Weddings and Spectacle

In the early and mid 19th century, wedding guests used to shower the newlywed couple with rice and shoes as they departed on their honeymoon, or as it was often called at the time, wedding journey. That’s right, shoes.

This practice fell out of popularity in the late 19th century, partially due to restrictions from railways. An article in the September 1897 issue of The Ladies’ Home Journal praised a New York City railroad company for banning the throwing of rice and shoes at its terminal. One would assume the reason for the ban was the mess of rice littered all over the platform, but the author focused on the disturbing undercurrent of overwrought emotions and threat of violence as a reason to restrict the practice. The author laments the devolution of what was once a sweet, sentimental and elegant practice:

We have not been able to keep these graceful customs within their bounds. The little papers of rice have become large handfuls… hurled with force into the faces of the bride and groom… The sentiment of the customs has been lost. (“Rice and Shoes at Weddings,” 14)

The author continues on about the dangers of this excessive fervor, recalling one incident in which a bride suffered permanent damage to her eyes as the result of overly rambunctious rice-throwing. This article is just one of many from the time expressing disapproval of the presence of spectacle in weddings, which threatens to lure out malicious, invidious emotions among the guests. The wedding ceremony is supposed to be a celebration of unity and community, but the “Rice and Shoes at Weddings” article suggests that the modern guest has introduced discord and violence, resulting in a rupture with tradition.

Similar arguments were used in the early 19th century against public executions; many feared that overwrought emotions would override the rational thinking individual and transform the gathered spectators into a passionately violent mob. The presence of strangers in the gatherings that formed around railroad platforms, spectators hoping to get a glimpse of the bride in her travelling costume, also added to the anxiety. In William Dean Howells’ first novel Their Wedding Journey, the newlywed couple discusses their embarrassment at being recognized as “bridal,” and they create a sort of game in which they try to act like a long-married couple on an anniversary trip, rather than their wedding journey. Howells deliberately avoids any discussion of the wedding in order to focus on the marriage; the novel ends with the couple’s happiness to return home and settle into the normalcy of marriage, free of the excessive sentiment and spectacle of the wedding.

In the early 19th century, the wedding was a fairly low-key, community-based event, but around the 1870s, more elements of the wedding were on public display; the bride’s trousseau was often available for semi-public viewing, the rising standard of formality required a special white wedding dress, and rings were a newly incorporated tradition. All of these symbolical elements were also objects of public attention and fascination. These elements also introduced the market, and the accompanying skepticism of capitalism as irrational, into the wedding. Pecuniary display is part of the aesthetic of the wedding, and cause for moral discomfort. Other articles attempt to conceal the monetary aspect of weddings by overcompensating with the sentimental components; the anxiety of “Rice and Shoes at Weddings,” then, is that, if sentiment is
lost, the commercial aspect will dominate the wedding and threaten marriage and the family-based society. The conspicuous, glamorous bride threatens to supplant the wife, and the ephemeral, picturesque ideal of the wedding displaces the stability of marriage.

In another article, published in 1895 in The Ladies’ Home Journal, Reverend Charles H. Parkhurst insists that “the meaning and sanctity of marriage is badly enfeebled by being brought into the market and made a matter of trade and dicker” (Parkhurst 15). Thorstein Veblen describes marriage as a financial transaction in The Theory of the Leisure Class. For Veblen, the wife herself is a symbol of conspicuous consumption; women are, traditionally, charged with displaying the economic prosperity of their husbands by refraining from labor. The bride is even more impractical and a sign of conspicuous consumption, in her white dress, her jewels, her flowers.

The public and domestic spheres blur in the commodification and spectacle of weddings, which recall other points of contact more overtly threatening such as women’s entry into the public sphere as voters. Blaming the wedding ceremony for the failures of marriage is a way to avoid the very real Marriage Question of the 1890s, which, as Sarah Grand explains in “The New Aspect of the Woman Question,” was inextricably bound to the Woman Question. Women’s possible rejection of wifehood and motherhood as oppressive and unsatisfying threatens the core of the social structure; resultantly, the wedding ceremony grows increasingly sentimentalized, elaborate, and extravagant to reinforce the centrality of marriage and the family. These changes in the wedding ceremony, however, make marriage’s contamination by the market even more overt, thus provoking further anxiety over the survival of marriage and the effectiveness of weddings as community events.

Similar anxieties over excess in weddings (both material and emotional) persist today, especially the undertones of materialism and spectacle. The wedding industry has exploded and the average cost of a wedding has grown exponentially (and so have divorce rates). TV shows like Bridezillas, Four Weddings, and Who’s Wedding is it Anyway? inundate the wedding with drama, material expectation, performance and competition. I think that the concerns and criticisms surrounding weddings in the late 19th century and those surrounding weddings today reflect a general anxiety about the state of marriage at both points in history. In the late 19th century, it was the Woman Question and fears over an emasculated, effete western culture. Now, the high rate of divorce, the fact that fewer Americans are choosing to marry, and the push for gay marriage rights have raised anxieties over the relevance of marriage as an institution and departure from established traditions. As a result, the wedding ceremony is again saturated with spectacle to allay those fears and instead fixate on creating an image of perfection.

