The Transformative Magic of the Wedding Dress

In media representation of the wedding, the dress has special status. In fact, even though the focus is ostensibly on the bride, much of the attention is actually lavished on the dress itself. Choosing the dress is an experience often likened (in the media) to finding true love. In bridal salons, finding the dress is talked about in terms of finding “the one” and this translates into media images of the dress (Mead, 2007). Mead, researching the wedding industry, found that the big white dress is marketed as transformative. It is the key to the “proper” wedding experience and the magic ingredient that turns a woman into a bride. Reality TV shows that revolve around weddings echo this sentiment. The preparations for the wedding are depicted as a transformative process for the bride (Engstrom, 2008). Women undergo painful beauty procedures to elevate them from their everyday look to a special level of beauty (no matter how painful).There is a sense that the bride is being beautified for the dress, so that she can measure up to its beauty.

The USA Character Fantasy segment “Esmeralda: Wedding Dress” (Web Exclusive on Hulu.com) perfectly encapsulates the transformative power ascribed to the wedding dress by the media. Esmeralda is shown as a bit plain, with sad and difficult life circumstances. Her fantasy is to find the perfect dress for her upcoming wedding, and USA sweeps in to her rescue. The right dress will transform her into a beautiful bride and bring joy into her life.

At the same time, the character fantasy segment showcases the commercialized aspects of the wedding culture, as it functions as a lengthy advertisement for David’s Bridal barely camouflaged as a feel good personal make-over. While Esmeralda gets to choose her new dress, we hear about the benefits of one-stop wedding shopping at David’s Bridal. And once the dress has been found, the happy bride-to-be learns that in order to truly be queen for the day, she must now bedeck herself in tiara, veil, jewelry, gloves, etc. All of this courtesy of the show in this case but any real brides also yearning to be queen for a day must open their wallets.

The idea that consumption is transformative is further emphasized during Esmeralda’s make-over session. After shopping for the accessories, the bride-to-be must get her hair and make-up done so that she may be worthy of her dress. This beauty sequence is repeated in countless wedding reality shows, as well as general wedding narratives in the media (Engstrom, 2008; Mead, 2007). It is a necessary part of the costuming and transformation at the heart of the media’s wedding imagery. This approach to weddings, which insists that a true wedding requires special effort, extra work, special clothes and make-up (for the bride), encourages seeing a wedding as a time to spend money. Consumption becomes the heart of the wedding experience, and what legitimizes the love. Other approaches, less focused on consumption, are crowded out of the media narrative and become less legitimate

Finally, the character fantasy segment puts the ideal bride on display thus championing a certain type of femininity: woman as the object of beauty to be admired. Fully transformed, Esmeralda is the center of a glamorous photo shoot to show off her dress. As she poses in her wedding dress and professional make-up, her actual wedding is still weeks away, raising the question of whether she will be able to recreate the look captured in these photos. The wedding is reduced to a prop for the bride and the dress and what is emphasized is the bride’s outward beauty.

The media also works to situate weddings in a feminine sphere where consumption and beauty reign (Blakely, 2008, Engstrom, 2008, Mead, 2007). At Esmeralda’s photo session, the groom is not in the picture. There is no need to have the groom present for this photo shoot because this imagery is all about the bride and the dress. This absence of the male further feminizes the wedding in the media and makes clear that weddings are women’s work and preoccupation. The groom becomes little more than an accessory himself in this conception of the wedding.

New Podcast posted

There’s a new podcast up on the site (see the left side bar). It’s called Wedding Vendors and Consumer Brides and is a short (about 3 minutes or so) riff on the content of the wedding planning podcasts put up by wedding vendors.

Check the References page to see which podcasts served as inspiration.

The Wedding as a Star Vehicle

Entertainment media offers us images of life that feed back into our culture and shape our expectation of what is acceptable, normal, and desirable (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 2002). Therefore, examining how movies and television shows portray weddings can offer insight into the fantasies that underlie the wedding as a social event (Engstrom, 2008). Because the entertainment industry is now so closely intertwined with business interests (Croteau and Hoynes, 2006), the image of the American wedding in the entertainment media does not only perpetuate cultural tropes and traditions but also legitimizes the wedding as an occasion for consumption, furthering the interests of the wedding industry (Blakely, 2008; Engstrom; Mead, 2007). The fantasies proffered in the media thus support those spread by the wedding industry, which seeks to convince brides that weddings are a rite of passage into a new identity as a consumer (Mead).

