Published by EH.NET (February 2007)

Vicki Howard, _Brides Inc.: American Weddings and the Business of Tradition_. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. 306 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8122-3945-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Janice M. Traflet, Department of Management, Bucknell University.

In _Brides Inc._, Vicki Howard details in thought-provoking fashion the evolution of the wedding industry in the United States. Certainly, it is no surprise to learn that weddings have become big business. Yet, rather surprisingly, few scholars have attempted to explain how or why this $70 billion industry came to be. Painstakingly researched, Howard’s book well illustrates how the “traditional” white wedding became an entrenched consumer rite during the twentieth century and how a massive industry grew up around it.

Conceivably, the book could have been organized chronologically, with chapters devoted to wedding culture during the Depression, the Cold War, the Sixties, etc. Instead, Howard chooses a more creative and more illuminating structure: she organizes her chapters around the chronology of the wedding process itself, from the initial steps of choosing rings to later decisions, like the hiring of a bridal consultant and the selection of the proper catering venue. Essentially, then, each chapter constitutes a mini-history of some element of the wedding industry. This organizational structure works effectively to highlight the many types of businesses which are involved with the wedding process. Howard emphasizes not just the role played by mass retailers, but also the roles of smaller firms, and, perhaps most interestingly, “kitchen capitalists” — those individuals, often women, who labor in their homes to perform a range of services for the bride.

While Howard does a commendable job of bringing into focus these many players, at the same time, she does not lose sight of the bigger picture. Constantly, throughout the book, she grapples with a fundamental question: how did weddings — traditionally considered by most Americans to be a private institution if not also a sacred one — morph into the highly commercialized phenomenon that exists today?

As Howard expertly highlights, it was no easy task for businesses to supplant certain older wedding practices (which often held religious and ethnic significance) with newer ones that held more profit potential for them. Doing so required the creation of “invented traditions,” to borrow historian Eric Hobsbawm’s phrase. To make new practices (like diamond engagement rings and the groom’s band) acceptable and desirable, the wedding industry needed to make them appear as if they were rooted in ancient customs. At the same time, the industry also sought to subtly encourage the public to jettison practices that were not conducive to growing their businesses — such as the bride wearing an heirloom ring or a handed-down dress.

Perhaps what’s most remarkable about this story is the amazing success of the wedding industry in propagating, despite obstacles, a new and ever-changing mass vision of what the “traditional” American wedding should look like. At various historical junctures, the vitality of the industry theoretically could have weakened — but it didn’t. Despite a critical shortage of diamonds and other raw materials in World War II, for instance, the relatively new practice of giving diamond engagement rings persevered, as did the buying of white wedding gowns, increasingly for one-time usage. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the industry, in part by making some changes, also withstood criticisms by feminists that it (along with the marriage institution itself) exploited women. Today, as Howard’s last chapter discusses, the wedding industry is still vibrant, in part because it is continually being reinvented.

It is interesting to contemplate (as Howard does) the degree to which consumers had the power to accept or reject the wedding industry’s “strategies of enticement,” to borrow William Leach’s term. Howard insists, “Women, who were understood to be the main consumers of wedding-related goods and services, were not mere victims of advertising and merchandising campaigns, nor did they simply accept wedding industry advice uncritically” (p. 5). In one example of a failed “invented tradition,” the male engagement ring never caught on, in part because it was unable to transcend contemporary gender mores. Howard also emphasizes the ways in which women, not just men, historically have been involved in marketing wedding products and services.

Finally, it is worthy to note that, in many ways, the act of consumption (not just production) can be construed as an act of marketing. The famous marketing guru Philip Kotler once wrote, “Buyers are Marketers, too.” While Howard seems to implicitly recognize this (as she does spend some time detailing how consumers participated in the industry’s transformation), she readily acknowledges that her book focuses on the “producers” in the story. This angle, though, actually works very well to illuminate many aspects of the development of the wedding industry that previously have not been closely examined.

Well-written and engaging, _Brides Inc._ is a welcome addition to the fields of twentieth-century business as well as cultural history.

Janice Traflet is Assistant Professor of Marketing at Bucknell University. She is currently writing a book on the NYSE.