Two years ago, I went to a jaw-droppingly nontraditional wedding in Malibu, CA: The bride and groom, Lorelei Sharkey and Joey Cavella, each wore a white suit; they kicked off their vows by forming a football huddle with both sets of parents, shouting, "Go, team!"; and their first dance was to OK Go's power pop song "Here It Goes Again" (they replicated some of the band's treadmill moves from the video). The two also set up a PayPal account to accept donations toward their Italian honeymoon. One hundred sixty dollars bought them a hotel room in Florence; $70 paid for a cruise along the Cinque Terre coast; $100 purchased a day trip to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa. "It wasn't our style to ask for appliances," Lorelei explains. "Neither of us are wealthy, so we thought this would be a great way to be able to do it right." When they returned from their trip, they sent all guests who'd contributed to their honeymoon photos of themselves at the individual location relating to their gift. "Everyone loved it," she confirms. "At least, that's what they told us."
Behind their backs, however, there may have been detractors or cynics. These days, nearly everyone has an opinion about what kinds of wedding gifts are (and aren't) appropriate. When Elizabeth Blum, the guest of a wedding to take place in NYC, spotted an electronic footbath on the bride and groom's registry, she was taken aback. "It felt gross to me, like they had somehow crossed the line in terms of intimacy," Elizabeth says. "Who wants to imagine the two of them at home, soaking their feet?"
Gifts weren't talked about so much before because what you gave as a wedding present was fairly standard: china, crystal, flatware, serving pieces. "Now, because your registry can go in so many different directions, with tons of options out there, there's more reason to focus on it and discuss—and more of a tendency to look at the choices couples make and judge," says Susan Fitter, a recent bride, Middleburg, VA-based etiquette expert and cohost of TLC's Mind Your Manners. "In general, there's the feeling these days that we're always being judged, and it's an added pressure here, even if it is somewhat subconscious."
Certainly, with the old rules blurred and registries so very public, there is increased attention turned to wedding gifts, as well as a new level of doubt in terms of what's fair game—and it's unclear how friends and family may feel about the ultrapersonal picks. When Mandy Briggs, of Arlington, VA, was strongly urged by her sister to register, she finally relented and built one at Target, with items ranging from a flatscreen television and KitchenAid mixer to a badminton set and Scrabble and Monopoly games. "Why would you register for board games when you can buy them yourself?" her sister asked, exasperated. "Because we want them," Mandy replied. "Why do you care?"
Even if guests don't actually purchase the offbeat items for the bride and groom, posting them on a registry has a secondary result: expressing the couple's style, interests and plans for starting a life together. "My fiancé and I bought a townhouse, and he's all about finishing the basement," says Heather Dougherty, of West Deptford, NJ. He wanted their registry to reflect that. "I was like, 'Drywall? Are you kidding me?' Here I was talking about going to Crate and Barrel to register, and he was urging, 'We need this stuff more than anything else.' In the end, I saw his point; it's not like I'm 23 and don't yet have a blender. So we registered at Home Depot. Some people were surprised and curious when we told them, but most guests our age are used to odd registry choices."
The pressure to meet societal expectations when it comes to gift-getting can be too weighty for some brides to ignore. Page Horton, of Charleston, SC, already owned china and crystal that was handed down from a relative, but when she created her registry, she still consulted with peers about what was okay to ask for and what was off-limits. "Friends of mine said it would be cheesy to register for a honeymoon," she says. "I'm of the opinion that it's no different to ask for a honeymoon than it is to ask someone to pay for my bath towels, but I also trust my friends' opinions." In the end, Page skipped the honeymoon registry.
How did we reach the point of debating tennis rackets versus toasters? "People have learned to express themselves creatively as consumers. Put that together with the trend of individualizing weddings, and this has translated to selecting any kind of gifts you want," says Sharon Zukin, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at City University of New York and author of Point of Purchase: How Shopping Changed American Culture. While the splashier items may be viewed with interest or even amusement by guests, some people will inevitably find them off-putting. "Psychologists have shown that consumers are confused by too much choice," Dr. Zukin says. "It's possible that people used to dishes or glassware on registries become anxious when faced with items they're not familiar with as wedding gifts, or don't understand."
