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11 June 2021updated 22 Jul 2021 12:02pm

Can Covid free us from the saccharine charade of wedding culture?

Lockdown has caused misery for those whose events have been planned for years – but why do we still hanker after the big white wedding anyway?

By Emily Bootle

Everyone loves a wedding. Warm tingly feelings, music, booze, a raison d’être for the otherwise inexplicable accessory that is the fascinator. Nobody, arguably, cares more than the bride and groom, for whom it is both the most important and the most eye-wateringly expensive day of their lives.

Much to the dismay of Big Headwear, Covid-19 has got in the way. The last wedding I attended was in 2019, when my friend, the bride, was stung by a wasp – trapped between her veil and her back – about five minutes before the first dance. (If she’s reading this, I’d like to reassure her that the day was otherwise beautiful and joyous, and any other concerned readers that the bride’s maid of honour went into crisis mode and within seconds was poised in the toilets with a tea towel full of ice cubes, a concealer palette and unreserved wrath for the wasp community.) Since March 2020, weddings have been either completely disallowed or severely restricted, in line with lockdown and social distancing regulations.

The roadmap out of Lockdown Three offered some solace to couples engaged to be married, many of whom had postponed weddings originally planned for 2020. The first easing in England in April 2021 allowed for 15 people to attend weddings in a sit-down, outdoor setting. From 17 May, this was relaxed to 30 people, and indoor venues were allowed. The final stage of easing, originally scheduled for 21 June, was meant to remove all limits.

[see also: Why the government is still arguing about the 21 June unlocking date]

But now, as the Delta variant gains momentum across the country, this is in doubt. And in addition to music venues, Matt Hancock, and everyone else who would like the Covid nightmare to be over, this is very bad news for people whose socially undistanced wedding is booked for summer 2021. As Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick ominously warned hopeful couples this week, “I wouldn’t make plans.” Cue mass despair. 

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I get it. Of course I get it. As we have been reminded by the #WhatAboutWeddings campaign and heartfelt appeals on social media, weddings can take years – and tens of thousands of pounds – to plan. They are, Covid or not, a beacon of hope on the horizon, a guaranteed Good Thing. I am not engaged, and have no particular desire to be, but have caught myself more often than I’d like to admit daydreaming about my own imaginary wedding, listening to Prince and welling up on the 35 to Clapham Junction.

That should make me sound deranged. In fact, I am able to commit this embarrassing fact to print because I’m so sure that many people – particularly women – feel similarly. It was perfectly normal to debate vociferously, aged 11, about whether you wanted your dress to be strapless or have sleeves, with pouffy or slinky skirt. In adulthood, even those who disavow the big white wedding, with a small ceremony or red dress or pot-luck dinner, often cannot help but make something of a statement by diverging from the default.

The “alternative” wedding trend, all bare feet and bonfires, sells itself as more low-key but might still include 250 guests paying for flights to the Algarve and donating cash to somebody else’s holiday, which is arguably less “low-key” than going to Gloucestershire and buying them a John Lewis lasagne dish, never mind how many shirt buttons the groom has undone.

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Marriage has never meant less, with divorce and having children out of wedlock totally untaboo, and yet weddings – an industry worth £14.7bn to the UK economy – have never mattered more. What nobody seems to be asking in the lockdown wedding furore is why this has to be the case. Yes, poor couples, poor “wedding industry”, but what about poor everyone for having to endure the inflated, hyperbolic, saccharine charade that is wedding culture?

Weddings send people insane. The most rational of women can go all gooey at the sight of an especially ornate up-do that would look ridiculous in any setting other than a marquee. I’ve heard tales of a stag party in Russia at which actors were hired to pretend to kidnap the party (the groom had a panic attack) and a five-day hen-do at which a strictly timetabled, no-excuses dress code was circulated in advance. There are hundreds of intelligent people all over the country making Pinterest boards about calligraphy for place-settings.

The average cost of a wedding in 2019 was around the same as the average UK salary. Pre-wedding weight loss plans and wedding-specific wellness packages are merely part of the deal. So is “wedding underwear”. Stag and hen parties are now rarely a night at the pub, but structured minibreaks that most of the group struggle to afford. Venues are booked up so far in advance that it is now normal to take three years to plan the whole affair. Is that really how long it takes to find the canapé that most accurately symbolises your relationship? To slim into a four-figure dress you will never wear again? Or does it just give people something to worry about other than the crushing futility of existence?

I am truly sympathetic to those whose weddings have been cancelled or are uncertain due to Covid restrictions. It is undoubtedly the case that weddings are stressful and expensive and painstakingly planned, and cannot just be rearranged a moment’s notice, as ministers seem to think. (That is possibly why Boris Johnson is reportedly considering give weddings the go-ahead in his announcement on 14 June, even if other restrictions remain).

But that in itself is telling. Marriage no longer fulfils the ever-present and urgent need to publicly define who we are; weddings do. And that everyone still loves a wedding, regardless of how many toes were lost on the stag or how much hair got singed at the pre-ceremony pamper session, is perhaps the industry’s greatest achievement of all.

[see also: Are new Covid variants more harmful to children?]