Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2001


Sharon Boden (2001) ''Superbrides': Wedding Consumer Culture and the Construction of Bridal Identity'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 6, no. 1, <>

To cite articles published in Sociological Research Online, please reference the above information and include paragraph numbers if necessary

Received: 1/2/2001      Accepted: 27/4/2001      Published: 19-04-2001


This paper examines the role of the media in articulating and sustaining the tension between romance, fantasy and reason as key dimensions of wedding consumption. Two types of media are analysed as evidence of the development of a popular wedding consumer culture in Britain. First, I cite examples of the coverage of celebrity and unconventional weddings in the popular presses to highlight the current media emphasis upon the wedding as a spectacular, within-reach consumer fantasy. I then provide a more sustained analysis of six British bridal magazines, part of the ideological output of the contemporary wedding industry, which do not exist in a vacuum from those other media sites transmitting wedding imagery. In doing so, I deconstruct the recently formed consumer identity of the 'superbride' to reveal two underpinning aspects of her personality: the rational 'project manager' existing alongside the emotional 'childish fantasiser'. This leads me later in this paper into a more general discussion about the roles of reason and emotion, rationality and romance in wedding consumption.

Bridal Magazines; Consumption; Emotion.; Gender; Reason; Romanticism; Weddings


This paper examines the role of the media in articulating and sustaining the tension between romance, fantasy and reason as key dimensions of wedding consumption. Two types of media are analysed as evidence of the development of a popular wedding consumer culture in Britain. First, I cite examples of the coverage of celebrity and unconventional weddings in the popular presses to highlight the current media emphasis upon the wedding as a spectacular, within-reach consumer fantasy. I then provide a more sustained analysis of six British bridal magazines, part of the ideological output of the contemporary wedding industry, which do not exist in a vacuum from those other media sites transmitting wedding imagery. Such publications function to give meanings to the pre-wedding build-up as well as to the day itself. These meanings are inextricably tied to consumption and are evident in the construction of bridal identity and the commodification of wedding types.

I am centrally concerned here with the consumption of a wedding and its portrayal in the media. The terminology I use is indicative of a new way of looking at the wedding which has been made possible through continual advancements in the study of consumption and the consequent opening up of new areas of exploration, such as the commodification and consumption of life and calendar events. Earlier wedding research (Leonard 1980; Mansfield and Collard 1988; Charsley 1991; Otnes and Lowrey 1993; Lowrey and Otnes 1994) occasionally touched on the commercial consumption involved in the wedding, or for the wedding, or at the wedding, rather than conceptualising 'the wedding' as something which is produced and consumed as a whole. However, borrowing ideas developed from consumer ethnographies of tourism (Urry 1991; 1995) and Christmas (Miller 1993), for example, it is now possible to speak of the wedding itself as a commodity and analyse it in relation to a consumer industry that produces the bridal role as a consumer identity.

I deconstruct the recently formed consumer identity of what I term the 'superbride' to reveal two underpinning aspects of her personality: the rational 'project manager' existing alongside the emotional 'childish fantasiser'. Indeed, theorising the bridal identity as such a split personality leads me later in this paper into a more general discussion about the operation of a reason/emotion duality in the conceptualisation of wedding consumption. It is in the context of the tense yet constitutive relationships between reason and emotion, rationality and fantasy that I revisit Campbell's (1987) Romantic ethic thesis and evaluate the claims he makes about self-illusory hedonism and the possibility of its autonomy from the manipulations of media and market institutions. In doing so, I also consider what strategies the wedding industry uses to encourage acts of 'Romantic', imaginative consumption in anticipation of the big day.

Contextualising the Bridal Magazine

It is my intention in this paper to analyse a significant part of the wedding industry - the bridal magazine - in order to identify and discuss how such texts give meaning to the bridal identity during the pre-wedding build up and the day itself. Throughout, I prioritise the role bridal magazines play in managing the tension between romance, fantasy and reason as facets of wedding consumption. Six British bridal magazines are used as a sample (Wedding Day November 1999, Figure 1; Bliss for Brides June/July 1999, Figure 2; Bride and Groom Spring 1999, Figure 3; You and Your Wedding May/June 1999, Figure 4;Wedding and Home June/July 1999, Figure 5; Brides and Setting up Home May/June 1999, Figure 6).

Feminist analyses of the media, especially those of popular women's magazines, argue that such publications make continual reference to other sites of cultural meaning (McCracken 1993; Williamson 1993). Bridal magazines are no exception. They too are thoroughly intertextual, polysemous texts. As well as producing meaning through significations informed by the expanding wedding industry, bridal magazines rely upon their location within the wider genre of women's magazines to insure their reader's possess the cultural literacy to 'read' their publications. Certainly, a magazine's genre shapes its parameters of meaning, along with the expectations and investments of its audience. Women's magazines, for example, condition women to the popular representations of femininity and shape commonsenses about the consumption needed to imitate this imagery.

To preface the following case study of bridal magazines it is necessary first, I feel, to locate such publications within the wider context of a developing wedding industry and what might be termed a corresponding wedding consumer culture. In doing so, the changing social role of the wedding and the transformation of the wedding into a media spectacle deserve comment.