Even the choice to waive gifts altogether—another trend, which would appear to be completely selfless—can stir up negative feelings, depending on how the preference is presented. "We asked for donations in lieu of gifts because this is how we live our lives, and we wanted to share that with our wedding guests," says Fitter. Still, she was conscious of not offending her crowd in the way she requested contributions. "We offered a choice of charities, not just one. On our wedding Web site, we wrote, 'If you care to contribute…' not, 'We ask that you contribute.' It's subtle, but your tone does make a difference."
Fitter may have been more wary than most because of stories she had heard. "One person told me that the bride of a wedding she planned to attend actually enclosed donation envelopes in the invitations; another said the couple had envelopes handed out to guests as soon as they walked in the door to the ceremony," she reports. "People are offended by this! You don't want to feel like you're being corralled into donating to a cause."
Miriam Hodesh, of Savannah, also went the charity route. She says she was in the middle of a department store with her fiancé, registering for household items, when the two were hit by the realization that what they were doing didn't reflect them at all. "We deleted our registries," Miriam recalls. She ended up including a card in her invitation inviting guests to donate to the Save Darfur Coalition. The majority did donate, but some guests, mainly of their parents' generation, insisted on giving a physical gift in addition.
"Asking guests to donate to charity rather than gift the two people at the center of this occasion can be fraught with confusion," says Dr. Zukin. "The older generation, particularly, feels uneasy being a part of an event without giving something tangible to the couple. There are hundreds of years of cultural practices surrounding durable items like glasses and toasters—you can imagine these items living in a kitchen, being used on the table. The newness of practices like this, and giving experiences or more transient objects, feels a little strange to some people."
Yet it's the diminishing taboo of unconventional presents that's behind MyRegistry.com, a service that allows couples to compile a wedding-gift wish list of nearly anything—objects or services, sold online or not. "The tables have turned, and now wedding guests really do want to be given suggestions of what you want the most, whatever that is, whether it's scuba lessons or money to go back to school," says Nancy Lee, the company's president. Lee also says that much thought went into exactly how couples should ask for what they want on the site. The very popular cash option, for one, was designed to be as unobtrusive as possible, offering a space for couples to name and describe how they've earmarked the money (e.g. "Grand Piano Fund"). "This way, something that used to feel so impersonal is not anymore," she says. "It's not just writing a check. You don't have to wait until you receive the thank-you note to find out how you've helped the couple get something they've hoped for."
Regardless, some people question using any registries. According to one of the foremost etiquette experts in the world, Letitia Baldrige, Jackie Kennedy's former social secretary and Washington, DC-based author of Taste: Acquiring What Money Can't Buy, this gift-giving evolution is not necessarily a good thing: "People used to open beautifully wrapped presents, and they were so excited to see what was inside," she says. "Now, everyone knows exactly how much everyone has spent, and what the gift is going to be. For someone like me, who's lived through years of traditional weddings, it really stings to see all of this commercialism—I think it's crass and distasteful."
Julie Klam, of NYC, says she selected unusual items-even some that could be viewed as trivial, or "throwaways" —as a reaction to what she perceives to be registry gluttony. She used the gift list for her wedding to send a message. "I always feel offended when I see a big-ticket item like a $400 vacuum cleaner on a registry," she explains. "So my husband and I chose things like hot fudge from Williams-Sonoma. I think people appreciated what we were trying to say, which was, 'We want you to share this day with us because we love you—not because we want the booty.'"
And then there are couples who ask, straight out, for cold, hard cash. "I've gotten at least three wedding invitations that read, 'Monetary Gifts Preferred,'" says Althea Parker, of NYC. "At first I found it a bit pushy. But then I thought, well, if that's what they want, I'd rather do this and save the time that I would have spent going shopping." Althea wrote a check to the bride and groom on all three occasions.
Those couples were wrong, insists Anna Post, great-great-granddaughter of etiquette doyenne Emily Post and author of Emily Post's Wedding Parties. Asking for money—or anything else—in a wedding invitation is strictly off-limits, she says: "There should be no mention of gifts on a wedding invitation. And if you are going to ask for money on a wedding Web site or blog, I would word it, 'Any gift would be terrific, but what Tom and I would love most is help with a down payment on a house.' Instead of using the word money, I'd go with a gentle euphemism, such as help, or a donation."
Despite the confusion that's sometimes caused by the wide-ranging registry options, Dr. Zukin is certain that people will continue to become more used to them in years to come. "I can only see more individualization of the wedding," she says. "As the marketplace gets even wider, and the trend of self-expression grows, expectations will change. I can even imagine a future with individual registries—items just for the bride or just for the groom. How would that be received?"