In a scathing takedown of the modern American wedding industry on The Daily Beast Wednesday, writer Hannah Seligson detailed her particular distaste for what she termed "me, me, me" weddings. "When I got married last October, all I heard were variants of 'This is your day. It’s all about you,'" she writes of her own wedding in 2011. “These messages made me uncomfortable, both because they promoted entering a weird bridal vortex of solipsism and because, as the wedding drew near, it became clear that this was pretty much entirely untrue."
Seligson goes on to explain that the essence of what weddings are really about -- bringing two families together -- has been lost to the black hole of this country's estimated $40 billion a year wedding industry. She argues that the focus on personal details and wedding inspiration on Pinterest has watered down the true meaning of marriage.
I hear you, Hannah, but I have to respectfully disagree.
When I got married in 2010, I did so wearing a $50 dress from Macy's and a pair of pearl earrings I'd purchased at a yard sale. My husband wore a dapper, vintage suit (also $50), and our family adorned our necks with lei and splurged on a surprise wedding cake. We said our "I dos" at a courthouse in Los Angeles, and that was that. Our perfect wedding day. It was totally and completely us, and the whole thing cost less than $300 (marriage license included). So in one sense, yes, we had a "me, me, me" wedding (or rather an "us, us, us" wedding), but in another, we completely rejected the "wedding industrial complex" that Seligson criticizes. And that's what I love about today's brides and grooms: Their weddings joyfully celebrate their distinctive brand of love -- and sometimes go against tradition -- but they honor what matters most to the couple.
While the average American wedding costs between $18,000 and $28,000 -- an astronomical sum for a one-day party, to be sure -- the focus on the individual couple's character, tastes and aesthetic preferences is refreshing. In fact, I think that the personalization of modern weddings is indicative of a significant shift in couples' approach to marriage itself -- just as today's newlyweds are defining what their weddings will look like, on their own terms, they're also redefining what "partnership" means and building marriages that reflect modern gender roles and egalitarian values.
Historically, weddings weren't about the marrying couple. Rather, as Seligson points out, the celebrations were once much more about "the merging of two families and cementing closer ties with your community." That may be true, but why shouldn't a wedding be about the marrying couple? They're the ones pledging to spend the rest of their lives together, in sickness and in health, till death do them part. And while I agree that it's important to honor the merging families, that's not always appropriate (think acrimonious divorces, absentee parents and couples who just want to elope). It is, however, important to celebrate the two people making one of the biggest commitments of their lives.
The reason weddings of years past were much more family- and tradition-focused is because the couple tying the knot often didn't have much say in who they were marrying. The wedding, in those cases, was only about the merging families who likely brought their children together because it made some economic sense. When you barely know your spouse-to-be, it’s difficult to make the decorations, the favors and the flowers reflect who you are as a couple. But when you've spent years living together and building a life and a sense of "us," the details matter. They're part of your story.
Why yearn for a time when couples, especially women, had virtually no choice in who they spent their lives with? Research shows that couples who split chores evenly and participate equally in child-rearing are happier in the long run than couples who subscribe to traditional gender roles. So why not support more modern understandings of marriage, and weddings too?
Seligson points to the choice of many couples today to veer away from the religious roots of marriage as part of the rise of selfish, "me, me, me" weddings, and argues that without religious tradition, weddings lose their sense of history and the notion that what the couple is doing is a cultural rite, not a personal one. She writes, "Nothing signals this more than the wedding officiated by a friend who was ordained as a Universal Life Minister on the Internet a week before, or by couples writing their own vows, another hallmark of the 'I need to express myself' wedding." Again, I have to disagree. Marriage is a social and cultural institution, to be sure, and by participating in it -- including having a wedding, even if it's performed by your best friend from college -- you accept the history of the institution in all of its sometimes beautiful, sometimes problematic forms. But by joining the history, you also help write it -- you change it. That's the thing about marriage: It evolves.
There’s one couple we profiled on HuffPost Weddings in 2012 who, for me, encapsulates all that is good and right about modern weddings and marriage. Elizabeth Ulrich learned that her father had pancreatic cancer -- and had just a few months left to live -- after she’d been planning her wedding for more than three months. Instead of panicking or breaking down, she and her fiancé, Will Fanguy, pulled together a $5,000 wedding in just eight weeks. It was important to them that both of their families were able to be there to see them tie the knot, but they certainly didn't want to sacrifice personality in planning their hasty nuptials. The couple's friend, John, officiated the ceremony, held in Ulrich's brother's home. They used Nancy Drew novels left to Fanguy by his late mother to decorate their display tables. And a food truck, Wheelie Gourmet, provided the food for the event. The couple’s wedding was an extremely personalized celebration, and Ulrich’s father was there to enjoy it.
Ulrich told The Huffington Post, “I can’t imagine saying my vows anywhere other than in my brother’s living room. Our 30 or so guests were within arm’s reach. I could see their tears and hear their laughter. I felt that they were there, fully in that moment with us. My dad passed away a few days after the wedding, and I’m just so grateful that we all stood shoulder to shoulder for one last time together.”
That, indeed, is what matters most about weddings.
Click through the slideshow below to see photos from Ulrich and Fanguy's wedding.
I adorned the cardigan I wore over my tea-length gown with vintage brooches and a retro sweater clip, and I wore a handmade headband that featured reclaimed bits of vintage jewelry. Will paid for his wedding garb with savings bonds given to him by his grandparents on his father's side. He had saved them since his grandparents passed away when he was six years old. He had promised himself that he would only cash them in to buy something special.
My brother and sister-in-law's house, where our wedding was held.
My brother and sister-in-law's living room where we had our ceremony.
Will and I priced officiants and found the cost astronomical, so we asked our friend John to officiate the ceremony as his wedding gift to us.
Will and I spent a lot of time thinking of sweet, joyful ways we could honor and include his late mother. We used the vast collection of vintage Nancy Drew novels she gave Will to add interest and height to table displays. We also placed a small stack near our makeshift altar. My favorite element of all was my wedding gift to Will: a vintage Fleur de Lys brooch pin I found on Etsy. He chose two favorite photos of his mom to place inside, and he wore it on his suit jacket instead of a boutonnière. He carried his mother with him above his heart all day.
In front of Wheelie Gourmet. They served the best gourmet street food, which is not an oxymoron, I promise!
Our guests dined on pitas filled with chicken tagine, beef gyros, sweet potato and Belgium fries and Moroccan mint iced tea.
My mother baked dozens of treats so we could save money on a cake. She pulled my old Betty Crocker cookbook off the shelf and baked tons of vintage-inspired goodies -- everything from brandy balls to coconut tarts and the most beautiful array of cake pops.
The bar menu and a cake baked by my mom
To reflect my undying love of vintage, we used tons of pieces from my personal collection, repurposing a working typewriter as our guest book, scattering vintage train cases and luggage about and filling my collection of milk glass with flowers. (After my wedding, I launched <a href="http://www.stockroomvintage.com" target="_hplink">Stockroom Vintage</a>, a Nashville company that rents vintage props and pieces to brides, photographers, stylists and the like.)
Me with my dad and my mom.
Dancing with my dad