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The wedding industrial complex isn’t a myth. It just doesn't mean what you think.

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Wedding planner Elisabeth Kramer unravels the complexities of the Wedding Industrial Complex, its impacts on vendors and couples, and why its influence matters. It delves into the financial struggle of wedding vendors, the emotional toll on couples, and the systemic issues within the industry.

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Have you heard of the wedding industrial complex? It’s a term most often used by two groups of people: those who work weddings and those who plan them.

The term, sometimes abbreviated as the WIC, means different things to different folks but here’s one thing I can assure you after seven years as a wedding planner, the author of a book on how to plan a wedding that’s in-line with your values, and a co-founder of an international organization for wedding vendors: the WIC most certainly exists. 

What does ‘wedding industrial complex’ mean?

I originally learned the term from wedding media company A Practical Wedding when I began working as a planner in 2016. Since then, I’ve used “wedding industrial complex” on and off in my work.

It is, admittedly, a silly phrase. I use it and believe in it and also? Nobody’s dealing with nukes at a wedding. But for many of us, the WIC is the best, if imperfect, wording we’ve come up with to describe the often gross nature of the wedding industry. 

So, what does it mean exactly? Here are a few examples:

  • The WIC is classist — Wedding vendors are service industry workers and many people harbor negative behaviors about “the help.”

    For couples, how much you spend on your wedding is often used as a benchmark on how “good” your relationship is when nothing could be further from the truth.
  • The WIC is racistHere’s one example. It’s about vendor referral lists, one of the most profitable and also typically racist tools in a referral-based industry.

    If you’re planning a wedding, you may have experienced racist experiences directly or run into situations like do you book a venue that has a historically problematic past?
  • The WIC is sexist, homophobic, and transphobic — While hard data on this is hard to find, anecdotally, the vast majority of small business owners in the wedding industry identify as women. They often also have intersectional identities such as being BIPOC and/or a member of the LGBTQ+ community, exposing vendors to even more bias, scrutiny, and attacks from coworkers and clients.

    This reality is also true for couples, who can be ghosted, verbally assaulted, or sometimes worse by vendors when they share certain parts of their identity. The same goes for guests, who don’t always know if the space they’re entering when they RSVP is safe for them.

The list could — and should — go on but you get the idea. The WIC doesn’t refer to one person, place, or even corporation. It refers to a system that makes people sacrifice their humanity in order to do work they cherish or to celebrate people they love.

What’s the cause of the WIC?

I won’t be so bold as to try and explain capitalism in 300 words but, when it comes to weddings, there’s an extra layer of societal pressure that ratchets the pressure up to 11.

A common example: the images we consume through “traditional” wedding media including social media. Nearly always, that photo of the giant tent decked out in hanging flowers and floating candles doesn’t include what those materials and labor cost, let alone the time or carbon footprint it took to make said creation. 

This isn’t to naysay the work of the professionals behind such wonders but to rather point out how little we talk about the invisible costs of a wedding day. One of the most common complaints I hear from my coworkers is some version of, “My client sent me a photo of such-and-such thing and balked when I told them how much it would cost to replicate.”

This is how we get to a national average of nearly $30,000 a wedding — a number that people often laugh at until they’re at the end of planning and realize that they’ve likely exceeded it. It’s also why my biggest piece of advice as a professional planner is to answer one question before all others: Why do you want to have a wedding?

That question — and the related budgeting exercise — are the most effective tools I’ve found to help couple fight the rampant overconsumption that the wedding industry actively encourages. It’s advice that isn’t for the faint of heart and, depending on your cultural and social situation, may not be applicable. It’s also the best question to ask when you’re trolling Pinterest and wondering how in the world you’re going to afford 10 grand in chandeliers. 

How does the WIC impact vendors?

Unlike most multi-billion dollar industries, the wedding industry doesn’t have many regulations or licensing requirements. 

There are exceptions (catering and bartending are the most common). Different vendor types may also seek out certain specializations for their own personal development but that aren’t technically required to do their job legally, e.g. a florist who seeks out sustainability training or a vendor who gets a certification in LGBTQ+ inclusivity. 

