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Great Expectations


Photo: Cele Otnes

Originally published in Illinois Alumni Magazine (May/June 2010)
by Mary Timmins

In spring the fancy turns to thoughts of $8,000 strapless Vera Wang gowns and catered dinners with distant relatives whose names may be a matter of uncertainty. Perhaps a horse-drawn carriage floats by, as a full orchestra plays accompaniment to Pavarotti-caliber baritonals. Maybe the happy couple wing off to a five-figure honeymoon in the Seychelles. And not to forget the father of the bride, wincing over the bill.

Ah, the sheer ecstasy, the incomparable stress of the wedding day, that open-ended fantasy of the American girl and credit-bending bugaboo of the American guy (so often her indulgent Dad). Morphed into tradition along a fairly bizarre, two-century pathway, the grand nuptial expectations that drive mothers of the brides crazy and keep wedding planners busy have drawn inspiration from icons as diverse as Queen Victoria, Elizabeth Taylor and Barbie. Thence has arisen a paradigm so complex it takes a $40 billion-a-year industry to realize it and researchers from the University of Illinois to investigate it.

A UI marketing professor, Cele Otnes studies how people get married. (Why people get married remains the purview of the psychology department.) As a bride herself, she says, “I had a very nice wedding. But it was nowhere near the scale of a lot of weddings I’ve been to.” As a kind of wedding planner – her research is of interest both to consumers and vendors of all things to do with The Big Day – she has been to nuptial ceremonies all over the world, checking out the potent symbiosis between ritual and spending in America.

While that symbiosis may seem headed over the top, Otnes has no interest in passing judgment. “In contemporary consumer culture, one of the ways people find meaning in their lives and build their identity is through combinations of goods and services,” she says. “That’s just a fact.”

Maybe the phrase “goods and services” doesn’t exactly evoke the drama of Bridezilla and her lust for friends coming down the aisle in matching bridesmaid frocks otherwise unthinkable for wearing in public. But “we need to have our day where we feel like there’s magic in the world,” Otnes explains. “Until recently, weddings were one of the few days where you could practice guilt-free, excessive consumption.”

Consumption with a regal ancestor –  England’s Queen Victoria. Scary! When the quintessentially British regent married her beloved Albert in 1840, she indulged in her most favorite of pastimes – changing the course of history. While European aristocrats had heretofore favored marriage clothing of brocade and velvet, Victoria opted for a gown of white satin – the color her age famously allied to the feminine “purity” with which it was obsessed.

This, and a welter of other fascinating revelations in sizes large and small, is the stuff of “Cinderella Dreams – The Allure of the Lavish Wedding,” which Otnes co-wrote in 2003 with UI colleague Liz Pleck. Pleck, a history professor, connotes the lust for nuptial extravagance as itself a kind of marriage, one of “romantic love and love of consumer culture.

“Put them together,” she observes, “and you’ve got a lavish wedding.”

Curiously, the next nuptial watershed after Victoria’s breakthrough extravaganza was the Great Depression, an era when, according to Pleck, “the temporary decline in lavishness led to pent-up demand.” Out of this thwarted desire streamed mothers of the bride by the legion, determined that their daughters would sport, as they had not, long gowns and diamond engagement rings.

Help also came from the entertainment industry. The 1950 film “Father of the Bride” depicts Spencer Tracy in the title role as he faces the comedic angst of a perfect (and costly) wedding for his daughter, played by Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor, engaged to hotel heir Conrad Hilton Jr., even timed her own real-life wedding (first of eight, at most recent count) to coincide with the release of the film. From “It Happened One Night” to “The Graduate,” Hollywood has gone to the chapel many, many times.

And television anointed a whole new vanguard of wedding dreams when the late Diana Spencer married Prince Charles on July 29, 1981, in a London event broadcast to the world. That whole ’60s-’70s counterculture thing of getting married in a meadow with a bouquet of daisies? Swamped by pomp, circumstance and a beautiful young glitterati-to-be trailing 25 feet of ivory satin as she stepped from her horse-drawn coach into (seemingly) a fairy-tale future.

That didn’t work out as advertised. But what Diana Spencer did do at St. Paul’s Cathedral – nigh on 30 years ago – was to embody the fantasies of a whole generation of young women. Many of them had grown up projecting such dreams onto their Barbie dolls, which could and did get transformed into brides – thanks to the Wedding Day Set, a perennial best-seller for manufacturer Mattel.

These and other influences – from the romance novels of the Brontë sisters to the animated fairy tales of Walt Disney – have ultimately conspired to put the wedding cart before the wedding horse. Otnes tells of being on a radio talk show one morning when a 27-year-old woman called to tell of how she and her friends had all bought wedding dresses. Slight hitch with further plans, though – nobody had a boyfriend.

“[The caller] asked, ‘Isn’t this pitiful?’” Otnes recalls. “But what it really signifies is that we feel entitled to the wedding whether we have a groom or not.”

Meanwhile, reality has a way of intruding on even the greatest expectations, and the recession of the early 2000s is nothing if not real. Restraint has been invited to the ceremony and, more pointedly, to the reception. “The average cost of a wedding was approaching $30,000 before the recession. Now we’re down to $20,000,” observes Otnes.  

“That’s quite a drop.”

Bridal magazines have responded, Otnes, says, with a “flurry of article on how to cut back on your wedding.”  Not that long ago, the idea of getting married on a budget would have been “stigmatized as a sort of ‘el cheapo,’” she notes. “Now it’s very mainstream to do this.”

Square in the middle of the chopping block is the sit-down dinner. “There was some unwritten rule,” Otnes explains, “that you’re supposed to spend the same amount on it [the dinner] as you think they [the guests] spend on your wedding present. I know people who spend a good $75 to $100 sometimes on wedding gifts. So that really speaks volumes about what you’re supposed to turn around and spend on your reception.” But now “the sitdown dinner has loosened its grip.”

While unwritten rules may have goaded wedding ideals up the paths of extravagance, rules are, as the caveat goes, made to be broken. “I think it empowers you as a consumer to understand that, well, this whole business about two months’ salary for an engagement ring was made up by DeBeers [the South African diamond retailer],” Otnes observes.

“Nobody’s going to send you to wedding jail if you don’t have your engagement ring as a certain size.”

She concludes that “people are very insecure about planning these large, complex, highly socially visible events. They feel their parents’ reputations are on the line. … There’s a lot of pressure.”

Citing the Puritans, Pleck, for her part sees the wedding de luxe as the outcome of “a deep American tradition.

“You spend it, and then you feel guilty about it.”

Visit the following links for more information:
Cele Otnes Profile (
Alumni Association (


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