Hi all! I offer my second installment of Thesis Thursdays for your reading enjoyment. Today’s topic: the second half of my introduction to the world of 1920s etiquette, the topic of my soon-to-be-finished MA thesis.
I promised last week that I’d tackle the question that I left dangling: what exactly does the white wedding have to do with etiquette books? To answer that, we have to take a step back for a moment and rewind to 2007…
A bit of backstory.
Four years ago I was entering my final year at the University of San Francisco, where I was working on a BA in sociology. It was time to work on my senior undergraduate thesis, and I knew exactly what I was going to study: wedding magazines. See, I was always one of those girls who was obsessed with weddings. I started planning mine when I was around 4 or 5. By high school, I was making wedding spreadsheets (spreadsheets, folks) with all of my plans, everything from pictures of venues and my favorite gowns and engagement rings to smaller details, like bridal bouquets and cake toppers. And, of course, each spreadsheet was organized by theme: laid-back beach wedding, midnight masquerade ball wedding, early morning wedding followed by a Victorian tea party, and countless others.
Then I got to college and found my way to the sociology department, where we started talking about things like race, class, gender, and sexuality, which got me thinking about wedding magazines in particular. They were, I noticed after some thought, primarily targeted towards women — a gendered ritual, if you will. Furthermore, almost all of the gowns and other accessories featured in the glossy pages of the magazines are ludicrously expensive, which led me to think that there’s a class aspect to all of this as well.
Sadly, it also became clear that almost everyone depicted in bridal magazines is white — so we can say that weddings, at least the way that they’re portrayed in magazines like Brides, are racialized. And of course, with all of the agitation and controversy over the legalization of gay marriage, it’s impossible to ignore the heterosexist focus of almost all mainstream wedding magazines. There’s nary a same-sex couple to be found outside of niche magazines that specifically target the LGBT community.
Thus my honors thesis was born, and it was a lot of fun to pull together. I came away with a lot of data about the portrayal of women in bridal magazines, but it was the historical underpinnings of the wedding ceremony that really fascinated me. When I got to grad school, I decided to focus on the development of the ritual to see what I could uncover.
The White Wedding: A Brief History
Diving into the history of the wedding has revealed some fascinating information. First, I learned that the ceremony deemed commonplace today — bride in a big white dress with bridesmaids, a groom in a tux, and a fancy party afterwards — is a recent invention. In the 19th century, most people married in small ceremonies where the central elements (dress, flowers, food, cake) were created and made by the bride, her family, and other members of the community. The lavish wedding, the one with the fancy dress and the party, was something that only wealthy Americans could afford.
By the 1920s, this starts to shift. Consumption and commodification become commonplace, and the wedding industry begins to gain power. Professional caterers, stationers, jewelers, and early wedding planners and consultants emerge, and wedding chapels, hotels, and halls become popular. In addition, departments stores consolidated the wedding planning process, offering the bride “one-stop shopping” to pick up her trousseau, wedding gown, jewelry, and other wedding-related essentials.
Marketing, advertising, and the lures of consumption have all been instrumental in the growing popularity of the white wedding. Today, the wedding has become “democratized,” evolving in a way that allows families who aren’t part of the “social elite” to take part.
And Etiquette Matters Why…?
A second thing that I noticed in my research was the centrality of wedding etiquette. Etiquette writers have been instrumental in outlining acceptable practices for the wedding. Over the years, they have written about the rules that tell us how brides and grooms should behave, how the groom-to-be should propose, which gifts are appropriate, and other elements of social interaction.
Why is this important? Because the rules of etiquette articulate the norms and standards that govern the wedding. The guidelines that we operate under today can be traced, at the very least, to the 1920s, when both etiquette books and the white wedding were booming with popularity.
During this period, the white wedding is considered the most appropriate way to marry in the United States for families of taste. For people aspiring to climb the social ladder, planning and executing a white wedding was one means of displaying refinement. The etiquette book became invaluable for training families in the normative rules that structured the ritual. As we see above, “June brides” were encouraged to purchase copies of Emily Post’s Etiquette in order to plan weddings that were “conventionally correct in every detail.”
Next Week: Emily Post
And speaking of Emily Post, she’ll be the focus of next week’s Thesis Thursday column, where I dig into her biography, discuss her role as the “voice of the 1920s”, and share a few tidbits from her 1922 bestseller, Etiquette.