Everyday Life

“Say Yes to the Dress” – Consumption and the Social Condition

“Say Yes to the Dress” portrays one of the existential dilemmas women in the age of consumer society face. It is an emotional rollercoaster of wonder, judgment, deliberation, budgeting, frustration and decision. “Say Yes to the Dress” is a reality-TV show on TLC. For some, the show might look like a scene straight out of Theodore Adorno’s nightmare of “mass deception,” the display of the human tragedy in a world of commodities. But “Say Yes to the Dress” also presents in 60-minute segments, why the critique of consumer culture misses the point: Commodities are more than the meaningless, exchangeable representations critical theory makes them out to be. Instead, commodities mean everything to people. We cry, laugh, scream, or fight over them and we triumph or fail through them.

“In a series of posts, Jeff Goldfarb and I [Iddo Tavory] have been sketching an outline for the study of the social condition — the predictable dilemmas that haunt social life. We argue that one of the core intellectual missions of sociology is to account for the ways in which social patterns set up these dilemmas that actors experience as crucial for their lives and how they define themselves.” 

I have been following Jeff and Iddo’s project for a while, and I suggest that it will help to further the understanding of the social condition if we take seriously the daily dramas of consumption, both as comedy and tragedy. “Say Yes to the Dress” is one of these social dramas, based on the very premise that buying a wedding dress really matters, that people do not make their consumption decisions lightly.

Of course “Say Yes to the Dress” is an edited and selective social drama, following a similar script each episode. The bride comes into the wedding dress shop with her entourage (family and friends). The consultant clarifies the parameters of the desired dress, first with the bride alone: What does she want, what is her budget? Then, the two pick some options in a dressing room. The bride dresses, and the trial begins. She has to face her family and friends, who judge her dream dress, taking it apart. As this process goes on, personal choice becomes collective negotiation, a struggle between the self and its public perception. Tears of frustration and joy mix, culminating in the final decision for the “perfect” wedding dress. When the bride-to-be says, “Yes!” to the dress.

How we read the social drama that unfolds in “Say Yes to the Dress,” makes all the difference. Should we shrug at the superficiality of the act? Shake our heads over all the energy, money and emotions spent on the selection of a dress that is worn only for one day, that probably has thousands of look-a-likes around the country? Or, should we suspend our judgment and really try to understand what is going on here? Why do people fight for hours over dress length, color, beading and décolleté? One answer might be that the struggle over the perfect wedding dress is as much a struggle over what kind of bride one will be, what family one will have, what life one will live. “Say Yes to the Dress” from this perspective captures one of these crucial moments in life, when past and future meet in the events and choices of the present.

That “Say Yes to the Dress” airs on TLC, the Teaching and Learning Channel, seems like a practical joke, but it is more than that. It shows the social conditioning that goes into our daily, and not so daily, consumption dramas. Of course there is socialization in the very act of “really wanting” the “perfect” wedding dress. But this should not take away from the act itself by rendering it meaningless. Instead, it should sensitize us for what goes on in these personal and social dramas, for how they connect cultural desires, economic valuations and the weaving of the social fabric in one act of emotional decision-making. To look for the social condition in consumption, means taking people’s decisions seriously, because they do.

The problem for us consumers is not that consumption is fake. Instead consumption, like the buying of a wedding dress, is, for the lack of a better word, “real.” In today’s hyper-commodified world, the social condition of the society becomes one of ever-expanding choices, symbolic meanings, and experiences. This produces personal satisfaction, but also anxiety, because choosing wrong has serious consequences for our “selves” and our social being. Choice and anxiety become simultaneously problem and principle of consumption, a social condition worthy of critical, but also respectful attention.

  • Aron Hsiao

    I think sometimes critical theory gets a bit battered in the sociological world today. It seems to me that the argument was never that consumption is “fake” or that mass society doesn’t take its consumption seriously, but rather precisely what you argue—that the world of material culture mediates very real social activity, conditions, and phenomena. The question—going all the way back to Marx’s commodity fetish—is what character this mediation ought to take and how prevailing ideologies conceive (or don’t) of it.

    Critical theory suggests that it is better to be conscious of this mediation than unconscious of it, and that there is an unavoidable political dimension to the mediative properties of culture vis-a-vis social life and practice, meaning-making, production, etc. that has implications for the political and historical dimensions of a society or social group more broadly—one, again, that imperils those populations that ignore it in various ways.

    My sense, in other words, is less that critical theory might yell, “Stop this nonsense with the dress! It’s so bogus!” and more that critical theory might ask, “What does this dress mean for you? Can we elaborate it and come to consciousness of it so that this choice and dress/dress-maker serve you and your well-being and ends, in all their complexity, rather than vice-versa?”

  • Tim Rosenkranz

    Aron, thanks for your comments. Unfortunately, I think that critical theory (we should actually define which authors we talk about, but that is my mistake, because I just labeled a very diverse scholarship under one term) would not even take the step you take between your second and first paragraph. Mostly the critical theory analysis of experience stops by relegating experience to meaninglessness, because of the superimposition of exchange value, the commodities as “dead labor” paradigm, and the mere representation idea.

    And even if that step you suggest, to actually analyze not only the structure, but the practice of consumption, is taken, the importance of the consumer experience is relegated to critiquing it, framing the consumer as dope, or fetishizing counter-cultures over the mainstream.

    I think the limits of critical theory become quite clear even in the way you try to formulate the question of how critical theory would address the dilemma of the dress. It kind of makes my point, because even with your careful consideration, the question basically subsumes the practices of consumption under the relations of production. What I tried to address in this post is that the analysis of consumption should not be predetermined through this lens, because something significant gets lost in it. What that is, is worth exploring further.

  • stevenharmonious