Saturday, June 26, 2010

Why Are Weddings So Expensive? Historians Find the Answer


The modern American couple starts life with a heavy financial burden: In a big city like Chicago, the average wedding costs between $22,500 and $37,500. Yet in the 1930s, it was cheap, costing around $400. There's no question that wedding prices are out of control. What went wrong?

I went to the Chicago History Museum, where historians have figured out how it happened.

Timothy Long is the costume curator of the museum, which (surprisingly) is thought to have the second-largest fashion collection in the world. Decades of wealth have found a repository in the museum's stacks, including the paperwork from the legendary Marshall Field's department store, which dates to the mid-19th century and was the king of the world's department stores for generations.

While poring through the museum's holdings, Long realized something important about the modern wedding: It became a massive, ostentatious production around the time the retail pioneers at Marshall Field's decided to turn the ceremony into a consumer event for Chicago's high society.

If you want to blame someone for how much weddings cost in our society, the paperwork points to Marshall Field & Company. For example, it was the first store to implement a gift registry for brides, which encouraged friends and family to make expensive public purchases on the couple's behalf. It created low-cost knockoffs of high-fashion garments so women of every income could imitate the rich. Also, in the name of luxury and convenience, it also designed a system that took couples under its wing to sell them a range of other expensive accouterments that proved their place in society, including flatware, linens, and catering.

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