As part of this emphasis on consumption, wedding imagery in the entertainment media repeats and thus reinforces certain material aspects of weddings “that are almost universally observed among Americans (the bride’s wearing of a white gown, the structure of a civil or religious ceremony followed by a reception with eating, drinking, and dancing)…” (Mead, 2007, p. 8). The elaborate weddings created in Hollywood are filled with lavish, expensive details that, by sheer repetition in countless wedding scenes, become the norm for our own weddings, even if that might break our budget (Engstrom, 2008; Mead). Such images encourage the bride to be a celebrity, much like the celebrities starring the movie weddings, and further the notion that weddings are star vehicles with the bride as the star at their center (Mead).

The following YouTube clip (posted by TCam71 on August 2, 2007 and set to You and Me by Lifehouse) is a sampling of seven mainstream Hollywood movies revolving around romance and weddings: Monster in Law (2005), The Wedding Date (2005), A Walk to Remember (2002), Father of the Bride (1991), The Prince & Me II: The Royal Wedding (2006), My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), and The Runaway Bride (1999).

In the seven wedding scenes, certain similarities are apparent that that tie all of the pictured weddings into the larger cultural fantasy of the dream wedding. With one exception, all the weddings shown in the clips from the seven movies take place in a large church, thus reinforcing the norm of getting married in specific established venues such as a church or temple. Focusing on established locations and tying them to the romance of a movie wedding reduces the legitimacy of other, less traditional (but perhaps cheaper) choices such as simply getting a marriage certificate at city hall (Engstrom, 2008).

The movie wedding scenes also feature elaborately decorated locations and accouterments that emphasize lush beauty and a certain level of luxury to signify the specialness of the occasion. The aisles walked by the various brides are resplendent with colorful, beautiful flowers, gauzy garlands, and the romantic glow of candles. As a sign of status, high-class, highly polished cars drive the members of the bridal parties through the scenery and the bride and groom to their reception. The glimpse we get of the receptions hints at champagne and fancy food among fantastically decorated bowers, tables, and arbors. The wedding parties are made up of several lovely bridesmaids (no one has just one) in lovely coordinated outfits, perfect from their elaborate hairdos to their matching jewelry, dyed shoes, and bouquets. All of these images feed into the idea that what makes the wedding day special is less the commitment to marriage and more the time and money spent on creating the perfect event (Engstrom, 2008; Mead, 2007).

Finally, the brides featured in these seven movies all portray a specific kind of lovely, pretty femininity. Each bride is a vision of beauty in her big white dress of lace and satin and pearls, with her hair perfectly done, and the veil and tiara a crowning glory. The bride is a princess on her wedding day, even when that is not her official title in real life (Blakely, 2008, Engstrom, 2008, Mead, 2007). Although not part of these particular clips, many movies that revolve around weddings also show a montage of the beauty regimen that brides must undergo to achieve this perfect beauty. The hair must be treated, teased and shaped, and the makeup applied flawlessly, so that the end result seems natural and the bride’s look appears effortless. Hiding the costs of beauty, both in terms of the money and time spent on it and the pain and restrictions (diets, sore feet, corsets, pulled hair, etc.) endured for it, is part of a culturally encoded and reinforced femininity that the wedding industry and media draw upon (Engstrom).

Images of weddings such as the ones in these clips, common in mainstream movies, also serve to reinforce traditional gender roles. Several of the brides are shown here being escorted down the aisle by their fathers, a tradition that stems from a time when a daughter was the responsibility and property of her father until he transferred his ownership to her husband. Today, women are supposed to be equal to men, no longer any man’s property, but the symbolism of male ownership remains in our wedding ceremonies because it is part of tradition and ties into the idea of femininity that weddings thrive on (Engstrom, 2008). In fact, many aspects of the modern wedding require women to revert to less emancipated roles. The role of the bride in the traditional wedding as it is dreamed about and shown in the media is to be first and foremost an object of beauty to be admired (Engstrom). In service of this role and in fulfillment of the bride-as-princess fantasy, money must be spent.

The media weddings promote the specialness of the wedding day by highlighting the details of the decor, the dresses, and the accessories. These trappings of the fantasy media wedding require spending money, but the movies and television shows that push the big princess wedding as the pinnacle of romantic love and women’s fulfillment either do not mention the cost or imply that financial sacrifice is necessary and right in pursuit of the romantic dream (Blakely, 2008; Engstrom, 2008). They offer a vision of romantic love that culminates in a big, elaborate, beautiful wedding, thereby successfully blending the emotions evoked by images of love and joy with the material goods that create the perfect wedding scene. The message the movie images send is that the dream wedding guarantees the dream love and the dream wedding can be secured by buying into the wedding industry’s merchandising of the American wedding.

For references, please see the reference page.

Experimental Podcast

If you’ll direct your attention to the Podcast feed on the left sidebar, you will see a new podcast, entitled “Cultivating the Wedding.” It’s about 2 minutes long (120 seconds) and is my attempt at analyzing the media’s penchant for telling stories about women’s dream weddings.

