History teaches us nothing can stop Bridezilla

16 Oct 2015

The economy may be stagnant, but nobody seems to have told the bridal industry.

This article is an edited excerpt from a lecture ‘Lessons from the Ancient Past for Contemporary Australia’ presented by the Paul Eliadis Chair of Classics and Ancient History, Professor Alastair Blanshard as part of UQ’s Global Leadership Series.

While wage increases remain low, the cost of the modern wedding continues to soar. The average bride currently spends over $65,000 on her wedding. Photographers, bridal boutiques, wedding venues, and caterers all know how to part the happy couple from their hard-earned cash.

For the modern bride, nothing is impossible, provided that you are willing to pay for it. Motorcades of sports cars, grooms arriving by helicopters, fly-pasts by fighter jets, brides travelling in Cinderella-inspired crystal coaches, champagne fountains, all of it can be yours. Doves and butterflies can be released to symbolize your dreams - or more accurately your credit-card bills - taking flight.

It is hard not to feel that somebody should be doing something about this insanity. Surely when people can't help themselves, it is time for government to step in. Sadly, the example of the Greco-Roman world would suggest that we're setting ourselves up for disappointment if we think legislation can help in this matter.

In the ancient world, laws attempting to limit people's expenditure occur frequently. Almost from the beginning of society, communities have tried to rein-in extravagant, profligate spending. Not only is such spending wasteful, it is also socially divisive. In a world where the gap between rich and poor was huge, grotesque displays of wealth could easily be a spark for resentment and revolution. 

Parties always seem to have been a flashpoint. One of our earliest attempts to regulate them comes from the Greek world. The Athenian lawgiver, Solon is famous for a broad range of legislation. He banned the cultivation of figs, preferring that people devote their energies to growing the much more profitable olive. He established public brothels for the community. He also attempted to regulate the flamboyance of women’s clothing.

In 6th-century-BC Athens, laws were passed that forbade women from wearing more than three garments when they went outside. Moreover, women were not allowed to congregate in large groups nor could they carry any more than a small amount of food or drink to festivities. 

The target of Solon’s laws seems to have been the aristocratic funeral. In ancient Athens, it was funerals rather than weddings that were the occasion when people showed off their wealth and finery. It was at the graveside that you flaunted your bling.

Rome also felt the need to regulate its citizens’ expenditure. Throughout the second century BC, we see a number of laws passed that tried to curb citizens’ appetite for luxurious living. These laws regulated the number of people that could attend a banquet, the number of days on which banquets could be held and the amount that could be spent. My favourite law was one that regulated the type of food that could be served. It included a provision that in addition to mussels and wild birds, hosts were forbidden from offering their guests force-fed dormice (the legal status of plain, free-range dormice is unclear).

The regularity of the Roman legislation points to one important aspect of these laws. They never work. Time and again, laws were passed to minimal effect. At best, they produced short-term results, but there was never any long-term change in behaviour. If anything, these laws made extravagance ever more desirable. Forbidden fruit is always sweeter.

It requires deeper cultural change to bring about a change in attitudes. It requires society to reorder its priorities on a fundamental level. And that is a lot harder to achieve. It takes a certain type of courage to stand up to a wedding planner. They have the full weight of years of dreams and expectations on their side. It is a hard combination to beat.