The Best Place in the World for Women -- and Weddings?

02/21/2013 06:54 pm ET | Updated Apr 23, 2013

Do Icelandic women dream of Disney-brand Fairy Tale Weddings?

That non sequitur popped into my head after reading the recent New York Times piece on women who plan their weddings well in advance of a set date or even a set partner. For me, that article was the cake topper (dessert analogy time!) on top of an already stomach-churning confection of bridezilla horror profiles heaped upon extreme wedding diet how-tos piled upon wedding Twitter hashtag projects that pop up in the media with mind-boggling regularity. Far from newsworthy, the only useful takeaway from those nuptial trend stories is that the women-targeted wedding industry clearly has spun out of control in the United States, where the bridal business began to flourish en masse with the 1934 publication of So You're Going to be Married magazine, which Condé Naste later converted to Brides.

Certainly, it's possible these days to throw a lovely event that doesn't bankrupt a couple mentally and financially, but nevertheless, it seems like there's nowhere for brides especially (have you ever seen a Grooms magazine, hm?) to escape the mass-marketed American wedding culture breathing down their necks. Which brings me back to the land of fire and ice (not a "Game of Thrones" reference, sorry, folks).

If annual surveys on gender equity and women's health are accurate indicators, Scandinavia is a veritable Lady Paradise. In 2012, Iceland claimed the top spot in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report, followed by Finland, Norway and Sweden, thanks to nifty regional initiatives like corporate gender quotas, generous state-sponsored paternity leave and concerted efforts to dismantle early childhood pink and blue divisions. Although "Amount of Pressure Directed Toward Women Regarding the Perfection of Their Weddings" wasn't one of the ranking criterion, I was curious to investigate whether the Nordic approach to getting hitched reflects the region's more progressive stance on gender and sexuality (same-sex marriage is legal everywhere but Finland). In other words, are weddings less crazy-making in the world's best place for women compared to the U.S., which not-so-incidentally came in at 22nd on that Global Gender Gap list, sandwiched between Canada and Mozambique?

For starters, the institution of marriage doesn't hold such a lofted position in Scandinavia, as couples have long tended to shack up and have kids before tying the knot. It's a rarity, in fact, for a wedding to precede sharing a roof there -- a pattern that's catching hold among Americans as well. And for people concerned that the more liberal Scandinavian model trades in marriage for living together, that's not the case at all; they simply wait longer wed. Whereas the average age of first-time American brides is 26.1, the Scandinavian counterpart is 31.8 years old. Oh, and let's not forget that it's more commonplace for those newlywed brides to keep their last names as an added bonus.

Also, when couples do decide to jump the broom, it tends to cost far less abroad -- at least in Sweden. A 2010 survey found the average Swedish wedding comes in at $7,500, with only 5 percent of couples paying for any part of it with credit. In 2012, the average American newlyweds forked over $27,012. That's an impressively thrifty tab, too, considering that Swedish brides traditionally receive three wedding bands signifying betrothal, marriage and pregnancy. And if getting a pre-push present at the altar doesn't sit well with modern ladies, perhaps the custom of Swedish grooms-to-be sporting their rings before getting hitched helps make up for it. Either way, the bröllop (that's Swedish for "wëdding") is still a pennywise affair by U.S. standards.

The idea of weddings being a party that caters to the bride, rather than the couple, also seems to take a back seat in Scandinavia judging by a custom in Sweden and Norway. Instead of the groom patiently waiting for the bride to be escorted down the aisle with her father, per Western tradition, the groom and bride make their grand entrance together. That said, a traditional Swedish bride might also wear a crown of vines around her head to symbolize sexual purity, so points off for that. But speaking of crowns, I'm about ready to start up my own "Nordic Dream Wedding" Pinterest board because Norwegian brides get to wear startlingly large crowns of jangling metal called brudekrone, whose excessive clanking is meant to ward off evil spirits. Forget about the whole "something borrowed, something blue" rigmarole; the Norwegian crowns are passed down through generations, which also means you get to save some euros in the bridal headgear department. Sold!

I could go on about quaint Scandinavian customs -- although the one about male wedding guests getting to freely smooch the bride whenever the groom leaves the room gives me the shivers -- but suffice it to say that, yes, weddings do appear more casual, though equally rich in tradition, in the Lady Dreamland of the Northern Hemisphere. And don't just take it from me; an American listener of my podcast, Stuff Mom Never Told You, recently wrote in sharing details about her upcoming wedding in Norway as she's simultaneously helping her sister plan a wedding in Missouri. Describing the customary Norwegian nuptials as "simple," "very laid back" and costing around $7,000, she says her wedding planning has been a veritable cakewalk compared to her sister's nightmarish juggling act of coordinating venues, caterers, DJs and so forth.

Not that the events will look all that foreign from each other, judging by this fetching Scandinavian wedding blog (wog?). Folks dress up, attend a ceremony and feast afterward. Regional nuances aside, weddings aren't dramatically different on either side of the Atlantic, save for supersized, Americanized frenzy over organizing some sort of Disney princess-perfect day. In which case, the next wedding trend story I'd like The New York Times to tackle would be couples opting for the Scandinavian approach and taking their sweet time heading to the low-key aisle. Or Norwegian wedding crowns catching on.