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One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding [Hardcover]

Rebecca Mead
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In its nascence in the American lexicon, the term "Bridezilla" has inspired articles, reality television and watercooler tales of brides gone mad. This phenomenon piqued New Yorker staff writer Mead's interest, sending her on a three-year investigation of the current American wedding and the $161-billion industry that spawned it. "Blaming the bride," she writes, "wasn't an adequate explanation for what seemed to be underlying the concept of the Bridezilla: that weddings themselves were out of control." Interviewing wedding industry professionals and attending weddings in Las Vegas, Disney World, Aruba and a wedding town in Tennessee, Mead ventures beyond the tulle curtain to reveal moneymaking ploys designed around our most profound fears as well as our headiest happily-ever-after fantasies. Goods and services providers alter marital traditions—and even invent new ones—to feed their bottom line. Stores vie for bridal registry business in hopes of gaining lifelong customers. Women swoon for what retailers call "the 'Oh, Mommy' moment" in boutique fitting rooms—an unsettling contrast to the Chinese bridal gown factory workers who make them possible, sleeping eight to a room and scraping by on 30 cents an hour. Part investigative journalism, part social commentary, Mead's wry, insightful work offers an illuminating glimpse at the ugly underbelly of our Bridezilla culture. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Reminiscent of Jessica Mitford's I^ The American Way of Death (1963), although written in a considerably lighter vein, this eye-opening book looks at weddings not merely as unions of two people who are in love with each other but also as products of an industry that is in love with money. Mead begins with a fascinating overview of the Bridezilla phenomenon, a recent coinage that quickly entered the language as a term to describe an excessively self-absorbed, tyrannical, my-way-or-the-highway bride-to-be (the term has inspired books and reality TV shows). In 2006, Mead notes, the wedding industry took in about $161 billion. Magazine publishers, she explains, now add value for their advertisers by holding seminars on how to get married (featuring displays of wedding-related products, from fashion to cookery to linens). Similarly, bridal registries--the first was established in 1924--have become crucial sources of revenue for department stores and specialty shops. Once-peripheral features, such as wedding planning and videography, are fast becoming industries unto themselves. And on and on. Weddings, Mead argues in this revealing mix of popular history and social criticism, are reflections of who we are, and the wedding industry is a reflection of the culture we have created: ruthlessly organized, product-oriented, fiscally irresponsible, but still, somehow, retaining a bit of romance. David Pitt
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Review

Gazing upon the Custom Liquid booth at the Great Bridal Expo, where the half-liter water bottles picture a bride and a groom on the label ($48 a case, plus shipping), Rebecca Mead announced, "This is a new one on me."

Ms. Mead has spent three years attending bridal exhibitions, interviewing wedding planners, even visiting a wedding dress factory in China and a honeymoon factory in Aruba for her book, "One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding," which comes out on Monday , and so finding a corner of the industry that she hadn't already seen was worth noting.

"Every season there's something new," she said. The industry is constantly adding novelties and inventing rituals to part a bride and her money. The giant man-and-fiancee- eating wedding market is endlessly expanding - like Otto, the overfed fish in the children's story who outgrows his bowl, a vase, a bathtub and finally the town pool.

Then again, so are books about weddings and brides: memoirs, essay collections, survival guides and planners for brides, grooms, mothers, mothers-in-law, Southerners, Jews, African-Americans, gays, traditionalists, hipsters and dummies - as well as cultural histories and social commentaries, the categories in which Ms. Mead, a staff writer at The New Yorker, includes herself.

"I'm not interested in Bridezilla, the crazy exception," Ms. Mead said after spotting a "Don't be a Bridezilla" sign advertising a wedding-planning Web site at a recent bridal expo in Midtown. "They're funny, but not very illuminating. I'm interested in ordinary brides, not exaggerated monster creatures."

Still, as she said later, the fact that the Bridezilla caricature has captured the popular imagination suggests a larger phenomenon. "Getting married is still a big thing, but the transition is not the traumatic thing that it used to be," she said. "I think there is a way in which the trauma of the wedding planning is substituting for the trauma of the newlywed. People feel they have to go through some type of traumatic experience to show that they're married, to show that there is something different about them."

Nor should we forget, she added, that "this is a consumerist society" and that the marketplace "intervenes in things that we like to think have nothing to do with money."

