This is the Story of the Wedding that Wasn’t

Shout out to my partner in the Most Successful IU Mentor-Mentee Pairing in the History of IU Mentor-Mentee Pairing (title self-appointed), BLS. She’s put me on to many resources for history and teaching and thinking about professional life more broadly, but she’s also put me on to any number of books, articles, and writers that have nothing to do with our shared profession (although it’s not uncommon for us to find a way to make them relatable). In particular, and for the purpose of this post, I’m thinking of Ann Patchett.

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Patchett’s most recent book, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, is a collection of her essays and articles previously published in magazines – with the exception of her introductory essay, which I could go on and on about, re: my love of her interchangeable use of the word “working” for “writing” and her unabashed celebration of a good work ethic. The article for which the collection is named tells the story of Patchett’s reluctance to marry Karl, her partner of eleven years, despite his on-going desire that the two should be wed. After a failed marriage as an early twenty-something, Patchett swore off the institution. When she met and began dating Karl, she insisted that they maintain separate homes, separate accounts, and semi-separate lives. It was only when Karl was diagnosed with a terminal heart condition that she relented. Ultimately, it turned out that he had been misdiagnosed and continued to live happily and healthily – and by then they were wed. And she was glad.

While listening to a Fresh Air interview with Patchett, I was struck by her discussion of the marriage, her resistance to entering into it, and what she ultimately concluded was the main thing she had been averse to: being a bride. In looking back, she asserted that she’d not been so nervous about the relationship or even the institution of marriage, not with this man or under the circumstances (all good) under which their relationship took place. She claimed she’d had no idea how nor any desire to navigate the expectations that come with having a wedding.

Way back when, in 1988, when she’d wed her first husband, their terrible wedding seemingly predestined their eventual split. After a proposal in which Patchett’s gut instinct was to say no before the question had even been popped (of his pulling out the ring, she writes “He might as well have pulled a knife.”), she and husband #1 lived together uneasily until she gave in. “Okay, we’ll do it,” she said, months after the initial attempted proposal. On the wedding day, she lost her shoes (never to be found); bees swarmed around the flowers in her hair; the cake melted in the heat; and the couple’s car broken down on the way out of town, eating up their honeymoon time and savings. The marriage lasted fourteen months.

That experience, along with the marriage itself (and a rich family history of failed marriages), put Patchett off marriage. And, it seems, off weddings. I imagine there’s a bit of hindsight to Patchett’s proclaimed aversion to the having and hosting of a wedding, and it may well be a hindsight that could only develop once a thing is said and done. Of her marriage to Karl, Patchett writes that his illness gave them a “get-out-of-jail-free card” when it came to a wedding. They purchased the marriage license, a Catholic priest friend dropped by their home to sign it, and they were married. That afternoon, Ann and Karl went out and bought a lawnmower. Having moved in, having gotten married, having avoided fanfare, Patchett wondered what she’d been waiting for.

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AP & Karl

I’ve thought of this story from a number of different angles. On the one hand, I love Ann and Karl’s simplistic approach to legalizing a pairing that worked pretty well as it was. But there’s something I can’t shake. Again, I suspect, to some degree, that Patchett’s claim on not wanting to be a bride may be a realization that came when she felt a sense of relief at not having had to be a bride. But the fact that such a smart, funny, together women who seems to have a pretty good idea of who she is and what she stands for (unless I am misreading her entirely in her essays) could feel cowed by contemporary wedding culture says something about just how overwhelming and seemingly monolithic and unrelenting that culture is. As someone who studies the history of American weddings – and dabbles in evaluating the modern business and culture of the celebration – I see variations in the styles of celebration and have argued that the wedding offers possibilities for any number of expressions. But I can appreciate how it appears not to.