With the recent licensing of new approved premises for civil marriages (e.g. stately homes, football clubs, zoos - see Haskey's 1998 report on the impact of the 1994 Marriage Act for further information) combined with the historical secularistaion of society, it is true to say that contemporary weddings do not have a fixed, 'traditional' nature or meaning. The wedding nowadays, for example, no longer marks the 'birth' of a couple, since more first marriages are preceded with pre-marital co-habitation than not (approximately 64%, Population Trends Autumn 2000). There is also often a transparent re-ordering of the sequence of marriage then parenthood as it is now not uncommon for couples to celebrate weddings accompanied by their children. To these points we may add the reality of current divorce statistics (approximately one third of all marriages now end in divorce[1]) as well as the remarriage rate (two-fifths of marriages in 1999 were remarriages for either or both partners, Social Trends 2001) - further evidence to challenge the assumption that our own 'big day' will be a once in a lifetime event and that the relationship it celebrates will last forever. Of course, one of the key implications of all this is an erosion of the 'traditional' bridal identity and the ideals of innocence, virginity and purity it signified.

In light of these changes to the role of the wedding and, by implication, its leading lady, one might argue that current emphasis upon the wedding as a cultural event or performance which generates its meaning primarily through consumption (rather than say religion) counterbalances any wavering belief or confidence in the wedding as a necessary social rite of passage. The wedding may no longer always be a genuinely religious celebration (even if it takes place in a religious setting) but rather exists as a cultural performance which, ideally, should express and display the romantic commitment of two people. Similarly, one could further suggest here that the additional emphasis upon training women as successful wedding consumers (i.e. as 'superbrides') is a strategy of the wedding industry to deflect attention from the 'institution' of marriage and its apparent crisis. In fact, as we shall go on to see, in negotiating her own complex and demanding identity, the 'superbride' is required to focus exclusively upon the wedding and not the marriage she is entering into. As we move into the new millennium, then, the imaginary quality of the wedding is deemed to have utmost importance, along with the consumption practices that transform the wedding from a standardised life- course event into a new kind of cultural site that evolves around the style and taste of its organisers.[2]

It therefore appears somewhat ironic, given this context, that the wedding industry is booming - estimated to be worth £4.5 billion, with an average spend of £13-14,000 on the occasion.[3] I use the term 'wedding industry' to denote the opportunities on offer to consumers to achieve the weddings they desire as well as the methods used to generate these desires in the first place: for example, bridal magazines, the media, Internet wedding sites[4], wedding professionals and service providers, business promotions, wedding exhibitions and 'fayres', regional wedding directories and CD-Rom wedding planners. The wedding industry constructs people getting married as consumers as well as giving them ideas about how to express this role. Therefore, the production of a wedding, or more precisely, the production of meanings surrounding the wedding, takes place at an ideological level as well at the more 'hands on' stages.

Media coverage of celebrity and more unconventional weddings plays a key role in developing a popular wedding consumer culture, in part through identifying and celebrating the crucial elements of the successful wedding. Currently, the popular media and its depictions of appropriate or inappropriate wedding consumption heavily influence the wedding industry and the demands of consumers. One cannot fail to notice the new found eagerness of the popular media in Britain to devote the space, time and opinion traditionally reserved for royal weddings to the weddings of the famous, celebrities, and, increasingly, to the more bizarre wedding preferences of the general public.

Over the last few years (1998-2000) the weddings of Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones, Victoria Adams and David Beckham, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, Madonna and Guy Ritchie have had to share the limelight with 'soccer mad' Steve Hilt, who married wearing his England strip (The Sun June 8th 1998, pg. 5), Kim Edward and David Goddard, who exchanged vows 25ft underwater on a coral reef in Florida (Sunday Mirror April 18th 1999, pg. 21), Sarah Webb and Neil Horlock, who wed in a shark tank (Sunday Mirror Oct 10th 1999, pg, 29) and Carla Germaine and Greg Cordell, the winners of a blind-date wedding competition (Mon 25th January 1999, national presses). This developing voyeurism, the interest in spectacular or unusual wedding imagery, has been paralleled by the marketing strategies of magazines like Hello! and OK! which negotiate exclusive deals to publish celebrity wedding photographs, both formal and more intimate in variety, ensuring their readers have a visual experience of the wedding in question that is unmatched by any other publications.

Celebrity or unconventional wedding ceremonies have been firmly established as media events, not to mention an opportunity for self-advertisement, and as such now require the careful and extensive budgeting, planning and consumption as well as genuine love to be heralded a success. Whilst I am not suggesting that celebrity emulation is the overriding concern of all marrying couples, media coverage of such occasions has a meaning-making function that helps to develop a popular wedding consumer culture. Where weddings differ from other fantasy-laden celebrity events (award shows, film premiers, exclusive parties) that remain at the level of fantasy for most individuals is in their accessibility and their ability to be replicated and experienced during the average life course, whether this be as a bride, groom or guest. Thus if one is arguing that the popular wedding culture is influenced by the media coverage of celebrity and unusual wedding imagery it is logical to assume that this influence manifests itself as elements not only in a wedding culture of consumption, but one of opportunity, voyeurism, emulation, fantasy, longing and achievement.

Creating the 'Superbride'

Bridal magazines imbue the wedding with a package of meanings that both influence and are influenced by this wedding consumer culture. Publications oscillate between fantasy, celebrity and real-life wedding imagery as easily as they intermingle information about the various networks of wedding production. As in women's magazines more generally, consumption dominates 'formally' and 'ideologically' (Winship 1983).

