Polyester brides

Shocking news: In tough economic times, women will even stoop to -- gasp! -- inexpensive wedding dresses.

By Kate Harding

Published June 12, 2009 7:13PM (EDT)

This just in: During a recession, some people spend less on stuff. It's true! Even weddings! And lower-priced retailers sometimes benefit from this! Caitlin McDevitt at The Big Money has got the scoop: "More than 2.2 million women will get married in the United States this year. About one-third of them will be outfitted by one company: David's Bridal... While the average wedding gown costs $1,075,according to Condé Nast Bridal Media, the average David's Bridal dress retails at only $550. Some sell for just $99. It has been called the 'Wal-Mart of weddings,' and, like the blue big-box giant, David's Bridal may be poised to emerge from the recession as an even more formidable retail force."

It's true and arguably interesting that David's is doing surprisingly well these days -- despite the economic climate it's "in the midst of what it calls 'an ambitious expansion program'" -- but I can't quite get past the fact that McDevitt seems surprised by the existence of a bridal market that wants affordable merchandise, even at the expense of stereotypical princess fantasies. Her description of a newly opened Manhattan store has an anthropologist-on-Mars feel that's more than a tad ridiculous, given that David's has been in business for more than 50 years and currently has nearly 300 stores: "There are no champagne toasts or doting bridal consultants. Most of the bustling brides pick through the dresses like they're shopping for groceries. The styles range from trendy cuts to classic silhouettes, but almost all the gowns have one thing in common -- they're made of the fabric that nary a bride wants to speak of too loudly: polyester." No champagne? Self-service? Polyester? And this has been going on for how long? Someone hold me.

I'm no great fan of big-box retailers, but I have to give credit where it's due. David's is not just successful because the economy tanked; it's been successful for some time because it gives middle-class brides what they need and want, at prices they can stomach. (Lest you think I'm on the payroll, I'll note that I loathed the one thing I ever bought there -- a pearl pink polyester bridesmaid gown -- but at least it didn't cost me hundreds of dollars.) For most women, recession or no recession, $550 is actually a hell of a lot of money to spend on a dress that will only be worn once. (It's true!) And for those same women, having a real silk gown is nowhere near as important as, say, having a prayer of paying off their wedding debt before they retire. A champagne toast isn't as crucial as a selection of dresses they can actually try on if they don't wear standard sample sizes (or aren't close enough to be clamped into them). Having their bridesmaids wear exquisite designer dresses isn't as big a deal as making sure said bridesmaids don't hate them for breaking the bank. None of this is new since the recession. It may not be the fantasy in bridal magazines, but it's always been the reality for many, many brides. Am I really supposed to act shocked now?

The question is, will this trend toward spending less on weddings continue even after the economy recovers? McDevitt isn't so sure. "[T[herein lies the big difference between David's Bridal and Wal-Mart," she writes. "People shop at Wal-Mart regularly, whereas David's Bridal is presumably seeing most of its customers for only one purchase (or not much more than one)." Once money's flowing a bit more freely, perhaps a new crop of one-time customers will be back to the champagne-serving boutiques. But it's also possible that after all the Wedding Industrial Complex insanity of the last several years, people might finally be realizing that starting a marriage solvent is a better long-term plan than wearing a couture gown for one day, however special. As Suzanne Hader, a consultant for luxury brands, said in an e-mail, "Spending for spending's sake is over. Although there will always be a small population of brides driven to purchase the most expensive dress, the notion that in order to reward yourself, you have to buy luxury has had its day. If Michelle Obama can happily wear J Crew to state functions, so too can most folks happily wear it to get hitched." Or David's Bridal polyester. Whatever.

Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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Broadsheet Fashion Great Recession U.s. Economy