How secret weddings became the new "it" wedding

On April Fool's Day, actress Anya Taylor-Joy announced her marriage — two years prior

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published April 12, 2024 1:40PM (EDT)

Wedding cake topper (Getty Images/Peter Dazeley)
Wedding cake topper (Getty Images/Peter Dazeley)

On April Fool’s Day, “The Queen’s Gambit” and “The Menu” actress Anya Taylor-Joy posted a series of photographs to her Instagram page: one of her walking through a haunted-looking hall with yellowing wallpaper and dark stained glass, wearing an intricately embroidered Dior wedding gown; one of her enveloping friends, including Cara Delevingne, with her gauzy veil; one of the “anatomically-correct heart-shaped cakes” served to guests on white plates.

“Two years ago, on April Fools, I secretly married my best friend in New Orleans,” Taylor-Joy wrote. “The magic of that day is ingrained in every cell of my being, forever.” 

This was news to Taylor-Joy’s fans, many of whom believed the actress had wed longtime partner, musician Malcolm McRae in Italy last year. However, this post revealed she had actually gotten married in a secret ceremony the year prior, and Taylor-Joy isn’t alone. Secret weddings are on the rise. 

Over the last five years, numerous celebrity couples, including Emma Stone and Dave McCary, Margot Robbie and Tom Ackerly, Colin Jost and Scarlett Johansson, Dave Franco and Alison Brie, have all wed in secret, shunning the seemingly obligatory magazine spreads and talk show appearances about the ceremony. According to wedding planners and experts, this trend is true even among the non-celebrity set. It seems that the new “it” wedding is no one knowing you had one at all (that is, at least until you’re ready to share the well-lit and manicured professional photographs a few months — or years — later). 

Of course, it should be said that the pandemic completely disrupted the wedding industry; according to The Knot’s 2020 Real Weddings Study, 90% of couples who were set to wed that year were affected by COVID, prompting a tsunami of cancellations and postponements, the ripple effects of which are still being felt in the industry four years on. About a third of those couples reportedly “went ahead with a minimony or legalizing their union,” but I don’t think the rise in secret weddings can be solely attributed to an initial wave of couples opting for more small-scale or casual ceremonies out of necessity, with others simply following suit. 

Instead, the shift towards more intimate weddings could be interpreted as a response to two decades of weddings increasingly serving as a form of blockbuster entertainment, both on and off television. 

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For much of human history, weddings have been something of a public celebration. The Ancient Greek and Roman elite held multi-day nuptial feasts, a tradition that was carried into the Middle Ages when weddings served as important political and social transactions between countries and kingdoms. Much of contemporary Western wedding culture, including the white dresses and elaborate floral arrangements, can be traced to Queen Victoria’s wedding to Prince Albert in 1840, a pairing that seemed to be based on love rather than, or perhaps in addition to, royal obligation, which aided in the romanticization of the affair. 

The ensuing century saw the early days of the “celebrity wedding” — including that between Rudolph Valentino and Jean Acker in 1919, and between "America's Sweethearts” Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford in 1920 — a concept that gained traction as the film industry grew and movie stars began to become household names. This further helped entwine wedding planning with aspirations of luxury and glamor. But then, 20 years ago, in July 2004, the first episode of the WE TV series “Bridezillas” debuted, transitioning weddings from sheer spectacle to emotional bloodsport. The series description reads: 

Godzilla has nothing on a bride-to-be planning her dream wedding, as evidenced by the aptly named "Bridezillas." The docu-series follows women who were perfectly normal before wedding planning took over her life. Grimly determined to realize their "dream wedding" at all costs, these out-of-control brides make the time leading up to their day of days an utter nightmare for everyone around them. In the end, they hope all the stress and meltdowns are worth it and they have the perfect wedding they've been dreaming of since they were little.

Whether the series, which ultimately ran for 13 seasons, was a relatively artless commentary on the capitalistic chokehold the wedding industry has on American women (per The Knot, the average wedding last year cost $35,000) or simply a parade of misogynistic stereotypes gussied up in off-the-rack Vera Wang depends on how you watch the show, but it did help cement this idea in pop culture of brides and grooms having different on-stage and off-stage personas. This is actually a broader phenomenon that sociologist Erving Goffman identified called “dramaturgy.” 

Per Goffman’s Dramaturgical Theory, social interactions can be viewed through the lens of theatrical performance. Individuals engage in impression management, strategically presenting themselves to others to shape how they are perceived. This can be done in small ways — like adopting a different tone in a professional email than the one you might use in a text to your spouse, or choosing to wear something a little daring to an event your crush is attending — and can occur often many times throughout a single day or even single conversation.

As such, Goffman distinguishes between front stage and backstage behavior, where the front stage represents the public performance of self, while the backstage refers to the private preparation and rehearsal of that performance. For weddings, the ceremony and reception, the “public” parts of the wedding, would be considered front stage, while the planning is considered backstage. In the world of theater, the backstage isn’t often open to the public. It’s a private area for the actors to prepare. 

What wedding entertainment has done, from “Bridezilla” to “Say Yes to the Dress” to “Four Weddings,” is erase the distinction between the public persona and the private persona, making the entire process performative, and that can be exhausting. Even if the average American couple doesn’t have a camera crew following them around as they prepare for their wedding, they have relatives with cellphone cameras and nieces with TikTok — but there’s an easy solution if one wants it. 

"Secret weddings provide a way to truly have your wedding cake and eat it, too."

According to Goffman’s theory, the backstage area also serves as a sanctuary; it’s a place to retreat from one’s on-stage performance and return to who they really are. Within this framework, secret weddings take place completely backstage. They’re intimate, they’re private and they’re free from the prying eyes of a judgemental public. 

Is there still some element of performance here? Of course, even the couples who marry in secret are making choices about how they do present themselves to those in attendance, but all of life requires a little performance. For those  who want to avoid the pressure of a spotlight on their big day — especially those who already spend much of their lives in one— secret weddings provide a way to truly have your wedding cake and eat it, too.

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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