The expo is a difficult place to imagine money having nothing to do with marrying. Hundreds of brides-to-be, a few with grooms in tow, pass booths set up like stalls in a pastel-colored Turkish souk as the proprietors try to lure them in with a pitch: "Do you want to register?" "Do you want to enter to win? We're giving away a Coach bag," "We're giving away $1,000," an Anolon pan, a free yearlong membership, $35 off, a four-day trip and so on.

Women wear purple stickers with the letters "V.I.B."; the men's are green with "V.I.G.," meaning Very Important Bride and Very Important Groom, Ms. Mead explained, "so exhibitors won't have to ask 'who's the bride?' " as they do every time the stickerless Ms. Mead pauses. "Don't fill out the cards," she warns her soon-to-be-married publicist from Penguin Press, as if the woman had unwittingly reached for a drink with a slipped Mickey. "You'll get dozens of wedding vendors calling you, writing you, e-mailing you. This is a very big bridal market. The whole thing is a way of getting customers."

Ms. Mead got married while she was writing the book, in a small civil ceremony at a Manhattan courthouse on a Thursday afternoon. The next Sunday she and her husband, George Prochnik, held a party for 85 at their home in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. She declined to specify the cost, saying only that it was "much, much, much, much less" than the $27,000-plus average the industry likes to cite.

With a practiced eye, she walks the expo aisles, past a 4 ¸-foot tower of calla lilies ($700); a long, white buttonless tuxedo with a mandarin collar ($119 to rent); and ads for a portable toilet with oak cabinetry, marbled sinks, Oriental rugs and a black-tie attendant ($3,495 for eight hours). "You never knew a potty could be so nice," the saleswoman says, handing out emery boards imprinted with "Bobby's Portable Restrooms."

There are lots of photographers and videographers. Competition between them is fierce, Ms. Mead said, adding that the idea both camps are pushing is that if you don't record it, "your happiness will be lost, your memories will be lost."

At the American Laser Center booth, women in white coats explain cellulite-reduction therapy and hair removal. (Both are popular now, Ms. Mead notes.) Romanta Therapy promotes the "passion party," at which you can sample products and play games like pass-the-vibrator. ("It's on," the sales rep explains.)

A baker hands out tiny chocolate cupcakes with white frosting and sprinkles. Next door is Smart for Life, a weight-loss program. Dr. Gregory Skinner has a wedding special on teeth whitening ($399). On his table is a set of false teeth next to an oversize martini glass filled with chocolate kisses. "This is a kiss from me," Dr. Skinner says, handing out a candy.

People are savvy consumers, Ms. Mead said, but a wedding is "probably the one time in her life that a bride will pay full price." And not just the brides. Jason Werner is working at the drugstore-style photo booth ($1,595 for four hours, $1,695 for five, which includes an attendant in case "grandma needs help getting into the booth," he says). "I'm getting married August 18," Mr. Werner says, and (of course) a photo booth will be at his Long Island wedding, as well as a band that the couple are bringing up from New Orleans. "If you really want something, this is the day to do it," he says. Advice books warn brides not to reveal that they are shopping for a wedding, if possible, Ms. Mead said; vendors know that "if it's wedding, you're going to spend more." So her suspicion is immediately aroused when the woman at East Coast Limousine asks, "Is it for a wedding?" when the question of a 22-passenger excursion in a long, white stretch limousine comes up. The wedding special is $720 for 3 ¸ hours and includes an aisle runner, Champagne, bar and "horns" that play a recording of "Here Comes the Bride" when the car stops. Ever the experienced shopper, Ms. Mead asks how much the regular rental would be, if there were no wedding.

"A four-hour minimum is $576." So you could spend $144 less and receive a half-hour more? Why not do that instead?

"You can't," the saleswoman replies. If it's a wedding, you must do the wedding special. "If the bride and groom are in the car, you can't do it. We've pulled in, and there is a woman in a wedding dress, and they can't do it. The car had to leave."

After taking a few steps away, Ms. Mead said, "This is the kind of thing that I'm really interested in - that mentality: you're going to get the horns whether you want them or not."

She imagines the scene: "They won't let you in," she repeats, picturing the bride, groom and 20 other passengers stranded on a street as the limo driver slams the door and pulls away. "That's the one you need the videographer for."

