Summer wedding bells may be ringing, but today's young people are getting to the altar years later than their parents did. Over the past four decades, the average marriage age has jumped from 20 to 27 for women and 22 to 29 for men. That expanded time of living in "the question" just builds up anticipation for the big day itself. These days when a wedding finally happens, it has turned into a bigger deal than ever before. If movies are any reflection of what's on our minds as a society, consider the confetti storm of popular American films about weddings just since the new century began: Wedding Crashers, The Wedding Planner, Margot at the Wedding, Rachel Getting Married, 27 Dresses, Bridesmaids, Bachelorette, The Big Wedding ... the list could go on and on. This generation may be marrying less but they're buying tickets to watch other couples do it more.
What's up with that? For many couples who have waited till their late twenties or thirties, marriage equals achievement, and a wedding is an announcement to each other and the world that a long-postponed marker of adulthood has been reached. A large, fancy wedding has become a symbol of "having made it" -- like having a flashy car or buying a first house -- so no surprise that these ceremonies have become bigger, more lavish, and more expensive than ever.
When many post-Woodstock couples married, it was not unheard of to get hitched barefoot on a beach with the vows ending, "As long as we both shall dig it." But barefoot or flip-flops these days? Not too likely. Indeed, according to economist Robert Reich, when today's boomer parents wedded in 1980, the typical American wedding cost $11,000; by 2007, when their kids got hitched, wedding costs had ballooned to $28,000 (both sums adjusted for inflation). Ironically, the average cost of a wedding and the average amount of student debt in 2012 -- $27,000 -- are close to the same daunting number.
When my husband proposed to me in the late 1970s, there was much love and many heartfelt promises, but no diamond ring. Friends gave us a small shower (guests brought recipes and utensils to make them with), but Bob bypassed a bachelor party, and bachelorette parties hadn't been invented yet. Our wedding at a mountain resort was lovely and, in retrospect, low-key -- a hundred guests, my sister as bridesmaid, Bob's brother as best man. After the short, outdoor exchange of vows, lunch, and some dancing, everyone was gone by five.
Today weddings are a big business involving a retinue of expensive helpers unheard of thirty years ago: wedding planners and stylists, makeup artists and videographers. Some "destination weddings" last for days and cost guests a small fortune on travel and hotels (and families a larger fortune to keep these guests wined and dined once they arrive). Proposals are intricate, choreographed affairs -- from hiring a mariachi band to serenade the intended to returning to the site of a first date, this time with major engagement bling in hand. Future brides often tweet photos of their be-diamonded ring finger almost before they've said yes to their future grooms. And many grooms today arrange in secret for both sets of parents to fly in from out of town and friends to gather to applaud the betrothal minutes after the deal is sealed.
The average number of attendants these days is ten -- five bridesmaids and five groomsmen, according to the most recent annual study by Brides magazine. But it's not unheard of for a bride to have more than ten women friends dancing attendance on her, accompanying her to "mani-pedis," having their hair coiffed and makeup done together before the wedding itself -- and shelling out big bucks for the wear-once dresses and sky-high heels. One young friend estimates she had been to about 20 weddings and was a bridesmaid in six of them before becoming a bride herself at 33. Her closet, she notes wryly, is lined with jewel-toned silk dresses and matching shoes she'll never wear again. Her younger sister guesses she's been to about 60 weddings, was a bridesmaid in ten, and her closet is stuffed with dresses in unflattering shades of brown, the inexplicably hot color those years.
All the turn-of-the-millennium movies about weddings with their raucous humor, mix-ups, and pratfalls give us permission to acknowledge something basic about tying the knot: Few things bring out the crazy like weddings. It's true for the wedding couple, for their families, and for the friends watching from outside. During the instructive time my young friend put in as a bridesmaid before becoming a bride, she once participated in a wedding in the grand garden of the bride's parents' summer home. As she read her assigned verses, her high heels sank deeper and deeper into the wet ground, and she struggled to keep her game face on. "Carrying on while sinking was kind of a metaphor for the whole experience," she says. Sometimes amid the joyful tears for her just-wedded friends trickled a few sad ones that her own prince had not yet come. But her wedding, when it happened, was all the sweeter for waiting. And the ceremony was lovely, warm, and just a little understated, as if she'd learned from her years of bridesmaiding and wedding-guesting that public hoopla doesn't make a couple any more married or provide a better guarantee that they'll live happily ever after.
Elizabeth Fishel is the coauthor (with Jeffrey Arnett) of When Will My Grown-Up Kid Grow Up? Loving and Understanding Your Emerging Adult recently published by Workman. Her sons, 29 and 25, are single.