Weddings expose our rising devotion to consumption

    New exhibit traces 100-year shift from simple ritual to spectacle

    April 7, 2016

    Vintage street lamps! Cocktail popsicles infused with edible flowers! Two-in-one dresses so the bride gets a formal gown and a fun frock for dancing!

    It just takes a quick Google search to see typical trends for weddings in 2016 — and to confirm the premise of a new exhibit by a group of graduating Human Ecology students.

    For Richer or For Poorer: Til Consumption Do Us Part traces the giddy rise of our consumer culture as reflected in the changes to weddings over the past 100 years.

    “While the marriage hopefully lasts for a long time, the consumption is targeted to one day, which makes it easier to talk about than things that are happening day-to-day, that we don’t really notice,” said Julia Petrov, the instructor of Material Culture in Home and Community, the course for which the students created the exhibit.

    With seven historical vignettes built around wedding gowns from the 1900s through the 2000s, the exhibit illustrates how our culture has replaced traditional practices with costly ideas dreamed up by marketers, in a quest to express identity and social status.

    To examine the issue, each vignette is accompanied by a Pinterest board showing objects that marrying couples of a particular decade would have aspired to have.

    “The biggest revelation to me was how in the 1900s it was necessities they were looking for early on,” said student Mercedes Cormier. “Now it’s not really about building your house, it’s such a spectacle.”

    “One of the significant changes over time is the requirement for entertainment,” said fellow student Anne Thomas. “In the 1900s, all you really needed (for a wedding reception) was something to drink, like tea or coffee, and cake. It was most often held at home — which was the significance of the going-away outfit. You were leaving home.”

    These days, observes Petrov, weddings are a weekend-long commitment for members of the party as they attend a rehearsal dinner, a day of dressing, the ceremony and reception with a photo session sandwiched in between, a Sunday brunch and possibly Sunday gift-opening. Even the basics— venue, officiant, clothes, flowers, cake and photos — cost $10,000 before food and alcohol.

    The attire in the exhibit helps illustrate how we got here from there.

    A partially transparent, caramel-coloured 1920s bridal dress over a nude under-shift broadcasts a testing of female boundaries in the decade of women’s emancipation, while granny-gown-inspired bride and bridesmaid dresses from the 1970s speak of the back-to-nature merchandising of that era. Today’s full-on commercialism began with weddings of the 1980s.

    “It starts with Princess Diana’s wedding, and in Canada is echoed by Celine Dion’s, where the bride is a princess,” said Petrov. “And in marketing we now see that all the time: it’s your special fantasy day.”

    Another throught-provoking aspect of the modern wedding is captured in a vignette Petrov dubs “the forgotten groom,” inspired by a photograph in which a groom’s face was lost in a bride’s wafting veil.

    “He gets sold a different fantasy,” said Petrov. “His job is the engagement, in which he has to create an elaborately staged piece of theatre to ‘surprise’ her — flash mobs, YouTube. And the expenditure of the ring is all on him. Then there’s this myth of three months’ salary, which is an enormous amount of money to spend on a ring.”

    However, the point of the exhibit is not to condemn but to spark awareness, said Petrov.

    “We do lose sight of some of the ritual of weddings, which is to serve a social purpose.”

    The exhibit runs April 8 to October 3 in the gallery of the Human Ecology Building, located inside the main entrance at 116th Street and 89th Avenue.