In fact, the celebrity wedding depends for part of its appeal on the couple being 'like us' in also marrying and becomes used as one of a number of inclusionary strategies by bridal magazines to generate the sense of a shared commonality among those currently planning their wedding. This is evident in the homogeneity of brides featured. Through visual and textual clues one can identify a clear profile of their preferred readership: young, slim white women in their twenties and thirties who are getting married for the first time and have reasonable amounts of time and money to devote to the creation of their wedding. As a consequence of this, bridal magazines mainly exclude the full integration of other brides who do not fit such criteria into their imagined community (e.g. Black and Asian brides, older brides, brides with fuller figures and brides with limited financial resources).

Repeatedly, bridal magazines emphasize two supposedly universal characteristics of brides-to- be in an attempt to appeal to, unite and bond its all-female preferred readership under the identity of 'wedding consumer'. These two 'typical' character types can be distinguished as that of 'project manager' and 'childish fantasiser'.

Brides are expected to be in calm control of their wedding, making decisions for the big day in a business-like, rational manner. In fact, bridal magazines construct the illusion that each bride retains full autonomy over her wedding choices. Repeatedly, brides are asked to decide what sort of bride they want to be for a day. Many examples were found demonstrating the categorisation of brides: 'millennium-minimalist bride' (Brides and Setting Up Home pg. 36), 'trend setting brides' (You and Your Wedding pg. 95), 'modern brides' (Wedding and Home pg. 78), 'summer brides' (Wedding and Home pg. 116), 'girls on a budget' (You and Your Wedding pg. 95). This categorisation is evidence of the commodification of the event, although it is marketed as a result of greater consumer agency and choice.

Brides must make themselves knowledgeable enough to discern their wedding style and to make informed purchases to achieve coherence in this style throughout the whole wedding occasion. This new breed of 'superbride' is discriminating in her tastes, having the ability to filter out the tacky and unsavoury mistakes of other brides, as pointed out in the magazines. For instance, one panel of 'style experts' who rated the best and worst dressed brides of 1999 repeatedly condemned one celebrity bride for her 'weird outfit' which was 'such a mess' and radiated 'no elegance' (Wedding Day pg. 76-78). Moreover, brides are expected to have acquired literacy in wedding terminology and understand the concepts of PNT (Pre-nuptial tension - Wedding Day pg. 3) and PWT (Post-wedding trauma - Wedding and Home pg. 4), thus demonstrating their status as fully-fledged members of the wedding community.

Yet this concentration on the 'rational' characteristics of the bride is softened by a secret pink, fluffy feminine side that underpins her desire to dress up for a day and pretend to be a princess. Guiding their preferred, imagined audience through their wedding preparations, magazines writers becomes substitute motherly figures, or stretching the point, textual fairy godmothers helping all bridal dreams come true. In fact the 'let's pretend' motif is used to justify as much pre-wedding beautifying as the bride pleases: 'getting married is a great excuse to mess around with lots of different pots, pencils and tubs of make up' (Bride and Groom pg. 27). Such imaginative play is 'naturally' extended into wishfulfilment, in particular the desire to emulate popular ideal representations of femininity: 'I think all brides want to look like the models in magazines and look as good as they do, which is fine' (Sara Raeburn, make-up artist, Bliss for Brides pg. 27). So too, fairytale wedding venues are marketed on the grounds of realising childhood fantasies: 'not only princesses get married in a castle' (advertisement for Naworth Castle, You and Your Wedding pg. 240). On the odd occasion grooms are invited to participate in wedding preparations they are advised to indulge their partner's 'truly feminine' side which is flourishing thanks to the bridal identity: 'she might not openly confess it, but it's every woman's secret desire to own a pair of glamorous marabou mules' (groom's news, Wedding and Home pg. 122).

What we are witnessing through the bridal magazine's construction of a shared 'feminine' consumer identity is one example of how women are socialised into the role of the bride. This leads us to ask what particular pleasures do bridal magazines imply that the wedding offers women? Of equal importance is which desires are induced in this process and how are they promised to be fulfilled?

The Pleasures of the Bridal Identity

I'd always dreamt of looking like a bird in a gilded cage on my wedding day.
(chirped by 'Sophie', a real-life bride, Brides and Setting Up Home pg. 173)

One of the specific pleasures bridal magazines offer their readers can be termed the pleasure of ultimate femininity. This pleasure can only be assured, however, if concerted time, effort, and expenditure are devoted to the construction of the bridal identity. Consumption, in terms of the entire wedding spectacle and the bride herself, is the primary method of ensuring success. This induced logic confers a duty to spend on the part of the bride as much as for her sake as for her extended wedding party. It also infers that the bride's creativity and effort will be used to good effect.

Through consumption, brides are expected to strive for 'still-life' perfection. This tells us more about the particular types of pleasure and femininity offered by the wedding. Overwhelmingly, femininity is conceptualised as 'picture-perfect', triggering visual pleasure for the bride as well as her audience for conforming to the cultural requirements of a successful bridal appearance. The ways in which women are shown to be creating and living out the bridal identity leads us to consider the relationship between gender, spectatorship and performance. For instance, theorists like Judith Butler (1990) argue that gender is an enacted performance. The current 'postmodern' culture, characterised as it is by eclecticism, shifting identities and boundary- blurring may suggest we have freedom to reinvent, play with and act out our gender identity in what appears to be an almost unrestricted circuit of ritual and performance.

The cover of Wedding Day (see Figure 1) is a case in point, and can be 'read' using the insights of Goffman (1979). Wedding Day depicts a youthful, pretty bride in a simple, traditional white satin dress twinned with a white veil which cascades down beyond the representational frame of the photograph. The bride appears to be sitting outside on a lawn, holding her bouquet. A little girl rests her head on the bride's lap and appears to be in pleasant slumber underneath the falling layers of netting.

