Behind the Scenes of China's Over-the-Top Wedding Shoots

As China modernizes and sees a rising middle class weddings have become big business, and a way for couples to show off both their wealth and their personality.

A few years ago, photographer Guillaume Herbaut was in Shanghai to report on its “love market,” a park where parents gather to play matchmaker for their single children. On the way, he dropped by a company called “The Only Studio.” Inside, he found a marriage-themed Disneyland sprinkled with more than 20 dramatic sets, ranging from snowy castles to Greek islands. Makeup artists, costume designers, and photographers guided engaged couples from scene to scene, shooting their fantasy faux weddings.

“There was a cross between real love stories [and] fake scenery,” Herbaut recalls. “The impression that the universe of the [TV] soaps operated in reality.”

In high season, he learned, 80 couples may filter through the studio each day to get their portraits taken in full regalia by the 60 in-house photographers.

In the past century, marriage has changed dramatically in China. Traditionally, marriages were arranged by matchmakers and parents—the bride and groom were not even required to consent. As China’s last imperial dynasty wound to a close in the early 1900s, photography was introduced to weddings. But like many aspects of the ceremony, the pictures were valued for the image projected to the outside world and passed down to future generations.

As economic reform birthed a 20th century Chinese middle class, marriages have shifted to focus on the couple. As a tool of this newfound personalization, pre-wedding studio photo shoots have exploded in popularity.

“Photo shoots are almost like cosplay,” says Jiajing Mao, an expert in Chinese wedding traditions. “Many couples not only take photos of themselves in suits and dresses but also set the photo shoot scene to imitate their time as students, during the time of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese Republican Period, or various scenes of everyday life—regardless of whether or not they were classmates, went through [that] period, or experienced the same life or not.”

The photo studio trend likely originated in Taiwan as a way to sell dresses and then migrated to China in the 1980s. The industry is now thought to be worth billions. Customers Herbaut encountered at the Only Studio were shelling out between $400 to $18,000 per session.

Chinese families have historically spent large chunks of their income on weddings, says Tianyi Li, who’s conducting an oral history of wedding rituals in China’s Jiangsu Province. According to state statistics he cites, modern weddings cost on average $11,000—more than the typical urban worker’s income

Now, as luxurious celebrity weddings unfold live on TV and social media—a few years ago the “Kim Kardashian of China” wed in a $30 million ceremony—everyone is hoping to get a flash of the glamour.

Some couples go to Thames Town, a model British neighborhood in Shanghai, before their big day. Those with the funds to travel forgo fake backdrops for the real deal. Chinese tour companies offer photo shoot packages for engaged couples. Fueled in part by the success of shows like Downton Abbey in China, England has become a popular pre-wedding destination for shoots in castles and bucolic fields.

Chinese trends are also getting retrospective. In imperial times couples would wear official robes to their weddings. Now, Mao says, companies have started offering traditional-style wedding packages complete with these old-fashioned outfits. “Many people are starting to question why we mainly have Western wedding dresses, but seldom traditional Chinese robes, and thus are trying to go back to their traditional roots,” says Mao.

The backdrop to these trends has been the fact that China’s marriage rates have been falling due to a dramatic gender imbalance—a surplus of men attributed to the One Child policy. China’s women are more educated than ever, and the birth rate has slowed. These changing demographics are loosening old taboos. For instance, it has slowly become acceptable for women to marry a divorced or widowed man, even one who earns less than her.

Even those married long before the advent of elaborate photo shoots get their time in front of the camera. Today, says historian Tianyi Li, some nursing homes arrange “golden anniversary” photo shoots for couples celebrating decades of marriage.

Translation from Mandarin by Daisy Chung.