is frivolous, distracting, or stupid.
The Attack of the 50-ft. Wedding
Neither of these reactions is a surprise, and both fail to raise the most important question about the Western love affair with weddings: why? Why do we devote such attention to this ritual?
Why does the average cost of an American wedding hover at roughly half of the average annual income? Why do we have a seemingly insatiable market for reality TV shows about weddings? Why, in a culture that eschews formal ritual in other contexts, do we seem so fascinated by processionals and symbolic candle-lighting?
Religiously speaking, weddings are layered with contradiction. On the one hand, most North American weddings take place in religious spaces, are officiated by clergy, and/or use ritual forms that are at least derived from religious understandings of marriage.
On the other hand, clergy have long sermonized that people are neglecting the sacred aspect of the ceremony—that all this business about dresses and parties is beside the point. For American Protestants this is an awkward historical argument since weddings are far more religiously important for most Protestant churches today than they were two hundred years ago when they were relatively deemphasized as social occasions. But, for the past century and a half, Christian anxieties about the decline of marriage—coupled with the development of a sophisticated twentieth-century wedding industry—have conspired to turn weddings into bigger and bigger deals, religiously and otherwise. Add the ongoing political and religious battles over same-sex marriage and the many-tiered wedding cake of public discourse begins to teeter precipitously.
Any Bride Can Be a Princess
A royal wedding, as anyone not living under a foreclosed rock has noticed, is an especially big deal. For a people so proud of democracy, Americans love princess brides.
Should you choose to watch the coverage of the William-Kate wedding for even thirty seconds, you will be reminded that William’s parents, Prince Charles and Diana Spencer, also married in a “fairy-tale wedding” in 1981. Diana wore a widely praised creampuff of a dress that influenced nuptial fashion on both sides of the Atlantic for the decade that followed, and the event is sometimes credited for reigniting the taste for big, expensive weddings in the 1980s.
In 1981 there was a nasty recession going on in Great Britain, and many noted that a spectacle wedding was hardly the best use of resources. But then, as now, the wedding was also heralded as something to lift spirits in grim economic times. That is attributing a lot of power to one televised ritual.
A royal wedding is, of course, a state occasion in the U.K.—a chance to watch the British monarchy mark a historically fateful point on the life course. But it is also simply an exaggerated, iconic version of a Western wedding. Kate Middleton might literally become a royal on her wedding day, but the contemporary wedding promises that any bride in white can be a symbolic princess.
In the past two centuries, the Western bride has been visually associated with all sorts of images of ideal femininity: the Virgin Mary, saints, angels, movie stars. The most consistent icon, though, has been the princess. In the twentieth century especially, advertising directly referred to the “storybook bride,” or dresses cut in “princess style,” or veiled headdresses topped with tiaras and crowns.
Some of this crown fetish comes to us directly from the granddaddy of contemporary weddings: the 1841 wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. In her own wedding and the nuptials of her children, Victoria popularized the white dress, the processional, the tiered cake, and the bridal march from Lohengrin (a.k.a. “Here comes the bride”)—not only for English royals, but for middle-class folks, too. After Victoria’s wedding, etiquette books began to refer to the “white wedding” as a kind of ritual marked by formality, the symbolic color white, a certain measure of expense, and an emphasis given to the bride herself.
In 1841, some observers wondered why egalitarian Americans, who ought to know better than to admire the foolish trappings of monarchy, were so taken with the wedding of a queen. But in the century-plus since, it has become clear that not only royal weddings evoke royal fantasies. The contemporary wedding has become crucially about women identifying with the fairy-tale princess, that figure of nonspecific beauty and power.
Feminine Upward Mobility
If there is one myth that undergirds the wedding ritual today it is the story of Cinderella, the most popular fairy-tale princess for marriages. (For a brilliant study of the potency of the Cinderella myth where weddings are concerned, see Otnes and Pleck’s Cinderella Dreams.) Cinderella, of course, is the adolescent from humble origins who is transformed into princessly adulthood with the right dress, shoes, and vehicles. Seventeenth-century versions of the story emphasize that she was a noblewoman all along, that good breeding shows even through bad circumstances.
But this wasn’t the theme seized upon by Walt Disney and others in the twentieth century. The American Cinderella is a girl who achieves princesshood, rather than being born into it, simply by being gifted with the right things. It is a myth of feminine upward mobility, facilitated through consumption, enacted by women especially on the wedding day. It is about rite of passage—how girls become women—and I, for one, would argue the transition is brought about less by Prince Charming than it is by the Fairy Godmother, the kindly feminine personification of the marketplace. You become a woman by becoming visibly beautiful, and you become beautiful by getting the right stuff.
Unromantic as it may sound, this celebration of the transformative power of consumption seems to be part of the magic of the wedding day for many women. On this day I am more beautiful, elegant, and radiant than any other. On this day everything is perfect and lavish and matching. A real-life royal wedding, televised and celebrated by millions, represents and encapsulates this magic for those who eagerly watch and read about it.
It might be tempting for some—especially for anyone nostalgic for some mythic age of piety—to argue that the wedding-as-princess-pageant represents a secularization of the marriage rite. But the truth is that the celebration of consumption, the acting-out of the princess ritual, is its own expression of what has become sacred.