personal finance

Wedding excess has reached giddy new heights

The wedding at which to be photographed last week was that of Isha Ambani, daughter of India’s wealthiest man, Mukesh Ambani. A string of glossy events, including a show by the singer Beyoncé in Rajasthan, culminated in a ceremony at the Ambanis’ 27-storey home in Mumbai, with guests including Hillary Clinton.

It may not have cost the rumoured $100m, but it looked like it did. It was the climax of India’s marriage season, including the show business splicing of Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra and musician Nick Jonas in Jodhpur this month, at which Ms Ambani was a bridesmaid. Coupling does not get more conspicuous than an Indian wedding.

Best wishes to Ms Ambani and her new husband, Anand Piramal, scion of another industrial fortune. They will hopefully defy a US study which found that the more money is spent on a wedding, the less likely the marriage is to last. But if a union of two people costs more than Elon Musk’s intended ticket price for a trip around the moon (about $80m), things have got out of hand.

Their display is reminiscent of potlatch, the traditional ceremony of feasting and gift giving among Native Americans, which was banned by Canada in 1885. The winter feast, meaning “gift”, was a way not only of celebrating status and family bonds at events such as weddings, but of keeping the rest of the community close with largesse.

Potlatch could be extravagant, particularly after the arrival of European fur traders and their goods: some chiefs would burn canoes and pieces of shields to show off their wealth. It was compared by the US economist Thorstein Veblen to conspicuous consumption by the Victorian leisure class at balls, to which guests were invited to “witness the consumption of that excess of good things” owned by the host.

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Fancy weddings have since outstripped potlatch, which remained outlawed until 1951, in an effort to crush native culture. The latter was a comparatively innocent affair involving handmade goods. “The potlatch was given to us to be our way of expressing joy,” one elder recalled sadly.

The Ambani wedding shows how globalisation, entertainment and luxury create an even bigger splash. It is part of the shift towards “experiential luxury”, in which the rich covet experiences, such as at the 2013 wedding of the technology billionaire Sean Parker in a Californian redwood forest — guests passed through an imposing iron gate forged with the betrothed couple’s names. The experiential trend also led LVMH this week to acquire Belmond, owner of the Orient Express and Hotel Cipriani in Venice for $3.2bn.

Weddings have become ferociously expensive because they involve a heady mix of family and status (as well as being, at least in theory, one-off events that parents feel compelled to make memorable). Like elite university education — Ms Ambani attended the Ivy League Yale University and Stanford Business School — nothing is too much for your kids.

Attaching the word “wedding” to an object mysteriously seems to put the price up fivefold. The average cost of a US wedding dress last year was $1,500 and the average wedding cake cost $540. It is not a mystery, really. Selling bespoke goods and services to panicked people who want to demonstrate their love in material form and are up against a deadline is very lucrative.

The expansion of social media means that everyone can now see photographs of the wedding — and engagement party, and every other preparatory event — which raises the stakes. My Instagram feed is full of portmanteau hashtags of happy couples in glamorous spots. “It is not sufficient merely to possess wealth or power. [It] must be put in evidence,” Veblen wrote in 1899.

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There is a particular form of wedding excess in tribal and developing economies, where families often feel they must spend multiples of their annual household incomes on dowries and ceremonies to secure suitable partners for sons or daughters. A shortage of rural brides in China has led to cost inflation— a bride’s family may demand a house, a car and gold earrings.

In India, the bride’s family still tends to pay. “A daughter’s marriage is the most costly event in the life of an Indian family,” noted one study of rural weddings, and can push some into destitution and bonded labour. Feasts and ceremonies can go on for days, and families cite prosperous urban weddings as models. Even a peasant wants to keep up with the Ambanis.

This has led to an upsurge in potlatch-style laws in various countries, banning excess hospitality and gift-giving. Tajikistan has set a limit of two hot dishes, a three-hour ceremony and 150 guests, while China’s ministry of civil affairs is trying to cajole families into greater restraint.

It is time for the wealthy to ponder the wider impact of their experiential luxury weddings. Mr Parker made reparations for his own last week, by paying $2.5m to the California Coastal Commission for having violated permits, and helping to launch an app that helps the public to access California beaches.

Weddings are meant to be displays of happiness and goodwill, where families are brought together to mark a union, and there is nothing wrong with that. But it is a matter of honour not to show off too much.

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