The gaze of the implied male spectator, presumably her groom, positions the image of the bride. She displays her femininity not only through the conventional markers of bridal identity (dress, veil, bouquet, ring) but, more tellingly, through her pose. The bride's head is slightly bowed as she peers out from the semi-covering veil. Her face is smiling, yet her mouth is half-hidden by the fingers of her left hand, one of which shows the engagement ring. She holds her fingers in front of her mouth in a playful, childish manner strengthening the inference that she just has or is about to live out her childhood fantasy, the fairytale wedding scenario that the young girl in the photo is now dreaming of. Through seeking the spectatorial male gaze and pleasing it by achieving the expected representation of a perfected, beautiful bride, her femininity has been confirmed.

Many of the features and advertisements within the magazines sampled were found to fragment the female body. They imply that particular parts of the body if left in their natural state may spoil the overall ambience of the bridal identity; for example, feet: 'honeymooners beware...your hair cut may look perfect, your body so silky-smooth and hair-free but when it comes to looking gorgeous, forget looking after those feet at your peril' (Bride and Groom pg. 33), and hands: 'brides' hands come in for close scrutiny as friends take a close look at those rings' (Wedding Day pg. 57).

Others target the deeper layers of bridal identity to ensure that the bridal 'body' underneath the dress is firm: Christian Dior's High Definition Body Contouring System 'can make you feel more confident about your body contours' (Brides and Setting Up Home pg. 60), smooth: 'the results are dramatic: skin tone and texture is improved and the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles is minimalized' with Borghese's Active Mud Treatment (Brides and Setting Up Home pg. 61), fragranced: 'what more could a bride want than a perfume that promises laughter, sensuality and radiant femininity' (You and Your Wedding pg. 89), shapely: 'learn the secret of beautiful brides everywhere' with Curves silicone breast enhancers that 'even bounce like real breasts' (You and Your Wedding pg. 232), tempting: 'if you have your heart set on your new husband discovering a sexy, lace number on your wedding night then there is no reason why you cannot quickly change into something else after the reception' (Bride and Groom pg. 80), and accessible: 'this deeply feminine lingerie is part of a larger collection whose easy-to-pull ribbons should ensure no fumbling' (Brides and Setting Up Home pg.14). Moreover, current bridal fashions favouring the bodice- style gown further exaggerate the ideal 'hourglass' female form. Such imagery, combined with the consumption-led pursuits for aesthetic 'feminine' perfection encouraged throughout the magazines, place the spotlight on the 'figure' of the bride, long before she is due to have her big day.

So, as well as selling the bridal identity to us as a 'pleasure', bridal magazines in fact promote the disciplined female body - disciplined not only thorough diet, beauty regimes, costume, gesture and posture (expressed in totality through the lived spatiality of the cover bride, see Figure 1), but also through conforming to the more traditional proprieties of wedding etiquette and formality. The construction of bridal identity is undoubtedly a disciplinary project and can be termed the 'work' of consuming femininity (Winship 1987). Brides must enter into multiple, regulatory regimes justified on the grounds that such short-term restrictive behaviour will ensure the later pleasures of fulfilled femininity on the wedding day. This ever-increasing monitoring process of the bridal identity is accompanied by an increase in the array of products and advice on offer. Indeed, the restrictive bodily regimes required to ensure a successful bridal identity, based as they are around the notions of control, denial and anticipation stand in ideological contradiction to the commercial discourses of abundance, choice and instant satisfaction that the wedding occasion is tied to.

It is in this sense that Foucault's (1977) reading of how the body is inscribed by power relations can be applied to consumer cultures to show how any desire to sculpt bodily appearance is created through panoptic commercial ideology and the appropriation of external disciplines into continual, reflexive self-evaluation. Certainly, the bridal identity is subjected to a series of internal and external surveillance mechanisms. Perhaps given this fact it is time to acknowledge, following Naomi Wolf, that the wedding, or more precisely, the bridal identity now equals 'the diet' in being 'the most political sedative in women's history' (Wolf, 1991:187).

Bridal Insecurities and the Management of Guests and Grooms

The bride's acts of consumption are located within her wider social context and are usually portrayed as taking place amid a minefield of unwanted advice and input from the extended wedding party. This leads us to counter the earlier examination of the supposed pleasures on offer by the wedding with a consideration of which particular fears or frustrations become associated with it. It could be argued that bridal insecurities are purposely mobilised as a method of need stimulation. Certainly, relative anxieties can stimulate consumer desire and ensure potential consumers are receptive to the deeper psychological underpinnings of advertisements. For example, in several instances the magazines sampled justified particular aspects of wedding consumption as a strategy of risk elimination. Two major threats to the day itself and its preparation were continually identified - guests and grooms.

Bliss for Brides devotes the whole of its question and answer section (pg. 83-84) to solving the dilemma of how to 'keep your wedding yours' and proceeds to answer a series of bridal worries on how to be a forceful and determined wedding organiser without upsetting the relatives. Brides are reminded that to get what they want requires tactful, manipulative behavior. For example, replying to one bride's concern that her mother's 'personal style is closer to Dame Barbara Cartland' than her own and that she wants to impose this 'style' upon her daughter's day, Bliss advise: 'Rather than embarrass your mother by exposing her interior design fallibilities, why not steer her towards other equally important, and ever so worthy aspects of the wedding organisation, where well-intentioned but fundamentally flawed creative ideas can't do any serious damage? Ask her to make fudge, write the table place names or usher people into their seats at the ceremony. Whatever she does make sure your almost nauseating 'thank-yous' pump plenty of air into her deflated ego'. The management and organisation of people as well as consumables, it seems, is equally as vital to the construction of a successful wedding occasion.

