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With this ring

The most important day in many people's lives is fast becoming the most complex, says sociologist Angela Thompson, with simple ceremony giving way to big, big business.

By Nancy Bartosek

A 100-year-old ring graced Moria Levy Cox's '96 finger when she walked the aisle of Robert Carr Chapel in December.

The worn gold band, her fiance's great grandmother's, continued a distant tradition. More than 175 people witnessed the ceremony, then gathered at a local hall for a festive celebration, complete with cake and heavy hors d'oeuvres, a champagne toast and bouquet toss -- all for about $13,000.

When that generations-old ring was new, marriage preparations centered around setting up a household. Invitations went out about a week before the ceremony; the bride underwent a change of status -- transformed from maiden to matron, from daughter to wife. Marriage vows made in simple ceremonies were bound by duty and personal sacrifice.

Today, elaborate celebrations involving hundreds of friends and family often mark the beginning of the 2.3 million marriages in the United States each year.
Ah, romance.
No, big business.

At least that's the marital vow of Sociology Instructor Angela Thompson, an expert in the business of weddings. Those 2.3 million weddings (only about half of which were first marriages) cost nearly $32 billion last year, $19 billion if you exclude the honeymoon and purchase of new furniture.

"The American wedding industry is not about family, but about business and how business is conducted in the fulfillment of a social ritual," she said. "Gone are the days when the bride, her mother and her aunts would plan, sew and bake everything for the wedding."

Gerard J. Monaghans, president of the National Association of Bridal Consultants, agrees, citing two reasons why the American public has caught "the wedding bouquet" more and more over the last 20 years. "Princess Di and Ronald Reagan," Monaghans said bluntly. "We got rid of jeans in the White House and that resulted in trickle-down fashion. People saw elegance again. That combined with a strong economy and Di's storybook wedding changed the industry."

Consider the evidence:
-- The average wedding in the United States cost $20,000 in 1997, up from $5,000 in 1983. Figure in a rising number of elopements and the expense for "traditional" celebrations skyrockets.
-- Planning for a large wedding begins at least a year in advance. If a certain location or date is important, reservations must be made closer to two years in advance.
-- The number of wedding coordinators has leapt from a couple hundred in the 1970s to an estimated 5,000 or more today.
-- More than 200 enormous merchandizing shows called wedding expos are held each year now. Add in local wedding fairs sponsored by florists or malls, and the number shoots into the thousands.
-- Internet sites devoted to weddings have been embraced by the market; attracted nearly 1 million viewers to its site in January alone.
-- Industry trends marketed as opportunities for the couple, such as theme weddings, engagement ring rentals and divorce insurance, often just provide new ways to spend money.

Economic opportunity is the gilded carriage of the wedding industry, Thompson said. "Brides and grooms pay for the wedding industry and as consumers are trying to create their interpretation of the wedding tradition as set forth by the larger society," she said. "But given that the number of divorces and industry profits have increased simultaneously, one could argue that the wedding industry's contribution to marriage success has been a dismal failure.

"This is an industry that makes profits from fantasies and a society that heeds weddings for a day to the neglect of marriages for a lifetime."

It's a tricky business, integrating purchases and ceremonies with emotions, said Jill Fortney '69, owner of Jill Fortney Productions Inc. in Fort Worth. She has been helping couples plan their big day for about 20 years. According to Fortney, the industry really exploded about 12 years ago when Martha Stewart began to espouse gracious living.

"That brought about people's awareness of events and entertaining, wedding parties and food," she said. "But you still have to be a very caring person to be in the wedding business. To me, a wedding is the most important day of your life. Certainly marriage is the most important decision you'll make; it will affect the rest of your life."

The big day really starts with little girls conditioned to believe their weddings will be the biggest day of their lives, an emotion the industry builds on, Thompson said.

"Such traditions -- the Cinderella fantasy, or the father walking the bride down the aisle, or white as a symbol of purity -- are holdovers from an era when women had little social, political or economic freedom," she said. "The fact that they are still idealized indicates people are not interested in changing wedding fantasies or traditions even though the world surrounding the fantasy has changed."

It's a costly enterprise, trying to keep the fantasy alive. Thompson pointed out that some couples divorce before the wedding is paid for, leaving once starry-eyed brides and grooms with more than cake on their faces.

"Weddings are such an emotional business and people getting married often don't look at it as a business," she said. "What they're doing is entering into a series of business agreements, contracts.

"But unlike most business contracts where you get to see the product up front, you're planning a year or two in advance and won't know until that day if the cake is right, or if the photographs came out right."

To combat such potential abuse, Thompson has self-published Unveiled: Secrets of the Wedding Industry -- How to Avoid Being Scammed as You Plan Your Wedding. In it, she points out such simple truths as your wedding is unique because you are unique, not because your napkins are uniquely monogrammed.

Elizabeth Nettles Stober '93 figured that out on her own. She and husband John eschewed the big wedding, opting for a sunset ceremony on a private South Carolina beach. About 30 close friends and family watched dolphins frolic in the surf and fishing vessels dock as the couple repeated their vows. Banana splits crowned an elegant dinner afterward. Earlier, the men golfed and fished, the women relaxed at a spa.

"It was something between me and my husband that we just wanted to share with people we cared about the most," Stober said, adding that they encountered a lot of pressure for a bigger event (two of her parents' friends even flew in and crashed the party).

Still, the offbeat celebration cost nearly $10,000, the largest expense was for room and board for out-of-towners. Stober said the only traditional thing they did was let her parents foot the bill.

Keeping pace with high-dollar, high-expectation ceremonies can be viewed many ways. When Judy Galloway Cox '62, Moria's mother-in-law, married shortly after graduation, she had limited funds and only a few months to plan. Her wedding was average in size and scope -- a religious ceremony with a tea and cake reception at the church followed by dinner at a nearby restaurant for close friends.

A quick comparison between her and her son's ceremonies led her to note, "There's a lot more detail that goes into today's weddings. But both the bride and groom are more involved in the planning to make it what they want."

Thompson points to several reasons for the increasingly elaborate ceremonies -- couples are marrying older, have more disposable income to spend and feel a need to measure up to what others have done. "Lavish weddings during the '80s may have unwittingly set the benchmark by which people judge their wedding ideal," she said. In addition, a sociological condition she calls the demonstration factor has emerged. "We live in a divorce culture, and many of the couples marrying today are children of divorce," she said. "In essence, a big demonstration or big wedding is viewed by some couples not only as a social rite but also psychologically as an inoculation against failure of their own marriages," she said.

Whether that bears out or not, Thompson said that as long as people are still enthralled with fantasy and tradition, the wedding industry will continue to thrive. Moria Cox agrees. She said all the planning and cost was worth it -- her big day was exactly what she hoped it would be, "what every girl dreams of." Except for one small detail.

"I wish that it would have gone slower so we could have focused on the details," she said. "We want to change our memory because the whole day was just a blur, and then suddenly it was over."

Don't miss Emmett Smith's tale of wedding's gone wrong; Sandy Record's Here comes the, uh, hammer, or how the Beltsons found Love @ TCU.