Weddings are a billion-dollar industry in the United States, and the average “big” wedding costs close to $30,000. For many people, weddings have become a way of signaling social status, wealth, and taste. As such, mass media has capitalized on this national obsession, fanning the flames of the wedding industrial complex.
Bridal media runs the gamut from Pinterest boards to print magazines, and of course, reality television. Engstrom (2008) describes the reality wedding genre as one that promotes a hegemonic view of weddings, writing, “Various media products focus on the wedding, its surrounding mercantilism, and underlying message to women that they need a large, expensive wedding in order to move from being single to being married,” (p. 61).
As consumers of this media, we decided to take a close look at the ideals and ideologies lurking in reality wedding TV. TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress is a popular reality TV show that follows brides through their wedding dress shopping experiences at Kleinfeld Bridal, a salon in Manhattan. The show first aired in 2007. It’s currently in its 16th season and has several spin-off series. At first glance, the show is an upbeat (and slightly over dramatic) portrayal of women’s experiences as they go through the ups and downs of wedding dress shopping. Looking deeper, Say Yes to the Dress also interacts with gender in intriguing ways. It showcases wedding consumer culture and reinforces desire for the heteronormative wedding fantasy that is rooted in an idealized femininity.
The white wedding dress became the traditional outfit for brides in Great Britain after Queen Victoria herself wore a white silk-spun dress to marry Prince Albert in 1840. The white material became a sign of a bride’s family wealth because it was expensive to buy and expensive to keep clean, so only the leisure class could afford white dresses in the Victorian Era. As early as the mid-19th century, the white wedding dress was a sign of conspicuous consumption.
We still see this today in American wedding dress shopping, with the average bride spending $1564, according to The Knot. On Say Yes to the Dress, the bride’s stated budget is often much higher, with the most expensive dress purchased on the show hitting $34,000. This record was set in Season 8 Episode 19 by Kelly Dooley, pictured above in her costly Pnina Tornai gown.
The purchase of such an expensive luxury item, only to be used once, is often depicted as a fairytale experience, and it has become ritualized as part of wedding preparation. Say Yes to the Dress reinforces this wedding consumer culture, creating a vicarious dress shopping experience on the screen. For viewers, such media generates desire for this specific consumer experience. Considering intersections of gender and class, this idealized femininity equates bridal identity with the affluence required to make such a purchase, which excludes many people who do not have the financial means to attain this ideal.
The complexities of wedding consumer culture overlap with issues of race. Ligon (2015) writes, “Unlike the ordinary Black brides who appear on the Say Yes to the Dress shows, the Black celebrity brides use the show as a backdrop to either affirm or highlight their wealth,” (p. 65). For instance, one episode called Princess Fantasy features Crystal, an upper-class Texas native who flies out to New York to buy not just one wedding dress, but two. She establishes a budget of $13,000, much more than the average American could afford to spend. Ligon argues that the experience of average Black women, who are statistically more likely to earn lower incomes, remains invisible on such shows. Say Yes to the Dress uses opulence and consumerism as entertainment, so the stories that are told are the stories of middle and upper class women.
While many people cannot afford the designer gowns shown on Say Yes to the Dress, the show remains popular with its largely female audience. Because it is a reality TV show, it makes the fantasy seem accessible and even attainable. In an article for The Atlantic, Valerie Seiling Jacobs explains a possible reason for the show’s popularity among women, writing, “…the show is also a quasi-retail opportunity. A way to plan for their own big day–an event that, that thanks to Disney et al, they’ve been consciously or subconsciously planning for decades.”
Jacobs’ argument is based in the concept of gendered socialization. Wedding dress desire is part of a culture that treats the wedding as the culmination of a woman’s life. In every episode of Say Yes to the Dress, the brides-to-be stand on a pedestal in front of a three-way mirror and an audience of family and friends, usually other women. They don white dresses, and in doing so, embody the image and identity of a bride. The fantasy becomes a reality for the bride, the bride’s entourage, and the viewing audience at home.
Say Yes to the Dress shows women negotiating family expectations, friends’ opinions, religious traditions, and finances as they search for the perfect wedding dress. Often, brides also struggle with body image as they attempt to look a certain way on their wedding day. In one episode of Say Yes to the Dress: Big Bliss, a spin-off series devoted to plus size brides, a woman named Crystal says she hasn’t worn a dress in 20 years and tells the stylist that she had a nightmare the sample gowns would not fit over her hips. By the end of the episode, she finds a dress she loves, and says, “I feel pretty,” while looking in the mirror and holding back tears.
