The wedding of Kate Middleton and Prince William may be British, but it fits squarely into the burgeoning “fairy-tale wedding” craze that has thrived on American reality TV and helped drive the cost of the average American wedding to $30,000.
The lavish spectacle sets the bar at a precarious new height for another generation of young brides aspiring to a “dream wedding,” normalizing the most expensive in everything bridal, from a couture gown to real diamond tiaras.
Some in the wedding industry suggest that the phenomenon is contributing the continued decline in the US marriage rate – from 72 percent in 1960 to 52 percent in 2008. As the cost of a wedding rises, some young couples are choosing to defer or forgo the institution altogether, says Allison Wisnefski, CEO of the online resource site, justweddings.com.
“We are in an age of reality television, particularly including lavish Hollywood-type weddings," such as those on “Real Housewives,” “The Bachelor,” and “The Royal Wedding,” she says via e-mail.
The amount of reality television portraying the “perfect” wedding (with an unaffordable price tag) “is one of the biggest causes for the drop in marriages,” she suggests. She sees clients that are “not even getting married, and using the $30,000 toward their living, whether they buy a home in the down economy or rent."
Census figures show that the number of singles cohabiting has doubled during the past decade to 7.5 million in 2010.
This is a new kind of haves and have-nots, says University of Pittsburgh marriage expert Christine Whelan. “Ninety-nine percent of us will never have a marriage like the royal wedding,” she says. “But just setting up a standard like that even to aspire to begins to be an obstacle to taking the step across all demographics.”
She points out that throwing the resources of a young union into a splashy event can undermine the stability of the marriage. But she acknowledges the growing pressure to do so. “It’s getting to the point where throwing a $100,000 wedding is a sign of your commitment, and you have no choice.”
“I had met a great guy and convinced myself that we should get married and have the kind of wedding that all my girlfriends have had,” she says, ticking off everything from the perfect dress to “monogrammed everything.”
They set the date a year and half off, “to give myself time to plan it all,” she says. But the moment of reckoning came two months before the date when she was en route to a bridal shower.
“I just realized it was all about planning the perfect party and very little if anything about making sure we were the right partners for each other.”
She had already laid out some $15,000 – which she lost – but, she adds, the wedding was on track to cost around $40,000.
The marriage industry is also in a swoon, says Paul Pannone, head of communications for TheWeddingReport.com, who says the high cost of weddings is having “a dampening effect, especially in tough economic times.” He adds that he sees brides refocusing their plans on wedding basics, such as the venue, the dress, and the food, “and less attention of the costly amenities.”
Putting the party over the relationship actually dates back to the dawn of the white wedding dress, when young Queen Victoria eschewed the traditional crimson royal wedding outfit.
“She wanted to look nice in photographs,” points out Gerald Fierst, who performs weddings. After that, he says with a laugh, people began to pay more and more attention to how the wedding looked. “After P.T. Barnum marketed photographs of Tiny Tom and his bride looking like a little king and queen, people couldn’t get enough of the fairy-tale wedding for themselves,” he says.
But he is on a modern campaign to return the emphasis to the ceremony itself, pointing out that the heart of a wedding is the commitment spoken from one person to another. He says money is a bigger-than-ever factor in the decision to get married. “About 20 percent of the couples I meet say they can’t afford to get married now,” he says. “They say they might do it sometime in the future but only when they can afford the wedding.”