All that said, I’d suggest that everyone has access to a “get-out-of-jail-free card” when it comes to weddings – and it doesn’t have to be used in the pursuit of *not* having a wedding. It can be used to justify any number of additions to or subtractions from the standard form. A wedding can look as much like the cultural ideal as one chooses – or it can be a different animal entirely. And I think this possibility of variation is something that is becoming increasingly common and, maybe even more importantly, increasingly accepted. When writing about how marriage changed things, Patchett writes that marrying Karl freed up so much time. They no longer had to discuss why they weren’t married – with each other or anyone else. My sense is that – for them – their reasons for eventually marrying were solid and, in some ways, were reasons that they needed not share. The public declaration a wedding affords was not essential. That’s fine, and I’m sure there are plenty of other couples who feel the same way. But for others, how wonderful that there is the wedding to allow them the chance to tell the people they love most just why they’ve decided to wed and what they think their lives will be like. And how sad to think that an understanding of the wedding as rigid and constrictive might cause some people to forego that opportunity altogether.

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Sometimes We Watch TV and Scream

And it’s not even always because we’re watching The Walking Dead.

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Last night, my husband called me into the TV room and deliberately rewound so I could watch this:

http://www.ispot.tv/ad/7fld/davids-bridal-the-invisible-man

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Why must he taunt me?

I get that there is this cultural thing going on in contemporary America that privileges wedding dresses above all other wedding accoutrement (I guess some people would argue that the ring is NUMBER ONE, but my money is still on the dress). I get that there is this on-going view of the wedding as “the bride’s day.” I see these trends. I accept that they exist. I hate them. And so: I use this blog to express my frustration with this advertisement (titled, “The Invisible Man” – gag) and its willful perpetuation of ideas I despise.

First: Grooms need not be “mere cog(s) in the wheel of…carefully choreographed wedding extravaganza(s).” The groom is future partner to the person he’s about to wed. As such, he should (and many grooms do) share responsibility in the careful choreographing of said extravaganza. Or he should feel free to say,“Hey, I’m not into the idea of our wedding as a ‘carefully choreographed’ anything, extravaganza or otherwise.”And if he’s about to marry the right person, that person will say “I get it. What kind of celebration can we plan that will make us both happy?”

Second: Sometimes grooms marry grooms. And then – uh-oh. There’s no bride for the wedding to be all about. And there’s no dress to take up the absent bride’s attention. SIDENOTE: Trust me: I get that same-sex partners can embrace non-normative gender titles and appearance – but for the sake of argument, let’s say no bride, no dress. What then? The wedding doesn’t matter? Chyrs Ingraham critiqued the wedding-industrial complex years ago, and paid particular attention to the heterosexist element of American wedding culture. To some degree, with the growing legalization of same-sex unions, the heterosexism of traditional wedding expectations is more apparent than ever. And from my point of view, it makes the wedding industry’s attempt to grasp at tired wedding absolutes look terribly old-fashioned and out of date (ahem, David’s Bridal).

Third: Brides are not an absolute lump category. Just like we in the history biz can’t say “American women” and feel fine that we’ve covered our bases talking about what ALL WOMEN thought, how they acted, or what they valued, we can’t say “brides” and feel like we’ve got a catch-all terms on our hands. Newsflash wedding industry: women/brides have different goals and intentions as they prepare for their weddings and their marriages. Because weddings have been my point of research – and to some degree, my professional bread and butter – I’ve tried not to digress to the personal in these posts. But here and now I share this: I bought a wedding dress from J. Crew that a) was among the cheapest they had available; b) I could get at 30% (I think) off because I would’ve spent above $100; c) they would ship to my house and I would never have to go into a wedding gown store; d) I thought would be fine. What I wanted: something much more vintage-y that fell just below the knees, had tea-length sleeves, and was not white. Is that what I got? No way. Why? Because I didn’t value getting the dress I had in my mind’s eye enough to spend the time and resources looking for it. What I did value: checking “get wedding dress” off my list. I report the following: Wedding dress ~ Good enough; Wedding day ~ Awesome; Marriage ~ Still going strong. For me, for others, it definitively was *not* “all about the dress.”

