The Wedding Industry Is Taking Us For Mugs And We're Falling For It
The Debrief: You can’t put a price on love…or can you?
It starts when you hit your mid-20s. it starts as one or two people popping up on your Facebook News Feed. Then it spreads – you find your mates doing it – and, all of a sudden, you’ve got six or seven diarised for next year. People can’t seem to talk about anything else. I call it ‘weddageddon’.
Here’s the thing. Little girls aren’t born dreaming of their ‘big day’ – they’re told by society this is what they should aspire to. My feminist Mother (who refused to buy me a Barbie in case it gave me a negative body image – she was ahead of her time) encouraged me to dream of different things: stuff like writing a book, discovering a new species of insect or captaining one of those icebreaker ships through unchartered polar regions. For this reason, I never really saw myself as the marrying type. But, in October of last year, my long-term partner Ben had other ideas when he went down on one knee in Hampstead Heath. And since he’s great, and his happiness means everything to me, I said yes.
So here I am, drawn into a strange new world of save the dates and decorations, playlists and wedding lists, registrars and rings.
No one benefits more from filling little girls’ heads with dreams of ‘being a princess for the day’ than the wedding industry. ‘They say you should budget a year’s salary for your wedding’, a friend helpfully informed me the other day. I may not be winning any awards for fiscal responsibility, but surely I can’t be alone in thinking this is total madness?
Like it or not, many wedding traditions are deeply rooted in the commodification of women (which is the main reason why I’ll be avoiding them like a Donald Trump rally). Dads ‘giving away’ their daughters to become the property of their new husbands. Wives taking their husband's name to complete this transaction. Big white dresses, because all good brides come with their virginity intact. You can argue that you’re reclaiming these traditions, but to reclaim something you have to recognise where it came from in the first place.
These days, though, it’s not just the bride who is being commodified; it’s the whole damn affair – venue, cake, catering, favours (whatever those are), bunting, napkins, flowers, those little sparkly sequin things people scatter on tables – the list goes on and on. One survey has found that the average ‘big day’ in the UK costs more than £25,000, and another reckons that the wedding industry generates £10 billion every single year . Now, I don’t want to rain on anyone’s wedding day parade, but to put things into perspective – and in case we get sick of all those canapés – that’s enough dosh to feed nearly half the world’s starving population.
And yet, due to societal pressures, a desire to impress our nearest and dearest and in constant pursuit of ‘the perfect day’ we carry on spending. Meanwhile businesses have got wise to the fact that the ‘w’ word sends most of us a little bit loopy, so they add a whacking great premium onto anything with ‘wedding’ attached. Research conducted this year by Brides magazine found that we’re being charged a whopping 68% more when booking a ‘wedding’ with suppliers and venues, versus a ‘party’ with identical specifications.
I spoke to some future brides who’ve experienced this first hand. Frankie is planning her wedding celebration with partner Kris for May of next year. ‘We sent separate emails asking a venue in the North East to give us prices for a “party” and a “wedding”’, she told me. ‘We specified the exact same package and we were quoted two figures thousands of pounds apart. We were so annoyed that we’re now going to have a celebration in my parents’ back garden instead and save the money to go to Hawaii!’
Sarah and her partner Frances – who are getting married in South Africa, but also wanted to have a celebration in the UK – had a similar experience. ‘We approached a venue in the UK for a “party”’, Sarah tells me, ‘were quoted a price, and paid a deposit to secure our day. Since then the venue has got new staff and they’ve now told us it will cost thousands of pounds more than originally quoted. I have no doubt this is because they want a better margin from a so-called “wedding”. We will already have had our ceremony in South Africa so it really is just a party, but the faintest whiff of a wedding and the pound signs multiply’.
The whole thing has ruined Sarah and Frances’ plans. ‘We are very upset that they are demanding so much extra money’, Sarah says. ‘We organised all of this 12 months ago and arranged to visit in June this year. It's now too late to book elsewhere, and we're not in the country to find a place, so basically our day will have to be cancelled’.
Booking a venue may be where we’re most likely to get fleeced, but choosing ‘the perfect dress’ can induce the most madness, as I discovered first hand when I went frock hunting with my pal Ceri last year. We only made it into two shops, due to Ceri – who had been blissfully nonchalant about the whole process – realising too late in the game that you have to book an appointment, in advance, before you’re even allowed through the door. We were met with grave concern from the shop assistants that Ceri had only left herself six months to pick ‘the most important thing you'll ever wear!’ (Ceri’s Mum raised objections at this point: ‘What about what she wears to a job interview? Surely that’s more important?’).
And following my little trip with Ceri I’ve discovered a new trend. Not content with making decent margins on dresses, veils and tiaras, some wedding shops have found another money spinner: they charge you for the privilege of browsing their expensive wares. Yes, that’s right – they charge you to try on dresses. To top it all off, in my experience, many of these shops only stock dresses in a size 12, so if you’re smaller they’ll use huge bulldog clips to inadequately pin the dress to you; if you’re any bigger then you’re told to hold the dress against yourself and imagine how it would look on, which can be a hugely demoralising experience.
Of course, one way to escape all of this is to avoid buying a ‘wedding dress’ altogether (this is my approach), but with constant questioning from friends and relatives on what you’re going to wear, how you’ll do your hair and who is going to do your makeup on the day many women feel intense pressure to look a certain way, even if it’s not what they’re comfortable with.
Meanwhile, the internet is awash with articles like this one on how to save money when planning your wedding. But, when it comes down to it, aren’t we all responsible for encouraging this wedding obsession with pretending to be wealthier, more attractive and more popular than we really are? ‘Planning a wedding is the hardest thing you’ll ever do’, someone warned my mate Ceri before she got married last year, as if this one day represents the epitome of a woman’s achievement and self worth. Screw that. Never mind the ‘bridezilla’ stereotype – the real monster is not womankind but the wedding industry itself. It’s time to stop feeding it.
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