Works Cited:

Parkhurst, Rev. Charles H. “Marriage and its Safeguards.” The Ladies’ Home Journal 12.8 (July 1895).

“Rice and Shoes at Weddings.” The Ladies’ Home Journal 14.10 (September 1897).

Advertisements

Inventing Traditions: White Wedding

White has become an essential symbol of everything bridal, culminating, of course, in the requisite white wedding dress. Wearing white on one’s wedding day has been subsumed into a cultural narrative of timeless tradition; we associate the white gown as a symbol of the bride’s sexual purity before consummating her marriage, a color of hope and peace. In reality, the color white’s association with brides, and especially with the wedding gown, has much more to do with conspicuous consumption and spectacle than virginity. Renaissance wedding dresses were usually green, a symbol of fertility, and throughout the 18th and most of the 19th centuries, wedding dresses came in a wide variety of colors. Some were white, but it wasn’t the exclusively expected color for a bride to wear; purple, deep blue, brown, red, and gold were also popular colors. The white wedding first became a sensation, and was then quickly incorporated as a tradition rich with symbolism, with Queen Victoria’s 1840 nuptials.

Detail of George Hayter’s painting of Victoria and Albert’s wedding

Queen Victoria’s white gown and her attendants’ white formal attire sparked admiration and imitation in the upper classes; newspapers emphasized the elegance of the all-white wedding. The white formal wear of Victoria’s wedding was more of a show of extravagance White dresses were more obviously luxury items; dirt, stains and age show quickly on light, non-patterned fabrics. This trend would grow in popularity among the middle classes as mass-produced textiles lowered clothing prices. More brides could purchase ready-made white gowns from major retailers in the latter half of the 19th century, and so the white wedding gradually became the standard.

For most of the 19th century, the majority of American brides wore their Sunday best on their wedding day, a dress that was often worn several times throughout a woman’s life for special occasions. Early 19th century Americans typically had very few clothes, especially before the technology of the Industrial Revolution made cotton easier to harvest and spin, so a separate dress to wear on a single occasion was extremely impractical. Even by mid-century, the wedding dress was not worn exclusively for the wedding, and colored dresses were still very popular.

Wedding dress

1812 wedding dress

Wedding dress

1860 wedding dress

 

Wedding dress

1869 wedding dress

Clearly, the two dresses from the 1860s are much more elaborate and formal, even if one is darker in color. This reflects a change in the formality of the wedding ceremony. Several women’s magazine articles from the 1880s and 1890s are dedicated to creating elegant wedding decor (often including elaborate floral arrangements, intricately crocheted doilies, special lighting, and false walls to cover fireplaces and wood stoves). The purpose of these home decorative elements in the wedding were to remove the practical aspects of the home for the wedding. Early 19th century weddings usually took place in the church and included the entire congregation; exclusivity did not become an issue until home weddings grew in popularity in the postbellum era. This was a source of criticism and lamentation from the older generation that viewed these more private, but also more spectacular, ceremonies as excessive.  An extravagant and romanticized wedding day was seen as a mockery of the marriage vows’ solemnity and poor preparation for the drudgery of running a household, the impending possibility of childbirth, and the responsibilities that came with the change in social status. The elaborate scenery (most periodicals offer suggestions for transforming a parlor into a romantic “bower” complete with trees, copious amounts of flowers, fairy lights, and flower-studded netting to cover the walls) and the obviously luxurious dress intended for single use sharply separate the wedding day from the life into which the newlywed couple is entering. The white wedding is another step toward specialty and luxury, but was quickly incorporated into a narrative of purity and tradition, so that by the turn of the century, nearly all brides wore white, even poor brides. For example, William Dean Howells’ 1895 novella The Day of Their Wedding follows a Shaker couple who escape from their celibate community with the intent of eloping. They have virtually no money, but the young bride Althea is able to purchase a white dress.  Althea balks at the extravagance of purchasing a new dress strictly for the purpose of the ceremony, but her groom Lorenzo insists; he is well aware of the social standards and throughout the story, he convinces Althea to adhere to these expectations, in order to do things “right.” The white wedding was one of those assumed cultural standards to which all brides were expected to conform. Today, a non-white wedding dress is considered “alternative”; even Jessica Biel’s pale pink gown was seen as a daring and unique wedding gown choice, though such a color would have been commonplace in the 1820s. The mass-production and standardization of clothing through the late 19th century, compounded by the increasingly elaborate standard for wedding ceremonies, resulted in white being the one and only color for a bride.

Image sources:

Victoria painting: http://thedreamstress.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/Victoria_and_Prince_Alberts_wedding.jpg

1812 wedding dress: http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/80013183

1860 wedding dress: http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/80035678

1869 wedding dress: http://www.metmuseum.org/collections/search-the-collections/80005673