By Ellen McCarthy
The Washington Post
— Wedding planning has just about pushed Grace Kim over the edge. Already she's bought an expensive dress, organized myriad events, scouted locations, mulled color schemes, agonized over tiny details and played referee between between warring factions of friends.
And she's not even the one getting married.
Of course a wedding is a bride and groom's special day. But you know who deserves a standing ovation after the first dance? Everyone else. The parents and siblings and bridesmaids and groomsmen and friends who let this blessed event take over their lives for a year, dominating every conversation, sapping precious vacation days and vacuuming up the last few pennies from their emergency fund.
"I'm exhausted," Kim said last week. "And it's only May!"
Kim, a 27-year-old marketing manager who grew up in Fairfax and now lives in New York City, attended her first wedding of the year in April. She has others in June and August, plus two in September. Along the way, she's accrued the horror stories only a four-time bridesmaid can tell — in one wedding, she'll be forced to wear a flapper dress; for another she'll have to show up five days early, per the bride's request.
And because Kim has experience in event planning, she's become the go-to strategist for her engaged friends, spending one to two hours a day consulting with the brides. Kim, who's in a relationship but not ready to get married, estimates that already this year she's spent $2,700 on other people's weddings and will probably spend around $6,000 by the end of 2012.
"When you become a bridesmaid or any part of the wedding, people think it's an honor — but you quickly realize that it's not," she says. "There's a lot of work involved that's not really divulged when you get into it."
It used to be that a wedding took place over the course of an afternoon, or maybe an evening. Now it stretches over months or even years, beginning with engagement parties, followed by bridal showers, bachelor/bachelorette weekends, ladies luncheons, golf tournaments, welcome parties and rehearsal dinners. And then, if everyone is still standing — and the bride and groom are still speaking to each other — we get to have a wedding.
Carol Wallace, author of "All Dressed in White: The Irresistible Rise of the American Wedding," says part of the problem is that weddings are cumulative: "Once something gets added, it rarely gets dropped." Thus, whoever decided it was necessary to host a brunch the morning after a wedding doomed everyone else who would ever marry to follow suit. (We should find that couple and send them the bill.)
Wallace says it was the late 19th century when "the idea of wedding as pageant came into being." With each ensuing generation new rituals were added. The average engagement now lasts over a year, so there's plenty of time to conjure up new events — an announcement party, perhaps, or a series of themed wedding showers. "There's always a drive toward excess," Wallace says.
Last year, Washington area wedding planner Debbie Berkelhammer's stepson got married to a woman whose own mother is also a wedding planner. The conditions were just right for a perfect storm of nuptial extravagance. Berkelhammer says there were two engagement parties, four wedding showers, separate bachelorette and bachelor parties, a family rehearsal dinner and a meet-and-greet for all the guests.
"There's a lot of stress," says Berkelhammer, who's been planning nuptials since 1998. "And there definitely seems to be . . . multiple events now."
Judith Martin, better known as Miss Manners, and her daughter, Jacobina, are fighting an uphill battle to stem the tide of wedding lunacy. Together they co-wrote "Miss Manners' Guide to a Surprisingly Dignified Wedding," in which they argue that engagement parties are a farce, shower gifts should be simple tokens rather than $400 toasters, and that registries (or, as Jacobina calls them, "shopping lists") should be wiped from the face of the Earth.
"We had hoped that it hit its saturation point," Jacobina says of the ever-increasing wedding fervor. "Then I heard about a friend going to a destination bachelorette party."
The friend was asked to be a bridesmaid even though she wasn't particularly close with the bride. Eventually the showers and obligations got to be too much. After seeking Jacobina's guidance, she bowed out of the wedding.
"And the bride just found a replacement. She was completely unfazed and said, 'Your dress is about the same size as this other girl, so I'll just give it to her,' " Jacobina says. "It goes with our theory that it's becoming show business, with people cast in parts. It's everyone's Oscar night."
It's not just lady-folk who get sucked up into the wedding hurricane, says Mike Arnot, founder of GroomGroove, a Web site for grooms and their entourages. Best man obligations, he says, amount to more than any guy ever anticipates. "There's a whole grocery list of duties," he says. "Not the least of which is making a wedding speech in front of 150 people who are staring at you." The best man also has to organize the bachelor party, coordinate the schedules of a dozen friends, be the groom's errand boy and stay sober — at least through the toast.
But it could be worse. "Know when a guy will grumble?" Arnot says. "When it's his girlfriend who's a bridesmaid and he gets dragged along to everything. We're happy to do a favor for one of our buddies. Are we happy to do a favor for our girlfriend's friend? Ehhhh."
Not everyone is grumbling. Traci Melshenker, the 26-year-old author of the blog Confessions of a Professional Bridesmaid, says she sees wedding-party duty as a rite of passage for people in their 20s and early 30s. She hasn't been able to save any money for the future, but she doesn't regret being in her friends' weddings. And now that it's her turn to get married, she's trying to learn from her experiences as a bridesmaid: She won't pick a dress her attendants don't like or dictate what shoes they should wear. And after getting engaged two months ago, she threw a shower for her future bridesmaids — all 20 of them.
To maintain some semblance of sanity, Jacobina Martin recommends that people pick and choose which wedding-related events to attend and be honest with engaged friends about their limitations.
But in the end, she says, responsibility rests with the couple. "Some people think, 'Oh well, work people want to give me a shower, and my family wants to give me a shower. So, it's not my fault, people want to do this for me.'
"I know it's hard to resist, but resist," Martin says. "You don't have to have a million things."
Sure, you might not walk away with a $500 espresso machine or six matching sets of Egyptian cotton sheets, but you know what? You might be able to keep your friends.
Sometimes Martin hears about "small, charming weddings that didn't create enemies," she says. "I'm hoping that will be the new trend."