Brides, Inc.: American weddings and the business of tradition.
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Subject:||Books (Book reviews)|
|Publication:||Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2008 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529|
|Issue:||Date: Summer, 2008 Source Volume: 41 Source Issue: 4|
|Topic:||NamedWork: Brides, Inc.: American Weddings and the Business of Tradition (Book)|
|Persons:||Reviewee: Howard, Vicki|
Brides, Inc.: American Weddings and the Business of Tradition. By
Vicki Howard (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. 306
Tradition is a powerful idea, particularly when it comes to weddings in America. Many brides are enticed by the notion that they are following in the footsteps of their mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers when they choose to wear a white gown, marry in a formal ceremony, and have a large, public wedding celebration. However, as Vicki Howard thoroughly documents in Brides, Inc: American Weddings and the Business of Tradition, the common practice of marrying in this way is relatively recent and is largely the result of the influence of a powerful and savvy wedding industry. Though it began to develop in the late nineteenth century, it was not until the twentieth century when a wedding industry began to flourish, and not until the mid-twentieth century when it became accessible to brides from varied racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. For most of American history, weddings were private affairs, planned by family, which lacked ritualized conventions. Elite families had large formal weddings that served as an indicator of social status. The shift from home based, communal weddings to public and eventually lavish celebrations was not accomplished easily by pioneering wedding professionals. Major social changes in the twentieth century, such as the Depression, the Second World War, and the postwar era of prosperity, set the climate in which industry workers had to create convincing rhetoric in favor of a consumerist wedding.
Bride's, Inc. focuses on the rise and development of five main types of wedding businesses: jewelers, bridal magazines, department stores, bridal consultants and the fashion industry, and caterers. In the latter 19th and throughout the 20th century entrepreneurs in these industries found ways to counter ideologies that criticized lavish wedding spending and to create new traditions that legitimized excess and indulgence. Jewelers introduced the idea of the diamond engagement ring in the 1880s--a change from the previous custom where couples simply declared their intention to marry or married without a formalized engagement period--and actively promoted it with print and film advertising campaigns throughout the subsequent half century. Jewelers were also responsible for promoting the groom's wedding band and the "double ring ceremony" at a time when rising affluence and changes in attitudes about women's place in marriage were beginning to blossom. Groom's rings were marketed to women as a way of symbolically marking their claim on future husbands. Bridal magazines published standards for wedding etiquette and practice, disseminating ideas about how one should marry and how guests should comport themselves at weddings throughout the country. As media accessibility increased, brides-to-be looked to these magazines as a means of determining what was right, what was wrong, and what was traditional, buying into traditions that had been cultivated by the industry for the purpose of increasing profits. As the twentieth century progressed, the publishers of these magazines began to devote the majority of pages to advertisements and the interests of advertisers carried over into editorial content. Thus, a financial motive governed what was declared to be fashionable. This practice was similar among bridal consultants and professionals in the gown industry. When it was evident that wearing an heirloom gown meant no new gown would be purchased, for example, industry professionals suggested that the bride deserved her own gown, a new gown, and criticized the former practice. Department stores developed wedding salons and employed consultants to help socialize customers as to proper etiquette and encourage the purchase of wedding and new household necessities. These consultants directed brides to request and eventually register for "essential" items under the dictate of tradition--a practice that resulted in wedding gifts being purchased primarily from one store. Finally, as the custom became to have public weddings, businesses were established to prepare and host receptions. Although initially only the elite had wedding celebrations at private clubs or hotels, large community halls were frequently rented by working class and immigrant families during the twentieth century.
Howard's book is distinct from other recent books on American weddings in several ways. First, her coverage of the business of weddings is unparalleled. Howard provides excellent historical accounts of specific merchants and retailers and, using archives and records, documents how such companies grew successful businesses, carefully modifying ideas about tradition. The book is filled with fascinating anecdotes regarding the tactics companies used to address societal attitudes about wedding spending, commercialization of tradition, and changing gender roles. For example, during the Second World War, jewelers advertised groom's rings as symbols of patriotism, freedom, liberty, and what the troops were fighting to protect. Another strength and unique aspect of Howard's study is her racially inclusive coverage of the wedding industry. Middle and working class African Americans who were largely restricted from using services offered to white engaged couples developed their own businesses that gradually filtered into more mainstream organizations. In some cases, African American owned businesses were pioneers in aspects of the wedding industry. For example, Howard describes how black men were central in the catering trade in cities like Philadelphia and New York in the early nineteenth century. These men and their families built strong businesses that served elite clientele and set standards in the formalizing the field. Similarly, Howard addresses the perspective of the workers in this industry, having interviewed and researched the way the industry developed and how it gave marginalized employees, like white women and minority men and women, an opportunity for a stable and socially acceptable career.
Bride's, Inc is a critical read for anyone interested in tradition, the wedding industry, or women's social history during the 19th and 20th centuries. Replete with engaging reprints of advertisements, photographs from department store displays and wedding venues, this book is an excellent documentation of the arguably most popular American social ritual. Readers will learn that taken for granted traditions were born of the work of profit-driven entrepreneurs, rather than having centuries-old significance.
Penn State University, Abington
|Gale Copyright:||Copyright 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.|