Philadelphia Metropolis


In Richness and in Wealth

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By Patricia McLaughlin

Long skirts seem like a good idea in the spring, when you still haven't gotten around to figuring out the whole fake-tan thing. So the other day, when I came across a long, strikingly pretty skirt while flipping through Vogue, I stopped flipping and took a closer look.

The actress Zoe Saldana was striding along a beach in it and--even better--it was billed as the "Steal of the Month." But when I checked the small print, it turned out to cost $298, plus another $210 for the matching blouse.

I'll admit it right up front: A skirt and blouse for $508 is not my idea of a steal. Or most other people's, for that matter.

The usual explanation: Fashion people live in a different world from the rest of us. They're used to top-level designer clothes that cost thousands, so when they run across a Diane Von Furstenberg skirt that's "only" $298, it seems like an amazing bargain and they get excited in exactly the same way I do when I come across a $2 Pucci scarf in a thrift shop bin.

But then a couple days later, in a story about who pays for weddings in the New York Times Sunday Styles section, I found a reference to the infamous $28,000 average American wedding. And who exactly is to say the average wedding costs that much?

The "statistic" comes from a survey by the publishers of Brides Magazine, who are not exactly disinterested scientists. They ask their readers how much they expect to spend on their weddings so they can sell ad pages to advertisers hoping to sell $10,000 wedding dresses and lavish island honeymoon packages. The more the readers say they plan to spend, the better for the publisher.

Meanwhile, these readers aren't exactly the average about-to-get-married American woman. They're bridal hobbyists, aspirant bridezillas looking to luxuriate in glossy images of fairytale gowns, sexy lingerie, preparatory spa pilgrimages, high-thread-count linens, high-end furniture, designer kitchens, dream houses--all the zillion varieties of bridal spending that the bridal magazines and websites exist to enshrine and glorify.

So the numbers aren't representative--of anything but the aspirations of readers of Brides. And when Carl Bialik, who writes a column called "The Numbers Guy" for the Wall Street Journal, debunked this survey and a couple of similar ones three years ago, he said the math makes the survey even more uninformative, because it uses a mean, which is easily distorted by a couple of lavish exceptions, instead of a median.

Even using the survey's suspect data, he said the median cost of a wedding would be more like $15,000.

There's no law against deceptive statistics. The publishers have ad space to sell, and the readers are into their shopping fantasies. They're all consenting adults.

What I don't get is how any respectable news organization--not to mention the New York Times--can confuse these marketing-driven pipedreams of bridal hyper-consumption with the actual cost of the average American wedding.

Do they think it doesn't matter one way or the other? Or--not to be totally paranoid--could they be doing it on purpose to make us feel bad so we'll buy more stuff to catch up with these purported big spenders?

Ever since the episode of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy where they persuaded some schlumpy 20-something to buy a decent pair of jeans and a blazer, de-fratboy his apartment, fumigate his bathroom, and buy a tiny blowtorch to caramelize the sugar on top of his crème brulee so he could invite his girlfriend over for a semi-sophisticated dinner, I've been noticing how preposterously much of our popular culture is thinly - very thinly -- disguised pro-consumption propaganda. You think it's news, or information, or entertainment, but it's really an endless seminar on which thing to buy next.

And it's not enough to just show us the thing, and tell us how wonderful it is, how it will upscale our lifestyles and transform our lives, how it will change the way people see us, garnering respect, admiration and envy, and how it will infuse our very beings with confidence and delight.

That's the carrot, but there's also the stick: The hints that we're falling behind, that since other people are spending more, they're enjoying more, they're excelling at exquisitely self-expressive consumption of delectable goods we haven't even begun to aspire to.  To these golden others, a $300 skirt is a steal, a $28,000 wedding a mere bagatelle--in fact, it's . . . average

Which means that we, who wince at the thought of paying that much for a skirt or a wedding are below average. We're poor--we must be if everybody else can afford these things. We'd better catch up, no? Or give up.

In the 1950s and '60s there was a wave of paranoia about "subliminal advertising," mythical messages supposedly flashed onto movie or TV screens so briefly as to be unnoticeable--except to the subconscious, which supposedly sent you obediently scurrying to the refreshment stand for a tub of delicious buttered popcorn and a large ice-cold Coca Cola.

Now, nobody bothers to hide the advertising. But there's so much of it--it's as ubiquitous as the air we breathe--that it's paradoxically unnoticeable. It's everywhere, so we don't see it.

But these endless messages that everybody else has more than we do--how could they not weigh on us? And why should we have to bear this weight, this endless hail of misinformation with an axe to grind, just so other people can sell things?

It hardly seems fair, even to us below average folks.


Patricia McLaughlin writes about fashion and life from her home in Fairmount.

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