And though no one wants to think of it, tucked in among the exhibitors is WedSafe, wedding insurance that protects against bad weather, death or an illness that forces a cancellation ($295 for $25,000-plus coverage). Does the insurance cover "a change of heart?" Ms. Mead asks. The saleswoman shakes her head: "That's way too risky." -- Patricia Cohen, New York Times, May 9, 2007

I guess we need smart, talented, mischievous young British women to move to America to show us what sentimental suckers we are: just as Jessica Mitford exposed the funeral industry with her American Way of Death in the 1960s, Rebecca Mead has produced the definitive deconstruction of our crazy national wedding industry. One Perfect Day is a thoroughly reported exposŽ, sure, but it's also got heart and charm and tons of laugh-out-loud funny scenes. -- Kurt Andersen, author of Turn of the Century

Phrases like "wedding porn" and "Bridezilla syndrome" have entered the cultural vocabulary precisely because there's something out-of-control about American weddings these days, as if spending enough money on one will bring down the divorce rate, or ensure that lasting marital happiness will follow. Rebecca Mead journeys to the dark heart of the wedding industry, meets those consuming the fantasy and those profiting off it, and reports back with wit and subtlety on her findings. A harrowing and also frequently hilarious book. And the perfect wedding shower gift! -- Laura Kipnis, author of Against Love: A Polemic and The Female Thing

Rebecca Mead's insightful, entertaining book is a fine companion to Jessica Mitford's classic, The American Way of Death. It's been said that all great stories end in death or marriage--and as Mitford and Mead have shown us, either way, in the USA, somebody stands to make a buck. -- Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness

That a subject as gauzy and gilded as the American wedding should be matched with a writer as clear-eyed and levelheaded as Rebecca Mead is a blessing for readers. Mead takes us into a world populated by Bridezillas, ministers-for-hire, videographers, and heirloom manufacturers, exposing the forces behind the consumerist mindset of the American bride and the entrepreneurial zeal of the wedding industry that both serves and exploits her. -- Pamela Paul, author of The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony

About the Author

Rebecca Mead has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1997. Before that, she was a contributing editor at New York magazine and a writer for the Sunday Times of London. She received her B.A. from Oxford University and her M.A. from N.Y.U.

From The Washington Post

Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley

About a dozen years ago, an old friend of mine was told by his daughter that she was going to get married. This suited him fine, but he balked at pouring untold thousands of dollars down the drain of a full-dress wedding. "I'll tell you what," he said to her. "I'll give you a choice: You can have a wedding, or you can have $30,000 to help you get started on your new life." Without a moment's hesitation, she astonished him -- and me, too, when he told me the story -- by replying, "I'll take the wedding."

This, mind you, was no "Bridezilla," defined by Rebecca Mead as "a young woman who, upon becoming engaged, had been transformed from a person of reason and moderation into a self-absorbed monster, obsessed with her plans to stage the perfect wedding, an event of spectacular production values and flawless execution, with herself as the star of the show." No, this was a young woman of reason and moderation, a sensible person who nonetheless had been caught up in an early wave of the phenomenon that -- all unknown to her father and me -- was beginning to sweep across America: the rise of the wedding industry, "shaped as much by commerce and marketing as it is by those influences couples might prefer to think of as affecting their nuptial choices, such as social propriety, religious observance, or familial expectation."

Who got the better of my friend's deal I do not know, as it seemed impolite to ask, but he hinted that even his daughter's relatively modest wedding cost more than the $30,000 buyout he'd offered her. Inasmuch as the marriage didn't last much longer than the wedding itself, it certainly seems to have been money down the drain. But it was very much an American wedding of our day, replete with that once-in-a-lifetime bridal dress, bridesmaids fetchingly fitted out, gifts for attendants of both sexes, an elegant luncheon and, of course, champagne -- and, at the end, a nice fat pack of bills for dear old Dad.

How all of this came to pass -- how the American wedding escalated into an "out of control" business that pumps an astonishing $161 billion dollars a year into the economy -- and what forms it takes are the subjects of One Perfect Day, a revealing and intermittently amusing piece of journalism. Mead is a staff writer for the New Yorker, and her prose is peppered with some of that magazine's oldest pet tics, in particular an excessive use of the reportorial first-person singular. But the book's strengths outweigh its irritating faults: It is a convincing picture of one of those strange parts of the American economy that make a great deal of money for a few people while going largely unnoticed by the rest of us.

