In a Vogue magazine spread before Amal Alamuddin married George Clooney, the fashion designer Oscar de la Renta proclaimed that the wedding gown was “the most important dress in the life of a woman.” He probably wasn’t considering what a woman would wear, say, as she accepted a Nobel Peace Prize, or was being sworn in as the president of the United States.
It was an interesting comment, especially in 2014, but it signaled a larger point: that even though women may be leaning in, branching out, cracking glass ceilings and forging vibrant careers in multiple sectors, for many of them, it is their wedding day that heralds true success.
It’s that way in the eyes of popular culture, too. Entire TV shows are dedicated to the bride (there has yet to be a program called “Big Bucks for the Tux” targeting grooms). Millions tuned in to see Kate Middleton morph into a real live princess.
And, of course, the wedding dress is the pièce de résistance on runways around the world.
“That night is the gateway to the rest of your life,” said Sami Horneff, 24, an actress and guide with On Location Tours in Manhattan, who has been planning her wedding since she was a girl.
Ms. Horneff has no idea whom she will marry. She isn’t even dating seriously at the moment. But that hasn’t prevented her from plotting every detail of the day, from the color of the bridesmaids’ dresses (champagne) to the floral arrangements (white and pink roses, along with white hydrangeas, lilies and orchids).
She is not alone. Never mind the bleak statistics on marriage (about 45 percent end in divorce). Many women still dream, feverishly, about their wedding, even those with no groom or boyfriend in sight. They pin photos of fantasy event spaces, dresses and flowers on Pinterest; they design their ideal engagement rings on sites like Ritani.com; they turn to MyKnot, Lover.ly and Project Wedding for ideas on invitations, gift registries and seating charts.
They know it all, except — oops! — whom their partner will be. But why let a small detail like that interfere with preparations?
A 2014 study conducted by Brides magazine found that approximately 25 percent of its readers are not yet engaged. In 2013, 37 percent of the brides who visited TheKnot.com did not have a fiancé.
Sue Johnson, a clinical psychologist and author of “Love Sense,” finds this mentality worrisome. Women are planning the show before the script is written and “before the leading man shows up,” she said. She understands the desire for companionship. Marriage, she said, “speaks to our longing for connection and our fear of aloneness.” But, she added, the emphasis on weddings and marriage is also somewhat dangerous. “In North America, we’ve made progress,” she said. “Hillary Clinton might be the first female president, but a woman still wants this badge of legitimacy that she is wanted and desired by a man.”
Emily Fairchild, an associate professor of sociology at the New College of Florida in Sarasota, who specializes in gender and culture, also agrees that marriage is still a sign of validation for women, just as it has been for generations before. “Weddings are moments when gendered ideas become really clear,” she said. “A wedding is a coup for women, because they’ve met their gendered expectation. By having a wedding, you prove your worthiness, your womanness, in a way that a man doesn’t need to. A man can be a man by having a job, in ways that aren’t tied to his family.”
And what better way to advertise this achievement (besides announcing it in a newspaper) than hosting a grand affair centered on the woman who has fulfilled her dreams?
Ms. Horneff plans to have 150 to 200 guests at her wedding at the Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla., during the second weekend of some future June. She will drift down the aisle to Pachelbel’s Canon in D, dazzling in a form-fitting, strapless satin dress, a floor-length veil traipsing behind her. Later, guests will nibble on passed hors d’oeuvres and cocktails, followed by an elaborate sit-down dinner.
“I love the idea of weddings and ceremony and feeling like a princess,” Ms. Horneff said. “I love the idea of being in love. I love fireworks. It’s the most amazing thing to commit yourself to someone and share it with the world.”
Paige Sassu, 25, a middle-school teacher in Manhattan, has been contemplating her wedding day since her teens, flipping through magazines and “always having a vision of what I wanted,” she said. (Her ideal event: summer in Central Park, surrounded by flowers and 100 guests, and bridesmaids in gray.)
Her Pinterest board “One Day …” featured wedding dresses, flowers, bridesmaid gifts, cards, rings and table arrangements. Because she was afraid her friends might steal her ideas, she made her board private. Although she now has a serious boyfriend whom she has been with for four years, he doesn’t know the extent of her research.
Nor is he aware (or “was,” should he read this article) that her mother has scouted actual wedding sites for her, and that together they search online for potential locations. “I tell him some things — like rings that I like, or possible wedding sites like this vineyard in Connecticut — but I don’t want to freak him out,” she said. “I don’t think he wants to get married this year, so I don’t want him to think, ‘Oh, she already has everything planned and I’m totally not even thinking about it.’ ”
Beyond a good party, what is it about the wedding that makes some young girls, and grown women, swoon?
Ms. Horneff holds Walt Disney responsible for her fantasies. “I grew up on Disney, and Disney made me think of princesses,” she said. “And what do princesses do? They get married.”
In a culture in which wedding gowns inspired by Disney characters like Belle or Ariel really exist, and the designer Christian Louboutin unveiled an actual glass slipper, it’s easy to blame the house that Cinderella built.
“Western culture socializes young girls to want to have a grand wedding,” said Patrick Markey, director of the Interpersonal Research Laboratory at Villanova University. “Think about any children’s movie where there is a wedding. The woman getting married, usually a princess, is often the center of attention, she wears a long white dress, has a huge bouquet of flowers, a huge wedding party and so on. As girls age, they mimic this script.”
While little boys also get scripts, those usually focus on empowerment, “like being a superhero or firefighter,” he added. Dr. Markey also believes the wedding is the “biological imperative” made manifest. “Women tend to be more selective when picking a mate and have a greater desire for monogamy and a stable relationship than men,” he said. “Thus, they are more likely to dream of a wedding, which symbolizes this desire.”
Ruth B. Bottigheimer, a research professor in the Department of Cultural Analysis and Theory at Stony Brook University and the author of “Magic Tales and Fairy Tale Magic,” dates the obsession with weddings to the 1500s, when the first fairy tales emerged in Europe.
Those stories all culminate in a wedding, usually that of a woman who elevates her status in the world by getting hitched. “Weddings historically have this long association with material well-being,” Ms. Bottigheimer said. “If not, you have a miserable life as a maiden aunt, a lady in waiting, where you serve someone else’s life. A wedding is social success.”
Interestingly, these tales were about weddings but not, emphatically, marriage. For that, readers had to scour folk tales. But rather than living happily ever after, the protagonists in these stories are “lazy husbands or stupid wives,” she said. (Clearly, it’s no wonder that weddings, and not marriage, with its endless negotiations and compromises, were the high point.)
Peggy Orenstein, the author of “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” speculates that weddings may be so popular precisely because the divorce rate is so high. “Maybe people think that if they do the wedding, it’ll mask the hard work later on,” she said. “Maybe it’s that marriage is such an anachronism you have to go into it with a big bang.”
Ms. Horneff insists that finding a partner she adores is more important than anything; her parents have been married for 27 years, so she has good associations with marriage. “You can definitely elope,” she said. “But a wedding is such a stereotypical part of American culture. It’s a milestone and a cliché for a reason. If I don’t get married, I’ll feel like I failed. I have career goals and my own personal goals, and they are important to me, but on my deathbed, if you asked me whether I wished I’d been on Broadway or had a family, I’d say 100 percent had a family.”