I get that David’s Bridal, which essentially is the Costco of bridal boutiques (it feels wrong to use “boutique” here, but I will), probably isn’t particularly interested in rocking the boat, re: mainstream views of contemporary American weddings. But I do think the company could tap into something more exciting and more relevant in the world of wedding culture. When brides and grooms of the 1960s and 1970s decided they would “do their own thing,” that they would personalize their celebrations to reflect who they were and what they thought, the Grand Dame of the wedding dress industry Priscilla Kidder – who had made her name and fortune with 1950s-era brides – started using language about how weddings and gowns could be unique and reflect the individual. And she sold more dresses. The traditional market was still there – but the new market responded to her savvy tactics. My sense is that the many businesses that comprise the contemporary wedding industry would do well to take stock of evolutions in wedding populations and styles of celebration and shape their messages to fit the modern age. My guess is that even the “traditional” celebrants would see the appeal.

A West Point Wedding – not “just like every other wedding”

I read numerous headlines this week marking the wedding of two West Point graduates at the Military Academy’s famed Gothic Cadet Chapel. Fantastic. Dancing on the graves of DOMA and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell at the same time. Two birds with one stone. (p.s. And good for the lesbian couples who wed at the Point last year.) But something in the coverage gave me pause. I had to stop and scratch my head when I read groom Larry Choate’s statement about the wedding: “It’s going to be just like every other wedding there, except probably a lot smaller and no bride.” I don’t think so, Larry.

Years ago, when I wrote about the role weddings played in black Americans’ sense of citizenship and national belonging (“Ceremony and Citizenship: African-American Weddings, 1945-1960,” Gender and History 21 [August 2009], 402-24.), I emphasized West Point weddings as particularly symbolic. Hosting a wedding at potentially the most elite educational institution in the United States, thereby demonstrating belonging as part of its esteemed community, clearly marks a couple as celebrated members of the larger body politic. The upwardly mobile and striving black middle class celebrated these weddings as they read about them in issues of Jet and Ebony (Jet, June 18, 1953; Jet, June 23, 1955; Ebony, September 1953). Coverage in these periodicals – both of which strove to highlight black Americans’ inclusion in the postwar American way of life – suggested that these weddings were notable and worthy of public accolade. The celebrations indicated mainstream acceptance of black achievement and respectability and suggested a move toward greater racial equality.

To suggest that a wedding of two men at West Point is “just like every other wedding there” ignores the fact that a gay wedding on the Military Academy’s campus very clearly marks a sea change in both institutional and public perceptions of same-sex love and marriage equality. My sense is that two men who attended West Point and are now attending and employed by Harvard Business School are two men who maybe don’t love the idea of rocking the boat. I suspect they’re happy to celebrate their relationship’s similarity to mainstream notions of coupledom rather than calling attention to their obvious difference. But here’s the thing about gay weddings – still, I argue, even with the marriage equality advances taking place: when there’s no bride or no groom, the wedding EMPHATICALLY is not like “every other wedding” regardless of where it’s held. The absence of one of these formerly major players changes the game and makes the wedding explicitly political, not to mention pretty clearly different from what most people expect. And to be honest, this change, with its openness and acceptance and the tremendous difference it signifies in public views and public policy from only a few short years ago, is well worth celebrating.

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Larry Choate III and Daniel Lennox

Second (or Third) Time’s the Charm?

In recent radio interviews I’ve done, a number of callers have mentioned how their second weddings were far better than their first. They felt more ownership over the celebrations and found them to be more meaningful. This, I suppose, could be a result of the advanced age of the celebrants the second time around, or it could be that second-timers have learned from their mistakes. Or, ideally, it could be a result of marrying a more suitable partner. In any case, the world of second (or more) weddings is a topic that keeps coming up.