To curtail the over- zealous enthusiasm and involvement of close family members (usually the bride's mother or future mother-in-law) Bliss instruct brides to follow the shining example set by Sophie Rhys-Jones who had the British Royal family to contend with when she was planning her own wedding: 'And despite offers from Buckingham Palace to take the entire arrangements out of her hands, Sophie has insisted that she wants to retain control of every aspect of the wedding from what dress she wears right through to the flowers in the church and the decorations on the table at the reception. Use her example and tell your mother-in-law that whatever size you and your fiancé want the wedding to be is the right size'. Neither should any bride allow her family or future family to try to make a claim on her wedding based upon economic justifications: 'Regardless of whose is paying for the wedding the fundamental point to remember is that it is your day'. Weddings involving step-families, warring or divorced parents are also problematised, as they make the seating arrangements for guests at the reception a logistical nightmare. Bliss advises the better-safe-than-sorry tactic of seating only the bride and groom together at the top table, thus effectively limiting familial interaction.

Brides are also repeatedly warned that they must take action against the 'lad' culture their fiancé may be part of, since its 'bacchanalian excesses' could disrupt the already stressful pre-wedding build-up: 'You'll have enough on your plate organising a wedding without wondering what your fiancé will get up to in his last, wild days of bachelorhood' (Brides and Setting Up Home pg. 174-175). This particular article, entitled 'Grooms Behaving Badly', pictures Martin Clunes from the popular British television series Men Behaving Badly looking worse for wear after a particularly riotous stag night (he appears to be naked, apart from bandages to his head and his arm, and carries a pair of handcuffs and the head of a fancy dress dog costume). The article educates brides about several coping strategies for taming their groom's 'ladishness' in the hope of eliminating such bad behavior in time for the wedding day and the anticipated years of stable, monogamous couplehood ahead. One of these strategies involves the censorship of the groom's reading materials: 'Most women fear finding their lover's stack of pornography under the bed. However, a collection of top-shelf titles is better than discovering that your fiancé has a subscription to FHM or Maxim, since these are the instruction manuals for men who want to behave badly. It is essential that as the big day approaches you censor his reading matter and ban the purchase of the above titles at least six months before the wedding'. Although presumably intended to be read as a humorous look at the ways 'typical' masculine and feminine characteristics become exaggerated on the road to marriage, this article firmly identifies the groom as bringing a serious element of risk into the wedding preparations.

Therefore, on many occasions, bridal magazines conceptualise wedding preparations as a series of potential authority struggles between the bride, groom, friends and family. For example, they imply that in order for the bride to have her fantasy day the groom has to subordinate himself to it, effectively making him only a 'silent partner' in the business of wedding consumption. These potential struggles for authority are never conceptualised as being between the bride and the wedding industry. In fact, it can be argued that bridal magazines treat the wedding as a welcomed collective enterprise, but only collective in the sense of the bride's reliance upon wedding industry professionals. Bridal magazines market themselves on sharing strategies with the bride for gaining and keeping control over her own wedding. Typically, this involves encouraging the bride to take control of all consumption decisions, evoking themes of agency, choice and self-responsibility to disguise the economic incentives driving the commodification of the event. Thus, the wedding becomes a carefully negotiated performance organised by the bride, aided by the industry, given meaning by the culture and kept at a secure distance from the unwanted influences of other involved parties.

The Romance of it All: Revisiting Campbell's Romantic Ethic

To conclude this analysis of the meanings with which bridal magazines imbue the wedding it is necessary to look at how connections are made between consumption, Romanticism and the more popular meanings of romance. The idea that consuming can be a hedonistic activity, one that depends heavily upon the creative imagination, has forcibly broadened the scope of consumption studies. In particular, Campbell's (1987) Romantic ethic thesis can be credited for initiating debate about the mentalistic dimensions of consumption.

The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism (1987) argues for the recognition of an underpinning Romantic ethic within consumer desire. For Campbell, many of the ideological beliefs and attitudes prevalent in the original Romantic Movement have fostered the spirit of modern consumerism. This 'spirit' is self-illusory hedonism and is centred on the control and decontrol of imagined or anticipated emotion. Pleasure is sought through this process of 'emotional management' more so than through tactile sensation. Mental images are constructed and then consumed 'for the intrinsic pleasure they provide' (Campbell 1987:77). Campbell's thesis, therefore, can be interpreted as a 'hybrid' model of rationally managed or (de)controlled emotion (i.e. through the construction, control and enjoyment of imagined sensation).

Yet, interestingly, for Campbell it is the specificities of modern hedonism that account for the inevitable failure of material goods to live up to the imaginative capacities of the individual. Ironically the more proficient one becomes at creatively imagining emotions and sensations, the more likely it is that 'real' consumption fails to deliver a comparable intensity of pleasure. This in turn establishes a cyclical pattern of consumer frustration in which actual consumption is often a 'disillusioning' and 'dissatisfying' experience. Campbell's theory therefore helps to explain the self-satisfactory nature of consumer longing by distinguishing between potential and actual pleasure. Consumers often adopt strategies of delayed gratification, postponing the moment of actual consumption to revel in the pre-consumption pleasures of anticipation. Moreover, consumers demand new and exciting consumables both to fuel their imaginations and as an attempt to realise their daydreams. To a certain extent, then, Campbell's treatment of consumption implicates consumers in their own manipulation, a manipulation which itself produces pleasure.