To find the sources of the materials I used for this podcast, please check the Reference page on this blog.

TIME Cover – The Wrap-Up

As discussed in the previous posts, when illustrating articles about strengthening marriages, TIME magazine chose to use wedding imagery. Rather than show its readers a view of marriage as a living, growing organism, the magazine opted for a snapshot of the wedding day, with an emphasis on external forces tying the couple together (possibly against their will).

The image leaves no space for the family because it focuses entirely on the bride and groom – no children in sight, and there would hardly be space for them on the wedding cake anyway.

Is there a reason wedding images show up so often when we try to picture marriage?

Media representations, which try to appeal to a larger audience, have no use for complex or personal images that speak only to a few and the concept of marriage tends to fall into that category. Wedding images are simpler and very effective, and so they often stand in for marriage. We do tend to be far more drawn to wedding images – seeing them as clear, powerful, pure. Thus, wedding imagery often eclipses marriage in our imagery, and in our symbolic language, we begin to equate wedding with marriage.

Marriage

This image, for example, was uploaded to Photobucket.com by daliafairy26 with the title: marriage. If you search Photobucket for the term “marriage” you will find an awful lot of wedding images (click on the image above to see the search results). Does that mean that every image of marriage will always be a wedding-related one? Of course not. But the ease with which the wife becomes the bride bears some examination.

Marriage: A Different Image

If the image of a bride and groom, tied to each other with string, does not make the best possible picture of marriage, how else could marriage be pictured? In what ways could the TIME cover picture (see post below) move beyond the limitations imposed by the focus on the wedding day? One possibility could be to show marriage as a growing, living thing that benefits from careful tending and nurturing but that can also wither and die if its roots are planted in the wrong soil. Two trees, for example, that grow into each other are often referred to as “marriage trees” or “lovers’ trees.”

Here is an alternate version of the TIME cover about strengthening marriage that I created in Photoshop: (click for a larger version)

Alternate (edited) TIME Cover

Thanks to Greg Y, whose photograph of two embracing trees in Beijing, known as the Couples Trees, I used as a very natural representation of marriage. Marriage, after all, ideally means two beings growing together, combining their lives, and strengthening each other, just as these trees are doing. Marriage is not static but organic, and these joined trees symbolize the nature of marriage better than any wedding day imagery.

TIME Cover: Wedding Over Marriage

This is the TIME magazine cover (February 27, 1995) mentioned in the previous post (Marriage = Wedding?); it was chosen to illustrate the topic of “strengthening marriages” (click on the image to go to the TIME Cover Archive).

TIME February 27, 1995 cover

While the accompanying articles are about marriages (Gleick, 1995; Van Biema, 1995), the primary association this cover image conjures is of a wedding. What we see is not the complexity of an ongoing marriage but the plastic representations of the happy couple that crown the wedding cake. The cake toppers – a classic bride and groom, united and brought close by the bouquet they hold – pop off the cover, the figures noticeably white against the calm blue backdrop. Such a couple in white symbolizes a traditional American white wedding much more than it depicts an actual marriage.

What catches viewers off guard is the rough kitchen twine wrapped around the bride and groom, tying them to each other. The twine symbolizes the attempted strengthening of the marriage by such means as creating legal hurdles to divorce or extensive counseling before marriage (Gleick, 1995). The rough nature of the material, and the fact that it ties the couple together (possibly against their will) puts the image’s emphasis more on the prevention of divorce, rather than the offer of better relationship tools before the wedding.

The twine measure looks improvised, even desperate, and this discordant tone in turn makes the blue somber and wistful, adding a tinge of sadness to the wedding party, which even the warm yellow glow lighting them can’t dissipate. In fact, the couple looks trapped in the spotlight, caught in the twine, and the groom looks distinctly worried or ill at ease. The groom seems dubious of the matrimonial bond already, kept in place solely by the twine, while the bride, still in her veil, looks uncomfortable as well. The marriage this wedding is supposed to start appears over before it truly began.

The image fails to capture the full complexities of marriage and, unlike the articles it accompanies, it also fails to include the additional family members who might be affected by the state of the matrimony: the children. Weddings are the start of a marriage and so symbolize the beginning of family, not its growth or development. The image of the happy couple on the cake has no space for children, yet children are affected by their parents’ relationship. Does tying the bride and groom together really benefit their (unseen) children?

Giving couples the relationship tools to grow and nurture healthy and strong marriages might be a better way to help their children. The cover image would have done more to support the articles if it had emphasized these aspects of marriage, rather than the child-free wedding day, made permanent by the application of kitchen twine (no divorce for you).