Crystal’s selection and purchase of a dress that makes her feel ‘like a bride’ is framed as a happy ending to her shopping experience. In many ways, the ritual of wedding dress shopping aligns with Banet-Weiser’s concept of popular feminism. While Say Yes to the Dress predates the concept and makes no explicit claims about gender inequality, it does sell viewers on the idea of personal empowerment through retail consumption. Women who appear on the show frequently talk about trying to come to terms with their bodies as they try on dresses in hopes of finding ‘the one.’ Say Yes to the Dress does not disrupt the cultural construction of the bride-as-object, and it never questions the importance of the wedding dress itself. Rather, women are offered support by stylists who help boost their confidence so they can feel as though they embody the idealized expectation of ‘bride.’
Jacklyn is another bride who feels that she does not have the ‘ideal’ body, and jokes with her family about what they call her ‘booty-do’s’ or her butt and midsection. While trying on her dresses she emphasizes that the dress must cover her ‘booty-do’s’ so that her stomach would not appear larger than her butt. This is another example of societal expectations for the idealized/emphasized female form. The purchase of a wedding dress that cinches the waist or otherwise creates a slender appearance shows how consumerism interacts with these idealized femininities.
Another bride, Deborah, ordered her dress a size smaller than her current size, and then lost 35 pounds in order to fit it. This calls to mind a scene from the 2009 movie Bride Wars where Kate Hudson’s character Liv is trying on her Vera Wang gown, and tells her fiance, “You don’t alter a Vera to fit you, you alter yourself to fit a Vera.” While women face unrealistic beauty standards all the time, the pressure to perform femininity perfectly on the wedding day overlaps with this obsession over the bridal look and specifically the gown.
It’s difficult to judge representation on Say Yes to the Dress since brides have to apply to get on the show, and no stats are available detailing who exactly has been rejected over the years. According to Sonia Saraiya in an article for AV Club:
“Say Yes To The Dress may be one of the most representative shows on television—featuring characters of many races and ethnicities in a very natural and unstudied way. And as the white dress has become a staple outside of just the Christian tradition, the types of brides looking for a dress at Kleinfeld has reflected that. The show has featured, without fanfare: lesbian brides, vow renewal, women who aren’t even getting married, women in wheelchairs, army veterans, firefighting brides, and brides from Alaska, Egypt, and South America.”
The show does feature lesbian brides, and even lesbian couples as in the case of Lauren and LeQuet who appeared on the show together so they could both buy wedding gowns. The ‘reality’ format of the show allows the brides themselves to communicate about their love and their feelings about getting married through personal interviews. At the end of the episode, the show shares footage of their beautiful wedding, pictured above. Visibility for non-heteronormative relationships can be seen as a positive aspect of Say Yes to the Dress, though many would argue that the show should do more to promote diverse representation.
Two trans brides have appeared on the Say Yes to the Dress. The first bride was Precious Davis, who appeared on the Atlanta spin-off in 2016. After trying on a Lazaro ball gown, Precious says in her reaction interview, “It was everything that I had envisioned. I am a queen, and I am stately, and that is the way that I present myself so that dress was the epitome of everything that I have ever dreamed of.”
Watching Precious shop for a dress and buy a custom designer gown that fulfills her vision creates a positive viewing experience for the audience. It’s a happy ending, after all. This episode also highlights what Patricia Arend (2016) terms heteronormative hegemony. She argues that it is not mass media that fuels white wedding desire, but rather heteronormative hegemony that fuels both the desire for white weddings and the media representations that stem from this desire. The white wedding dress has become common sense, and Say Yes to the Dress does not contest these dominant assumptions, but rather offers enfranchisement to marginalized sexualities and gender identities by offering the wedding dress fairy tale to anyone who can afford it. Taking part in the dress shopping fantasy becomes a way of feeling that the wedding is valid and the bridal identity is legitimate, given the emphasis on the white wedding in the dominant American culture.
So before you start sending your measurements to France y’all, it’s important to consider consumerism and gender issues in bridal media, because ultimately, you’re feeding into this billion-dollar industry.
Arend, P. (2016). Consumption as common sense: Heteronormative hegemony and white wedding desire. Journal of Consumer Culture, 16(1), 144-163.
Engstrom, E. (2008). Unraveling The Knot: Political economy and cultural hegemony in wedding media. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 32(1), 60-82.
Ligon, A. (2015). Striving to dress the part: Examining the absence of Black women in different iterations of Say Yes to the Dress. In J. R. Ward (Ed.), Real sister: Stereotypes, respectability, and Black women in reality TV (pp. 53-67). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.