There is much evidence of the wedding consumer being encouraged to conceptualise their wedding in terms of a Romantic consumer ethic. For example, brides are asked repeatedly to exercise their imaginative capacities by conjuring up numerous mental pictures of the forthcoming event: 'Do try to imagine how you will look on the day in a dress with make-up, jewellery and flowers, not bare faced and dressed in jeans' (Bride and Groom pg. 29), 'Think of your wedding as a stage show where you look like the best version of you, not what you think a bride looks like' (Bride and Groom pg. 29). Often these invitations to imagine are located in wedding countdown features and so use the anticipation of sensation to fuel the longing and desire for the real life experience. This serves to frame the wedding in a highly imaginative and emotional context, months and even years before the bride's own big day arrives - effectively raising the bride's expectations for her wedding and setting a high standard for the day to live up to.

A few advertisements and features with obvious Romantic connotations were also found. These usually make some reference to the popular understanding of the original Romantic period and its historical associations with literature and natural landscapes: 'Love in the Lakes - the Lake District has always been associated with the Romantic poets and is perfect for an idyllic honeymoon...Romantic extras such as roses, heart-shaped chocolates and even a champagne helicopter ride can all be arranged' (You and Your Wedding pg. 170). Moreover, for brides wishing to give their wedding even more Romantic authenticity, one can send out invitations inscribed with a 'Romantic quote' from Charlotte Bronté's classic Jane Eyre (You and Your Wedding pg. 26).

Besides uncovering evidence of bridal magazines encouraging brides to indulge in acts of Romantic, hedonistic consumption, weddings are marketed as romantic events more typically. To say that 'romance' and 'romantic' are clichéd, overused words when it comes to describing anything wedding- related would be an understatement. The classified section of Bliss for Brides, for instance, is turned into a battleground between advertisers for romantic supremacy in the marketplace of wedding music: 'romantic jazz', 'the romantic guitarists', 'the most beautiful and romantic music played for your wedding by harpist Jeanette Cordery'. Romantic word (and picture) prompts are 'triggers of action' in consumption temptations to stimulate consumer desire through the appeal to a genuine human longing (Packard 1970:27). In bridal magazines consumers are encouraged to identify with the need to feel and express romantic love.

Typically, wedding consumption is legitimated using the model of a romantic relationship, with advertisers often employing the language of love to market their product: 'The heart already knows...what the mind can only dream your heart' (advert for Margaret Lee bridal designs, Wedding and Home pg. 62), 'You have chosen each other - now let H. Samuel help you make some other romantic decisions' (Brides and Setting Up Home pg. 53), 'Fall in love with Estée Lauder' (Bliss for Brides pg. 18), 'How do you make sure that the accessories to your marriage match the overflowing feelings in your heart' (article on creating dramatic weddings, Bliss for Brides pg. 110). Consumables stand in for feelings, providing a commodified alternative or prompt to direct, verbal emotional expression: 'As he put it on my finger he just said "Forever". It takes a diamond solitaire to make a man that romantic' (advert for De Beers jewelers, Wedding and Home back cover). Emphasising the romantic dimensions of a consumable implies that there is a purchasable alternative to undesirable (i.e. unromantic) states of being. Objects become duly desired for their romantic transformatory powers: 'Indulge yourself with glamorous lingerie and accessories that are made for romance' (Wedding and Home pg. 108).

Going beyond Campbell's Romantic ethic thesis to consider the influence of Romanticism or Romantic motifs more generally upon contemporary consumption, it could be argued that the longstanding, historical thematic and conceptual connections between literary Romanticism, romance and romantic love infer that, theoretically at least, consumers would be more likely to engage in the practices of Romantic, hedonistic consumption if this consumption was linked to a romantic event, place or partner. An event such as the wedding, because of its traditional romantic connotations combined with its potential for aesthetic and phenomenological impact, provides a relevant case study for investigating whether such experiences of consumption can really be conceived as having Romantic aspects. Certainly, in the bridal magazine, references to a popular understanding of Romanticism and its experiential indicators are increasingly blurred together with more modern consumption- led definitions of romance to produce and intensify the expectation that the wedding must be emotional, imaginative and, above all, 'romantic'.

In relation to Campbell, two points can be made here. First, one might contend whether consumer desire, as insatiable emotional and imaginative longing, can be regarded as a cultural inheritance of Romanticism, or a consequential product of the very industry it turns to for satisfaction. To the manipulations of commercial ideology we can add those of patriarchy and identify their influence upon female consumers in particular. Feminists have continued to analyse the role consumption plays in constructing gender identity, arguing that consumer desire can and has been mobilised for more political purposes. Loeb (1994), for instance, shows how early advertising positioned women as the primary consumers for the family unit, a role promoted as a moral duty to reinforce their existing 'angel in the house' status. The catalogue of feminist research on popular romantic fiction, moreover, has exposed this type of literary consumption as selling the 'bourgeois fairy tale' (Cranny-Francis 1994) of monogamous, heterosexual marital bliss, thus perpetuating a collective false consciousness of women, or at least those that read such texts. To these illustrations we may add the more pervasive multiple regulatory and disciplinary regimes women are encouraged to enter into in order to conform to the market dictates of an ideal 'feminine' appearance - the bridal identity being one clear example.