I thought this summer might be the long-awaited Brangelina wedding, or that Jen Aniston and Justin Theroux might tie the knot (it would be the first marriage only for Theroux). But those couples seem to be hedging their bets – and keeping quiet on when the celebrations might take place. Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, very recently engaged, may beat them all to the altar. I’m thrilled with their engagement for the wedding talk it undoubtedly will generate – and very curious to see how they proceed. On the one hand, there’s a suggestion that the two are moving toward a modicum of privacy in their private lives as they’ve done well to limit baby North’s public exposure. But then, there’s Kim’s postpartum selfie. And a stadium proposal. So the possibility exists that we could have another Kardashian wedding extravaganza on our hands.

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My sense is that in the past, a second wedding, particularly one conducted after a divorce, necessitated an almost subdued celebration style. But I think the sentiment that suggests a couple go low key if one or the other has already been married is increasingly becoming something of a relic. Similarly, whereas when a bride was of an advanced age, say over 35 (advanced, obviously, only in the scare-women-into-marriage-as-quickly-as-possible wedding world of mid-century [when, really, 25 was considered “advanced]), the expectation was that she forgo the pomp and circumstance, trading in childish bridal dreams for a sensible suit and simple ceremony. That notion has gone the way of the dinosaur. Expectations of wedding celebrations, like American culture as a whole, have changed. Whereas public sentiment about what a person should do once held much greater sway, the private desires of what a person wants to do now reign supreme.

In any case, I think the public is inclined to give second-timers a pass, particularly when they move toward simpler, more heartfelt celebrations. There is likely to be less judgment of a couple when the second shot at love seems authentic. I wonder what that will mean for Kimye. Kanye generally leans toward theatrical while Kim’s wedding to Kris Humphries (her second marriage) was nothing less than a spectacle, with its corporate sponsorship, subsequent E! broadcasts, and multi-paged coverage in national print media. I doubt that either will push for a quiet celebration of closest family and friends, off the beaten path, outside the public eye. But if their natures and their trades lead them toward spectacle, is their union any less legitimate than those who scale back on the second take? Is it fair to doubt the authenticity of their romance? And if the second (or third) time is the charm, and the love feels truer and more real, what should stop a couple from celebrating in a style of their choosing? I realize Kim is the woman who cried love once already – and very publicly (and after a first failed marriage) – so those who have their doubts about the depth of the reality star’s affections have their reasons. But I’m curious to see which will prevail: amendments to wedding culture that allow for some flexibility and forgiveness or the tendency toward an increasingly mean-spirited overarching critique of American weddings and their celebrants (unnecessary, excessive spending, privileging the wedding over the marriage, etc., etc., etc.).

Maybe barbaric – but definitely not traditional

From Salon, October 8, 2013: “Engagement Rings are Barbaric” http://www.salon.com/2013/10/08/engagement_rings_are_barbaric_partner/

I appreciate the claims people make about the outdated customs associated with weddings – the giving away, the “obey” in vows, and in this case, the engagement ring. Clearly, the intention behind these symbols has changed over time. In that capacity, I say – as I’ve said before on this blog – let people do as they wish. Allow them to inject their chosen symbols with the meanings they see fit. I appreciate that many people would happily debate this point, claiming that embracing symbolic elements of the wedding perpetuates those elements’ original meanings, but my view is that the meaning attached to any symbol evolves over time. That’s a debate for another time.

Why I highlight the Salon article is because I actually think it is much better at highlighting how “traditional” parts of the wedding are not traditional at all. The wedding industry and related media marketed wedding customs as such and successfully expanded the wedding to be celebrated by an increasingly democratized post-World War II middle class. In my book, As Long As We Both Shall Love, I likewise note the conscious creation of wedding traditions. Prior to the Second World War – and even after – a diversity of wedding styles perpetuated the American scene. Only after the war did a standard style of celebration emerge, one many upwardly mobile citizens saw as a rite of passage in their quest for upward mobility. And the engagement ring was at the heart of that standardization, when the symbol of the ring was less a contract, I’d argue, and more an indication of a couple’s economic security.