Since 2007 my friend Stephanie has received invitations to 33 weddings. So she’s seen dozens of wedding dresses in recent years. Yet this number pales in comparison with the hundreds of gowns featured on cable’s TLC over that same time-span. “Say Yes to the Dress,” perhaps the most prominent of the network’s vast array of wedding-related programming, premiered the same year Stephanie’s wedding blitz began. It is a show that in theory highlights the emotional drama surrounding the decision to buy a wedding dress and, at its core, amounts to people trying on clothes. It’s strange. It’s ridiculous. And, for some reason, I keep watching.
I’ve never been much for dress shopping. And as a young girl, if I dressed up in veils I was more likely to pretend to be a nun than a bride. Yet I find “Say Yes to the Dress” oddly enjoyable. It can be interesting to see the range of emotions experienced while choosing a dress, even though they are, I’m sure, amplified in the edit suite.
“Say Yes to the Dress” also features clips about the backstory of the brides and grooms to be. For this reason, my friend Katie has dubbed it “the best of these shows.” The show, recorded at Kleinfeld in Manhattan, has sparked at least five spinoffs focused exclusively on dresses. TLC also airs “Four Weddings,” in which four strangers attend each others weddings and rate them in an effort to win a honeymoon getaway; and two shows about “Gypsy weddings.”
The wedding programs range from uplifting to offensive. Yet their ubiquity is such that the majority of my friends have watched at least a few episodes of at least one of these shows—with varying degrees of enthusiasm. For some friends there’s an aspirational quality and appreciation for the fashion; for others, the shows offer a moment of affirmation, with a hint of schaden-freude: She paid how much for that dress? Or: She thought a circus theme was a good idea?
It can be fun to watch “Say Yes to the Dress,” but beneath the drama of the consultants trying to meet sales goals or the brides’ searching for fashion-forward frocks, is a continual theme, subtle enough to be overlooked for one episode, but hard to miss when watching several in a row, as I did on a recent Saturday thanks to a few hours worth of baking and a Netflix app that automatically starts the next episode.
“It’s her day,” the consultants and relatives repeatedly say of the bride. “This day is about me,” the brides proclaim, often in an effort to justify buying dresses that cost (much) more than my first (and only) car. (On one episode a woman described, without irony, a $31,000 wedding dress purchased for $12,000 as “the deal of the century.”)
The shoppers and consultants imply that the dress could make or break the big day. Sure, the dress can bring joy to the occasion. I’ve had a great time accompanying friends through the process, including one who bought her wedding dress at, of all places, Kleinfeld. She said yes to a dress there, and we squealed and clapped with (untelevised) enthusiasm.
But the singular focus on the dress promoted by such shows also contributes to the pressure many brides feel to have a perfect, and often elaborate, wedding ceremony; and to the desire some feel to be the focus of a single day, rather than focus on the years with a spouse that will follow. Often the women on the show talk about the dress as a big commitment, as something worth sacrificing for, as a decision that should involve the advice and support of loved ones, as something special and unique. It’s not bad advice, if you apply it to a marriage rather than a dress.
And yet Stephanie, who took a laid-back approach to her own wedding, sympathizes. “It is a lot of work to plan a big event like that and juggle the expectations of various people, so I can see why people do get crazy,” she said. She is grateful for the active role her now-husband took in the planning process for their wedding, while she finished up her Ph.D. dissertation. It was an effort involving patience and compromise—the sort of story that rarely makes it to TV.
For a glimpse of wedding fashion, “Say Yes to the Dress” may hit the mark; but for a view of what makes a marriage last, brides-to-be would do well to look elsewhere. As my friend Alli put it: “Wedding television was definitely fun to watch when I was planning my wedding, but only for the most superficial reasons. For us, watching our parents (married 35 plus years) has been the true example of what marriage should be.”
This column has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: June 11, 2013
An earlier version of this column incorrectly listed "Bridezillas" as among the wedding programs airing on TLC. It airs on WE tv, not TLC. The reference has been removed.