Lena Corazon

Flights of Fancy

Thesis Thursdays: Here Comes the Bride

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.

A snippet of the "Beach Wedding" spreadsheet, circa 2001.  Definitely NOT a fan of those dresses anymore.

A snippet of my "beach wedding" spreadsheet, circa 2001. Definitely NOT a fan of those dresses today.

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

Conseulo Vanderbilt was one of the few who could afford a grand fete, as seen here in this illustration of her wedding to the Duke of Marlborough, 1895

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 New York Times Advertisement for Emily Post's "Etiquette," 1925

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.

9 Comments

  1. I love this weeks Thesis Thursdays installment! I have several friends getting married and the etiquette and ‘way things should be done’ is quite a common topic of conversation for us, usually how to bend traditional etiquette to get what they want whilst trying to keep everyone happy! Really interesting.

    I love the ideas of your wedding spreadsheets! I am being a bridesmaid for the fourth time in December (I am hoping by going over the 3 times a bridesmaid never a bride I am counter-acting it!) and love the whole process of planning weddings and the decisions to be made. Often I am glad I a not the one having to make the decisions though!

    • It’s crazy to me how wedding etiquette seems to have become even more important than in previous years, at least judging from the number of tv shows, books, and magazines about how to stage the “perfect” wedding, Oh, and I highly recommend spreadsheets! Another tool that I’ve been using is pinterest.com, where you can create a virtual ‘pinboard’ of pictures found online. I’ve made a few wedding boards, more for the fun of it.

  2. Jamila ~
    This is just a great post! I enjoyed it so much that I can certainly see why you chose it for a thesis topic. I absolutely adored sociology in college! At that time, (it was the late 1980’s) women were denied access to many jobs in the military. After taking the ASVAB and scoring high enough to qualify to sit for the nuclear program exam, I was informed that that option would not be available to me. Why? Because I had girl parts! (Ahhhh, not girl parts!! Whatever shall we do if someone with breasts boards a ship with all those ‘man-parts? She’ll likely go insane. Become hysterical….okay, enough…lol) Of course, I was upset. My father was more upset (which is funny because before his ‘baby-girl’ was shut down he probably would have given a soap-box speech of why it was not a good idea for women to be on a ship….Ha!) I decided to attend college. I took a sociology class…and eventually wrote a paper on the subject. It remained my favorite class throughout college. Keep up the Thesis Thursday posts! ~ Nadja

    • Nadja, I’m so happy that you enjoyed the post, and I’m glad to have a fellow sociology-lover around. I got a chance to attend a conference at West Point some years ago, and since then I’ve been fascinated by gender and the military. My advisor also co-wrote a really interesting article on the portrait of women in military film, and found that a lot of what you’re talking about has been captured on screen over the past 70 or so years.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  3. So interesting! I’ve never analyzed a Brides mags before but you’re so right! I’ve been married twice and never had a ‘wedding’. And I’m fine with that- but when I watch Say Yes to the Dress I get teary eyed when the find the right dress.

    • Alica, thanks for dropping by! It’s so funny – I have my critiques of the lavish wedding (especially in terms of cost), but I have a weakness for a beautiful gown!

  4. Wonderful, interesting post, Jamila! I knew that no one had big weddings in the middle ages (well maybe, the royalty), but I didn’t know how recent they were. I’ve read that engagement rings were a marketing trend dreamed up by De Beers, probably at the same period of time.

    Looking forward to Emily Post–as a good Southern girl, I read her quite early and often (although I was enough of a rebel not to follow her! Shh! Don’t tell anyone)

    • The DeBeers campaign is probably one of the most successful of all time, and it was a woman who came up with the slogan, “A diamond is forever.”

      I’m really looking forward to writing the Emily Post bio. The original 1922 edition is utterly charming, and her observations are hilarious. Better yet, she was really able to allay a lot of the fears that abounded about young people.

  5. I’m really impressed with your writing skills and also with the layout on your weblog. Is this a paid theme or did you customize it yourself? Either way keep up the excellent quality writing, it is rare to see a great blog like this one today..

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