How the English Empire Accidentally Created the Wedding Industry
We can thank the British for many things: the colonization of much of the world,not passing on their dentistry or cooking skills, our accents, the postage stamp, Mr. Bean, the pay toilet and gravity, just to name a few. But one thing we have never given them credit for is creating the wedding industry. Yes, it’s true. While their neighbors to the south, the French, invented love and the French kiss, the English accidentally invented the wedding industry.
To clarify, the English didn’t invent marriage; the Romans are given that credit. No, the English monarchy with their aristocratic pomp and circumstance liked to throw a party or two. Take for instance, Henry VIII who had eight wives and probably had eight celebrations in between the annulments, divorces and beheadings. They celebrated tradition with such ingrained flair and consistency in an immensely public way that all us commoners watched, envied and aimed to imitate them. We’ve been following their escapades in bed and down the aisle for centuries, and as a result their culture became our own. Even King Edward VIII’s abdication of the throne in order to marry the woman he loved sounds like it came straight out of a romance novel. Royal weddings are more than just a celebration—the monarch is a cultural powerhouse that accidentally created a for-profit industry. And since the next in line for the crown doesn’t get married everyday, each one is a world event.
The wedding industry is barely a century old, but its main contributor, setting in motion our consumerist traditions, married in 1840. Queen Victoria was the model bride and the celebrity ‘du jour’ of the time. Her influence on the public was immense. And if anyone should thank Queen Victoria for her contributions to wedding culture, it’s Vera Wang and David’s Bridal.
Before Victoria’s nuptials, brides were practical and simply wore their best, most versatile dress. Queen Victoria, however, wore a new, pristine white dress. White did not just represent purity—it symbolized wealth. Women then only owned a few dresses, and in an era sans dry cleaning, white was not a practical color. Overnight, white became en vogue (but stubborn practical brides dyed their wedding dresses). We can also thank her for popularizing lace, silk, satin and the obscenely sized wedding cake (hers was said to be three yards in circumference). Victoria’s influence was nearly 200 years ago, and we’ve never looked back.
With the birth of the industrial revolution and our beloved department stores, traditions suddenly became commercialized, prepackaged, machine made trinkets. The moment engaged couples said goodbye to homemade weddings, they started an industry that is now estimated to be around $70-$86 billion dollars. While capitalist America took this opportunity and ran with it, England still leads the way in terms of influence.
The advent of photography was solidified as a wedding-must-have by Victoria, and enjoyed by King Edward VII (married Mar. 10, 1863) and then King George V (married Jul. 6, 1893). Photography made the exclusive royal wedding accessible to the masses through print media, but it was the invention of television that made England’s 20th century marriages accessible to even more of the world. (Watch King George VI and Queen Elizabeth’s wedding, Apr. 26, 1923 and Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip’s wedding, Nov. 20, 1947). Few other weddings were important enough to be broadcasted, which only increased a royal wedding’s significance and influence.
Queen Victoria’s bridal influence reigned, barely changing for the next 141 years. A large explanation for this is the frequent years of civil conflict, world wars and strained economies in Western societies. In such times, tradition helps people maintain a sense of identity, and downtrodden families cling to wedding traditions, which symbolize hope for the future. It wasn’t until 1981, when Lady Diana agreed to marry Prince Charles but refused to declare, “I will obey” in her vows that the English started to set some new trends.
On July 29, 1981, the English were ready to throw the “wedding of the century” to remind the world that they are the wedding Joneses to the tune of £4 million. 750 million viewers around the world vicariously watched the nuptials of the ill-fated couple, Charles and Diana. She embodied a real life Cinderella (minus the poverty) with her 25 ft. train, diamond tiara, glass coach, red carpet, prince and public kiss on the balcony. Lady Diana became a beloved style icon overnight, and as we all know we endured a decade of grossly puffy sleeves and princess complexes ever since. Sometimes the impacts are not always good, but the English firmly established what a princess wedding resembles.
Now it’s Prince William’s turn to walk down the aisle with Kate Middleton on April 29, 2011 at Westminster Abbey. The Middleton’s family business, ‘Party Pieces,’ an ecommerce party supply company, is perfectly positioned to profit from their daughters wedding (but tastefully enough, so as not to incur the wrath of their future in-laws) and thus become the new modern influencer in wedding tradition. Just as the Oscar’s red carpet creates a fury of cheap knock offs, Diana’s engagement ring is already offered (at an affordable price, of course) just as it had been 30 years before. People are already requesting royal party favors with plans to celebrate as a live-scene unfolds, eating crumpets and drinking bubbly from their Will and Kate souvenir collector mugs.
The attention across media platforms for their wedding will be quadrupled compared to his parents’ wedding, which came before the Internet and the personal PC. Technologically, this wedding will enjoy the innovation of social networking. The world can watch the big day in the comfort of their living room with the help of their DVR and the Internet with coverage by Uncle Bob with a video camera and a YouTube account to Perez Hilton to NBC.
It is also predicated that Ms. Middleton will escalate to the iconic level her mother-in-law was (though, perhaps always slightly in her shadow). Kate’s commoner status might also reignite the princess dream in little girls. If she can come from a family that once supported itself on a stewardess’s and a flight dispatcher’s salaries to potentially Queen Catherine, little girls will think, “Why can’t I?” Vanity aside, like Diana who, Kate is setting a precedent for future women too. She will be the first Queen to have a college degree, have dated her beau long-term, and (gasp!) lived in sin.
With England’s economy in the water closet, this engagement comes at a perfect time since it’s expected to pump £620 million (roughly $980 million US) into the local economy with tchotchkes and tourism. The monarch is aware that a lavish wedding could be interpreted as tactless in financially stressed times, which could diminish their vacillating public image, especially since budget-strapped taxpayers are expected to foot the bill for the wedding’s security (in the millions). Today’s weddings are already budget conscious, and if Will and Kate’s wedding forgoes the opulence and extravagance of Charles and Diana’s, you can expect a modest, sleek wedding to become the style until the next royal “I do.”