Second, the findings of this paper begin to problematise Campbell's claim that modern hedonists purposely delay the gratification of their mental constructions through consumption for as long as possible in order to revel in the pleasures of anticipated sensation. Although there is clearly an element of pleasure in the planning of the wedding, anxiety is just as marked. If wedding expectations have been raised (arguably for all concerned, but especially those of the bride) by the developing wedding industry and consumer culture, then the months and years of pre-wedding preparations that typically involve much emotional and imaginative apprehension (as well as actual consumption) may instead constitute a strategy of risk elimination to secure a 'romantic' experience. Indeed, wedding consumption is a perfect example to illustrate this process since unlike holidays or the purchase of new clothes, for example, brides do not usually see themselves as likely to have the opportunity to repeat it. This is perhaps why risk avoidance is so important and may explain why brides need so long to negotiate and perfect the wedding fantasy.

Therefore one could argue that the preoccupation of bridal magazines with the imaginative and emotional anticipation of the wedding day has two consequences - to generate consumer wants as a safeguard against 'unromantic' outcomes, and to intensify the emotional, experiential pleasure of the wedding day itself after the induced anxiety of it not living up to constructed expectations.

If bridal magazines produce the expectation of a highly romantic wedding day then surely through consumers' months of careful preparation, organisation and consumption, they are consciously setting the stage to secure such an emotional experience. Bridal magazines repeatedly claim that consumer rationality is needed to enable a later romantic fantasy, namely that of living out the fairytale wedding scenario. They reassure us that the bride's exercise of reason and direction will not spoil her wedding fantasy but ensure its realisation. This is evident in the depiction of the supposedly universal split personality of the bride - the 'rational' project manager existing alongside the 'emotional' childish fantasiser. Does this suppose that, in the context of wedding consumption at least, consumers are recognising the constitutive relationship, or, perhaps given this present context, the 'marriage', between rationality and romance, reason and emotion - that is to say, the heart has its own 'reasons' for wanting to guarantee an intense, romantic wedding experience? [5]

These points about the linking of reason and emotion in consumption activities entered into in order to facilitate romance propel us sharply back into the complexities of Campbell's 'hybrid' model of rationally (de)controlled emotion. Certainly, any discussion of the operation of a reason/emotion duality in the context of wedding consumption and the possible existence of a Romantic ethic must take into account gender identity and consider the implications of consuming romance along gender lines. If as Bulcroft et al (1997:464) imply, romantic and consumer ideologies have distorted the lived reality of the honeymoon, and indeed, as I propose, shaped the wedding experience, the consequent 'creation of a shared reality' between bride and groom (my emphasis) actually contains a strong gender imbalance. Typically it is the bride who invests greatest effort to facilitate a romantic wedding day and, as with the honeymoon, is responsible 'for orchestrating the emotional climate' (Bulcroft et al 1997:479) of the whole event. Bridal magazines stand as testament to this fact, steeped as they are in images and ideologies of the 'superbride' who willingly takes on and enjoys creating her special day. The corresponding lack of publications aimed at grooms only serves to reinforce the welcomed absence of men from the all-female community of wedding consumers.

One must therefore remain suspicious of whether the wedding industry creates a 'shared reality' for each marrying couple, given the fact that its cultural output, encapsulated as we have seen in the bridal magazine, encourages only the immersion of the bride in romantic and consumer ideologies and the meanings these give to the wedding occasion. As Otnes and Scott (1996:44) describe, traditionally the wedding is for both partners:

...a ritual of transformation that involves not only a change in marital status but also a heightened state of consciousness ('love' 'romance' 'the most special day of our lives')

But for the bride exposed to the ideological discourses of bridal magazines and drawn into the wider wedding culture, interpreting the wedding through a romantic lens dominates. With bridal magazines mirroring much romantic fiction in its abrupt discontinuation of the romantic narrative after the wedding day, however, we are left only to wonder whether married life will be able to match the emotional and imaginative rollercoaster of romance and consumption already experienced by the bride in her wedding preparations.


So, to conclude, in the light of the recent heavy promotion of wedding consumption in the media, three key dimensions of wedding-related consumer behavior can be identified - romance, fantasy and reason. Two types of media were chosen to form the basis of this study, although they do not exist independently of each other or the wedding industry. Depictions of celebrity or unconventional weddings in the popular presses celebrate the crucial elements of a successful wedding. They stimulate the desires of ordinary consumers to emulate these ideals, thus turning the wedding into a fantasy-laden cultural event that is dependent upon consumption. Bridal magazines also play a central role in developing a popular wedding consumer culture, tending to focus on the bride as the heroic creator of her big day. The successful 'superbride' is a figure who manages to channel the rational and emotional aspects of her personality into the business of wedding consumption. This endeavor promises a continued cycle of pleasure and frustration right up until the wedding itself.

My findings have supported the argument that consumption can occur equally in the imaginary realm as in the material one. Often labelled 'Romantic' or 'hedonistic' consumption, such primarily mentalistic acts are characterised as pleasurable, fantastical, emotional, imaginative, creative and expressive, and can involve the experiential consumption of a product, person or place. I have in this paper, for example, emphasised the strategies the wedding industry uses to sustain the tension between romance, fantasy and reason. These function to reinforce commonsenses about how the wedding day should feel and subsequently problematises Campbell's (1987) claims that self-illusory hedonism is mainly autonomous from the media and other cultural output. How far can consumers retain control and autonomy over their own perceptions and desires whilst immersed in a wedding industry that seeks to construct and control them?

