Great Expectations

Photo: Cele Otnes

Originally published in Illinois Alumni Magazine (May/June 2010)
by Mary Timmins

In spring the fancy turns to thoughts of $8,000 strapless Vera Wang gowns and catered dinners with distant relatives whose names may be a matter of uncertainty. Perhaps a horse-drawn carriage floats by, as a full orchestra plays accompaniment to Pavarotti-caliber baritonals. Maybe the happy couple wing off to a five-figure honeymoon in the Seychelles. And not to forget the father of the bride, wincing over the bill.

Ah, the sheer ecstasy, the incomparable stress of the wedding day, that open-ended fantasy of the American girl and credit-bending bugaboo of the American guy (so often her indulgent Dad). Morphed into tradition along a fairly bizarre, two-century pathway, the grand nuptial expectations that drive mothers of the brides crazy and keep wedding planners busy have drawn inspiration from icons as diverse as Queen Victoria, Elizabeth Taylor and Barbie. Thence has arisen a paradigm so complex it takes a $40 billion-a-year industry to realize it and researchers from the University of Illinois to investigate it.

A UI marketing professor, Cele Otnes studies how people get married. (Why people get married remains the purview of the psychology department.) As a bride herself, she says, “I had a very nice wedding. But it was nowhere near the scale of a lot of weddings I’ve been to.” As a kind of wedding planner