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's "I Do! Chicago Ties the Knot" exhibition, whose 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.

The concepts, embraced by high society and eagerly mimicked by the lower classes, were exported to stores around the world. Selfridges in London was opened in 1909 by H. Gordon Selfridge, who learned everything he knew at Marshall Field & Company.

These days, Marshall Field's is part of the Macy's brand, but we're still living with the repercussions of its commodification of what was once a solemn religious event.

There was a time when most women wore dark-colored dresses to their weddings because it meant they could use the dress for the rest of their lives. There was a time when a bride wouldn't think of wearing white lest she be seen as tacky. Those days are over, and you're paying what you pay for your wedding now because capitalism -- and not religion -- convinced you that you should.


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