The benefit of an under-regulated industry is that there are very few hurdles to clear to open a wedding business. This can lead to an abundance of talent from a diverse population. It also means that many of us wedding vendors call ourselves the same thing with no standardization on what we do or what we charge. 

We also don’t receive the privileges and protections that might be baked-in for other people in other industries. I don’t, for example, have a union rep I can turn to for support or an HR or legal department to email when a client threatens me.

Personal threats aside, we most often see the negative influence of the WIC in what vendors charge. Specifically, many offer rates that are less than minimum wage. Take an example from my own early days as a planner.

When I started working weddings seven years ago, I charged $750 for 40 hours of work. If you estimate that I take home 65 percent of revenue as my paycheck, that’s an hourly rate of $12.19.

While that rate was $1.69 more than the minimum wage in my city in 2016, $750 wasn’t my weekly income like an employee receives. I made that money (and actually, only the $250 deposit to start) whenever I could book a client. With my limited inventory as a wedding vendor (i.e. Saturdays in the summer), booking was an infrequent and highly unpredictable occurrence. 

This meant that if I booked, say, 20 weddings in a single calendar year, I could anticipate $15,000 in annual revenue. After taxes and business expenses, that was $9,750 for my annual paycheck or $2,130 below the federal poverty guideline in 2016 for a single household.
This is math that people planning weddings don’t always know (why would they?). It’s also math that isn’t backed up by the broader wedding industry because there’s no one organization or regulatory board saying, “Hey, so if we want people to make a living wage as a wedding vendor, here’s what to charge.”

The result? That’s WIC.

How does the WIC impact a couple planning a wedding?

If you’re planning a wedding, it’s easy to feel that you’re being taken advantage of. I experienced this myself when planning my own wedding and, at that point, I’d been a professional planner for three years.

While the “wedding tax” and other dubious business practices do exist in the wedding industry, where I see the WIC hurt couples most is in how they’re treated as people.

Like with vendors, the examples are countless. I’ve had queer clients tell me that they were ghosted by vendors as soon as they shared a partner’s name or pronouns. Once, I got into a lengthy discussion with a venue on the hurtful results of having stereotypically gendered getting-ready rooms. And don’t even get me started on the often inherently sexist and racist “traditions” that infuse Western weddings.

When planning a wedding takes, on average, six to 10 hours a week, it’s often a survival strategy for couples to simply not engage with the negative onslaught. It’s much faster to instead simply not reply to the racist vendor, or save your breath on asking your partner(s) not be dropped from future emails.

But, as with vendors, this kind of barrage takes it toil. The resulting stress, anxiety, insomnia, or nerves are all physical manifestations of the WIC that, more often than not, are chalked up to “cold feet” or “bridezilla” behavior. The truth, of course, is much more complicated.

So if the wedding industrial complex isn’t a myth, what do I do about it?

I wish I could say that the WIC is a myth, but doing so would discount the countless experiences I’ve heard from clients and coworkers who’ve suffered because of the wedding industry.

Which, alas, is where we run up against the WIC’s best defense: It’s not a person. We can’t point to one individual or even one company and say, “There. That’s the villain.” The WIC isn’t alive. It’s not something we can slay. It’s not something we can even probably name.

But it is something we can talk about. There is strength in sharing our experiences while also recognizing where our own privilege may cloud our judgment on what (not who) is to blame. 

That rate that vendor is charging? It’s likely the result of hours of math weighed against their own personal needs and still, the vendor’s stomach twisted into knots when they sent you the quote. 

That dread you feel whenever you think about planning your wedding? It’s not aversion to starting your marriage; it’s a natural response to something that often actively undermines values that you and your partner(s) hold dear.

The WIC exists but so do all the good things about weddings: the love and the joy and the happiness that pleases couples and motivates vendors. Don’t ignore one just to get to the other. Hold both realities at the same time and you’ll be amazed at what you learn, about the world but most importantly, about yourself.