The truth behind 3 “traditional” wedding expenses
American spend $60 billion per year on weddings, more than the GDP of about 100 countries, including Iceland and Costa Rica. What isn’t clear is why we spend so much. Who decided every bride must have a lavish white gown, and why do so many people wrinkle their nose at the thought of anything other than a diamond engagement ring?
In this week’s Money Minute, we picked three tried and true wedding traditions to find out where they originated and how they became forever stitched into the fabric of the modern American wedding.
The diamond ring. Engagement rings have been around since Ancient Rome. But the idea that you have to plunk down 5 grand on a big fat diamond is a modern phenomenon. You can thank female ad writer Frances Gerety, who coined the phrase “A Diamond Is Forever’ in a 1947 ad campaign for diamond company De Beers.
But De Beers didn’t just suggest what type of stone to purchase — the agency cleverly suggested a price point. A 1980s advertisement featured a woman with the slogan: “Two months’ salary showed the future Mrs. Smith what the future would be like.” Again, a so-called rule of thumb is really just a clever ad campaign.
Despite singlehandedly sparking a tradition that would burden grooms-to-be for decades to come, Gerety herself never married.
The perfect white wedding gown. The fairytale white wedding gown is treated like a time-honored tradition. By 2020, Americans will spend $80 billion a year on bridalwear. In reality, it was England’s Queen Victoria, who married in a lavish white satin gown in 1840, who started the trend. Even then, white dresses were still typically reserved for the uber rich. Brides of limited means usually wore whatever dress they owned that was nicest. Across the pond, white wedding gowns went mainstream in the U.S. after World War II when mass-produced gowns became widely available. Today, most mass-produced wedding gowns are made in factories in China and Taiwan.
In her 2007 book, “One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding,” Rebecca Mead described on such factory in Xiamen, Taiwan. She wrote that seamstresses, mostly impoverished women from rural villages, lived in camp-like quarters and worked six days a week (seven during busy seasons). For each finished skirt, seamstresses earned 40 cents. One woman’s sole job was to remove pins from altered gowns, tossing the pins into a bucket at her feet. At the end of the work day, the bucket was weighed and she would earn $2 per kilo. A quality control worker, who earned 30 cents per hour, told Mead she sees her husband and only son once a week. “I had seen how one person’s luxury is produced by another’s labor,” Mead wrote.
Bridesmaids and groomsmen. Wedding attendants don’t come cheap. It’s become tradition to give bridesmaids and groomsmen gifts and if you have a few of each, that can really add up (TheKnot.com recommends a modest $75-$150 gift per attendant — ouch).
Attendants are great for throwing bachelor(ette) parties and keeping the bride and groom sane before the big day. But their original purpose was much less practical: Bridesmaids were usually servants asked to dress exactly like the bride in order to confuse evil spirits. Once upon a time in France, it used to be good luck to rip off a piece of the bridal gown, which meant bridesmaids were literally used as decoys to thwart mobs and groomsmen were expected to play bodyguard. Other families might have used bridesmaids as decoys to confuse thieves who would stalk wedding parties and try to steal the bride’s dowry.