"Bridezilla" is a very real creature, but the great majority of brides, like my friend's daughter, manage to keep things more or less under control, at least if you have a fairly permissive definition of "under control." In truth, to those of us of older generations, especially those with direct or secondhand experience of the Depression, the statistics are staggering. In her chapter about the bridal magazines and the expectations they raise, Mead writes:

"If a bride has been told, repeatedly, that it costs nearly $28,000 to have a wedding, then she starts to think that spending nearly $28,000 on a wedding is just one of those things a person has to do, like writing a rent check every month or paying health insurance premiums. (Or she prides herself on being a budget bride and spending a mere $15,000 on the event.) She is less likely to reflect upon the fact that $28,000 would have more than covered a 10 percent down payment on the median purchase price of a house in 2005 and would cover the average cost to a family of a health insurance policy, at 2005 rates, for a decade. The bride who has been persuaded that $28,000 is a reasonable amount of money to spend on her wedding day is less likely to measure that total against the nation's median household income -- $42,389 in 2004 -- and reflect upon whether it is, in fact, reasonable for her or for anyone to spend the equivalent of seven and a half months of the average American's salary on one day's celebration."

The somewhat unsettling truth is that, whipped along by the wedding industry, the American wedding has been turned into an ego trip for brides. Doubtless few if any people think of it that way -- not even the parents, who are stuck with astronomical bills yet are as caught up in the spirit of the big bucks bliss-out as everyone else -- but that certainly is the impression left by this book. The glossy bridal magazines -- which these days are as fat as phone books, crammed with advertisements -- exist to convince the bride that "it is her privilege, her right -- indeed, her obligation -- to become preoccupied with herself, her appearance, her tastes, and her ability to showcase them to their best advantage." The companies that seek the bride's business hope not merely for a one-day bonanza but for a lifetime's brand loyalty, which is why the department stores and the home-furnishing chains and all the other merchants of wedding paraphernalia court her so assiduously.

The wedding industry seeks "the furtherance of a wedding culture in which every bride is encouraged to think of herself as a celebrity for a day," one who is endlessly photographed and videotaped -- to mention in passing a couple of big wedding businesses -- and who "on her wedding day is a princess": Jennifer Lopez and Princess Di rolled into one irresistible bundle. The bride is (usually) young, in love, impressionable and vulnerable, eager to please and be pleased, hopeful and nervous. All in all, in the words of Colin Cowie, "the best-known wedding professional in the country," the bride "is a marketers' target. She is a slam dunk." "Wedding professional"? That's a new one to me, but inside the industry there are a handful of celebrity wedding professionals and zillions of wannabes. There is actually an Association of Bridal Consultants, "a national organization for professional wedding planners that claims a membership of about four thousand." These people "help brides and grooms navigate the business of preparing for a wedding, serving much as a general contractor does on a house renovation project." Their numbers are growing, "thanks in part to their endorsement in the pages of bridal magazines." Condé Nast, which publishes several of these magazines, reported in its 2006 American Wedding Study "that 18 percent of its respondents had engaged the services of a professional wedding planner."

Perhaps the services of these people are genuinely useful to busy brides and their families, permitting them to get on with life's real business while the wedding planner takes care of fantasy, though it's difficult not to see them as being paid for work that people are perfectly capable of doing for themselves. But that admittedly is the view of a person who also believes that interior designers, personal trainers and personal shoppers are vermiform appendixes. Millions of people now take it for granted that they will pay for "services" that in my youth were strictly do-it-yourself; perhaps the world has gotten better, and I simply haven't noticed.

Certainly it's gotten more expensive and more plugged into make-believe. It will not surprise you that Disney turns out to be an increasingly big player in the wedding industry, because one of its stocks in trade is what Mead nicely calls "traditionalesque -- a pleasing mélange of apparently old-fashioned, certainly nostalgic, intermittently ethnically authentic practices that may have little relevance to the past or to the future and are really only illustrative of the present in which they emerge." Thus, a Disney person told Mead "that Disney prided itself upon its traditionalism when it came to weddings; but the traditions that were most determinedly upheld at Disney were those established by the company itself," just like everything else in the ersatz universe of Disney.

It all puts me in mind of a song by the gifted Lucinda Williams, from her new album, "West." The subject matter is diametrically different, to be sure, but the sentiment is the same: "Some think a fancy funeral/ Would be worth every cent/ But for every dime and nickel/ There's money better spent." Ditto, in spades, for fancy weddings.

Copyright 2007, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

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