On a glorious September day, the stage was set at a beachside San Diego villa for a wedding to remember: The ocean, the breeze, the salty air. Beautiful décor, with an array of flowers, not one petal out of place.
And seven bickering bridesmaids, each running around frantically with last-minute requests.
Hairstylist David Perez was charging $1,000 for four hours of service, but he was getting nowhere amid the chaos. After an hour of politely pausing for interruptions, and doing his best to calm the bride’s nerves, he kicked all of the bridesmaids out.
“I’m in the room with the bride and she just started freaking out,” he recalls. “At one point, I had to say, ‘Okay, everyone get out, because I can’t do her hair like this!’”
That happened in 1999. Today, Perez rarely does bridal services anymore, despite the handsome fees.
“I owned salons for 20 years, specializing in weddings,” he says. “I got out of it because I was tired of the emotional roller coaster. You’ll find that most people in the wedding industry will do it for five-to-10 years and then they get really burnt out.”
Anyone who’s ever planned a wedding can tell you they’re outrageously expensive, and that everyone from photographers to florists seem to up their charges when they hear wedding bells. When it comes to hairstyles, an updo that usually costs $75–$95 runs at least $150 for a bride.
The common explanation is an economic concept called “price discrimination.” It means service providers discriminate between customers, charging higher prices to those who are willing to pay more. It differs from price gouging in that it’s not exploitative, and differs from other types of discrimination in that it’s not done on the basis of anything like race, gender, sexual orientation or age.
Of course none of that matters to people who are footing a wedding bill: many couples feel they’re being financially abused on their most special day.
But the story of wedding pricing is more nuanced than it appears. As Perez’s example shows, there is a certain level of skill and effort that isn’t required for other occasions. If an ordinary customer was being difficult or emotional, he might ask her to leave his salon. But on someone’s wedding day, he had to be kind, polite, patient—and still get the job done, on time, with no room for error.
In academic circles, this kind of work is known as “emotional labor.”
Coined in 1983 by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, the term refers to projecting certain types of emotion during a job, even in the face of unhappy or stressful circumstances. There aren’t extra hours involved or extra physical effort, but Hochschild made clear that emotional work is added work just the same.
Waiters, nurses, flight attendants and teachers are some of the professionals whose jobs entail this hidden labor. The best of them are able to stay pleasant and professional even when customers are rude, when students are misbehaving or when patients are battling terminal illness. Researchers have correlated high levels of emotional labor with higher rates of job dissatisfaction and burnout.
I spoke with a wide array of stylists and salon owners for this story, and they all offered tales of emotional stress and examples of the extra work they put into wedding services. None of them said they jack up prices just because they can, and they all denied taking advantage of bridal customers when I asked them about such accusations.
Oliver Steinnagel, owner of Oliver’s Hair Salon in Overland Park, Kansas, says his stylists must go through extra training before they’re allowed to work with wedding parties. Vivienne Mackinder, a New York City-based stylist, requires brides complete a five-page form to make sure all expectations are spelled out clearly in advance.
Kelsey Smart, lead stylist at Fox & Jane Salon in New York, says she makes it her “mission” to be calm, supportive and unemotional when working with brides. Higher prices for bridal services include the “pressure and emotion” that goes into the work, she added.
“It is my role to help the bride find an oasis even if for just a few hours before the whirlwind begins,” she said. “Staying calm and centered helps me be sure I'm not adding to the stress and that they are getting my absolute best self.”
Emotional labor of that kind is rarely recognized or compensated by employers in other industries, according to Deborah Figart, a professor at Stockton University in New Jersey who is an expert in labor economics. Service providers may be ahead of the curve by factoring it into the cost of weddings, but either way, they aren’t out of line for demanding it, she argues.
“They’re trying to capture the hard emotional labor that they’re putting into the job that day,” Figart says. “It’s not a normal day in the salon.”
Stephanie Russell-Kraft is a writer, reporter and translator living in Brooklyn, N.Y.