I have shown how what I term the 'superbride' is constructed in order to incorporate the relevance of the manipulative view of consumption in the Romantic theme. As we have seen, brides have to negotiate a complex, distorted identity, being producer and consumer, actor and audience, subject and object of their own wedding. The bridal role, infused as it is with a consumer identity, is certainly a restrictive, regulatory existence. Yet although the wedding has become a commodified occasion, in the run up to their big day brides are not only given the space to daydream, the industry demands it of them. What I have documented in bridal magazines in relation to wedding consumption is both the anticipation of emotion and the expectation of tension, and, most importantly, the constitutive relationship between the two. This can be taken as evidence that despite and, indeed, perhaps because of the bride's imagination being colonized by market forces, women can still extract some sort of pleasure out of the whole wedding experience.


Figure 1 - Front cover of Wedding Day, Millennium Issue November 1999.

Figure 2 - Front Cover of Bliss For Brides, June/July 1999.

Figure 3 - Front cover of Bride and Groom, Spring 1999.

Figure 4 - Front Cover of You and Your Wedding, May/June 1999.

Figure 5 - Front cover of Wedding and Home, June/July 1999.

Figure 6 - Front cover of Brides, May/June 1999.


1Haskey's 1996 article shows that 28.8% of marriages that started in 1978 had ended in divorce within 15 years. He goes on to predict that about 2 in 5 marriages starting in 1993/4 will eventually end in divorce.

2 It is worth mentioning at this point that more and more couples are creating their own wedding websites, showing that weddings are not only becoming tied into consumer culture but also new communication technologies. See, for example, <http://www.mikedownes.cwc.n et>,<> or <> (click on 'public albums' then 'weddings').

3Estimates from You and Your Wedding magazine quoted in The Guardian (May 18th 2000). A recent article in The Times (February 15th 2001) similarly suggests that couples will spend an average of just over £13,000 on their big day.

4See, for instance, <>, < > or <>

5 I am indebted to Simon J. Williams for many useful discussions on mind/body, reason/emotion dualities. For a comprehensive overview of the sociological understanding of emotions and beyond see his 'Emotion and Social Theory' (2001) London: Sage.


I am grateful to Carol Wolkowitz, Simon J. Williams, Richard Lampard, Sally-Anne Barnes and Joan Haran for their continued help and support. Thanks also to the anonymous referees of this paper for their useful comments, and to the bridal magazines for permission to reproduce cover images and selected text. This paper has developed from doctoral research funded by the ESRC.


BULCROFT, K. BULCROFT, R. SMEINS, L. and CRANAGE, H. (1997) 'The Social Construction of the North American Honeymoon, 1880-1995' Journal of Family History, 22 (4), 462-490.

BUTLER, J. (1990) 'Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity' New York: Routledge.

CAMPBELL, C. (1987) 'The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism' Oxford: Blackwell.

CHARSLEY, S. R. (1991) 'Rites of Marrying' Manchester: Manchester University Press.

CRANNY-FRANCIS, A. (1994) 'Feminist Romance' in 'The Polity Reader in Cultural Theory' Cambridge: Polity Press.

FOUCAULT, M. (1977) 'Discipline and Punish' London: Tavistock.

GOFFMAN, E. (1979) 'Gender Advertisements' London: Macmillan.

HASKEY, J. (1996) 'The Proportion of Married Couples who Divorce: Past Patterns and Current Prospects' in Population Trends, 83, 25-36.

HASKEY, J. (1998) 'Marriages in Approved Premises in England and Wales: The Impact of the 1994 Marriage Act' in Population Trends, 93, 38-52.

LEONARD, D. (1980) 'Sex and Generation' London: Tavistock.

LOEB, L. A. (1994) 'Consuming Angels: Advertising and Victorian Women' Oxford: Oxford University Press.

LOWREY, T. M. and OTNES, C. (1994) 'Construction of a Meaningful Wedding: Differences in the Priorities of Brides and Grooms' in J. A. Costa (editor) 'Gender Issues and Consumer Behaviour' California: Sage.

MANSFIELD, P. and Collard, J. (1988) 'The Beginning of the Rest of Your Life' London: Macmillan.

MCCRACKEN, E. (1993) 'Decoding Women's Magazines' London: Macmillan.

MILLER, D. (ed.) (1993) 'Unwrapping Christmas' Oxford: Clarendon Press.

OTNES, C. and LOWREY, T. M. (1993) 'Till Debt Do us Part: The Selection and Meaning of Artefacts in the American Wedding' Advances in Consumer Research, 20, 325-329.

OTNES, C. and SCOTT, L. (1996) 'Something Old, Something New: Exploring the Interaction Between Ritual and Advertising' Journal of Advertising, 25 (1), 33-50.

PACKARD, V. (1970) 'The Hidden Persuaders' Middlesex: Penguin URRY, J. (1991) 'The Tourists Gaze' London: Sage.

URRY, J. (1995) 'Consuming Places' London: Routledge.

WILLIAMSON, J. (1993) 'Decoding Advertisements' London: Marion Boyars.

WINSHIP, J. (1993) ' "Options - for the way to live now", or a magazine for superwoman' Theory, Culture and Society 1 (3), 44-66.

WINSHIP, J. (1987) 'Inside Women's Magazines' London: Pandora.

WOLF, N. (1991) 'The Beauty Myth' London: Vintage.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2001