Or a giant “Engaged AF” banner shellacked in glitter. Or a balloon arch crowning a floral backdrop of faux roses.
Take a recent proposal at La Vie, the sceney Wharf restaurant with waterfront views curated for sunset TikToks and the kind of glitz ’n’ glam favored by the Real Housewives of Potomac set. (No, really, one of them had her baby shower there.) Our leading man got down on one knee in the site’s penthouse as a photographer snapped away. Behind him: a vignette of flowers, candles, and balloons framing towering, lit-up marquee letters spelling out “Marry Me”—with a glowing ring-shaped outline next to it to really hammer home the point.
Then the future bride was whisked away to La Vie’s Chandelier Room, where 50 friends and family awaited for a surprise party. Marital vibes abounded: There was a pink backdrop reading “She Said Yes!” with a cascading balloon arch in varying shades of blush, in front of which guests posed for Instagrams as a DJ played. There was an arched wall with a “Drink in Love” sign containing coconuts flown in from Miami, each emblazoned with the couple’s initials and filled with cocktails boasting names like A Love Affair in Paris. The pair’s initials also popped up on custom drink stirrers, pillows, the cake. And the flowers! An explosion of pinks, purples, and whites spilled over the sides of matching mauve velvet couches and a pink velvet ottoman, and flanked the sides of the shiny gold cocktail bar. Total price tag: around $30,000.
To call the whole thing simply a proposal or even an event would be incorrect, a paltry description. This was an experience, crafted for maximum online impact in an everything-is-content world. See also: Unicorn Frappuccino, the interactive van Gogh exhibits, those Bloody Marys with an entire Chili’s menu shoved onto the drink stirrer. Salt Bae!
When your parents got engaged, maybe they called a few people on a landline, took some grainy Kodak pics, chugged a Zima, then called it a day. They couldn’t immediately upload a shot of the ring on Instagram, post a “deceased 💍” TikTok. But today your proposal will reverberate out, shock-wave-like, to hundreds of eyes on the internet, where it will exist in perpetuity—a modern-day Renaissance wedding portrait. So, like, no pressure, but it’s gotta be epic.
“There really aren’t a ton of basic events anymore,” says Krista Ashshaheed, who with her sister, Kristy Randle, planned the La Vie shindig via their event group, Stunning Soirees. (And yes, proposal-planning is an actual business.) “We’ve got baby showers that are well over $20,000.”
While not everyone is dropping five figures, the need to impress is pervasive. The majority of 2022-wed couples polled in a survey by the Knot said they felt pressure to have a “highly unique proposal,” and about half of those polled planned the day one to three months in advance (up from 31 percent in 2017). Almost a quarter of surveyed couples hired professional vendors for their pop-the-question moment.
In a world more online than not, it’s safe to say the whole shock-and-awe approach to pledging your undying love isn’t going away anytime soon. In the words of Cindy Peet, La Vie’s director of events, “It’s proposal mania.”
Why have betrothals transformed from a simple question into a Beyoncé-level performance? In part, it’s likely because people are, on average, getting married later and have more money to spend. But you can also credit social media. Instagram initiated the era of “the launch,” in which every personal milestone is made official with a curated post. These days, a photo of a manicured hand donning a diamond acts as the official engagement announcement—as much a step in the wedding process as save-the-dates. After all, if you got proposed to and didn’t share a picture of yourself slapping a tear-stained hand over your mouth in shock, did you really get proposed to at all?
Photographer Jon Fleming has been shooting proposals for seven years, and he has noticed the practice becoming more popular, especially after Covid restrictions were lifted. These days, his business will photograph multiple proposals a weekend, culminating in up to 300 engagements a year.
Kir Tuben, a photographer who runs the @dcproposals Instagram account, credits the upping of opulence to popular media—shows such as Keeping Up With the Kardashians, films like Crazy Rich Asians—and civilians flexing their proposals on Instagram and TikTok. When you’re inundated with images of marquee letters and heart-shaped flowers, what was once elaborate starts to become the norm. Constant exposure can warp people’s sense of what a typical engagement looks like, and nobody wants typical—they want to go above and beyond. “There is a little bit of the comparison bug,” Tuben says.
Sarah Upson felt it. “Seeing people, especially in the DC area, having cool backdrops and their outfits and their nails—just having everything put out there for you to see adds to the fantasy of what girls think their proposal will be,” says Upson, a 28-year-old government consultant in Arlington. If watching friends hang out on Instagram stories leads to FOMO, scrolling through proposal extravaganzas creates its own anxiety: fear of your own special moment falling short of expectations. Someone Upson follows online also taught her what to avoid—namely, getting caught wearing an Apple Watch during surprise engagement photos. “I was like, oh my God, I cannot have [that] on. It looks like Spy Kids,” she says. Her friends took note, telling her now-husband to stash her watch under a bed on the big day.
The people proposing aren’t immune—just ask Richmondbased deputy video director Wes Jones. Although Jones, 31, didn’t think an over-the-top social-media display was important to his now-fiancée, Sheridan, 34, a social-media director, he wanted to create a moment she’d be excited to share. “I felt the societal pressure of ‘It’s just as important to propose as it is to show everyone else how you proposed,’ ” he says. “That the proposal announcement would be put on Instagram holds a lot of weight.” Of course, posting means you’re opening yourself to the judgment of followers: Was the moment special enough? Did you put in the requisite effort? (Jones ended up renting a rooftop in NoMa to scatter with rose petals at golden hour for his surprise proposal in May, which immediately preceded a professional photography session.)
For social-media-conscious couples, preparing for the Instagram—er, engagement—starts at the cuticle. The proposal manicure has become a hallowed tradition, ensuring that the customary ring photograph isn’t marred by a naked nail. Sometimes, a future fiancée has a hunch she’s about to get engaged, or her partner pushes her to make a nail appointment. More often, a friend is dispatched to take the unwitting target to the nail salon, steering her toward particular colors—pale pink or milky white, says Nailsaloon owner Andréa Vieira—the better to let the engagement-ring jewel pop and fit with the bridal color scheme. Christa Haddad, a 26-year-old pharmacist in Montgomery Village and a nail-art aficionado, once found herself perplexed when she left the salon with her usual funky abstract nail art on her right hand and a light, translucent pink on her left. It turned out her now-husband had DM’d her nail artist on Instagram to give a heads-up he’d be proposing.
Proposals themselves are also constructed with snapshots in mind. Luxury picnics are a thing. Think artfully curated alfresco setups that look like a HomeGoods exploded: teak tables sitting low to the ground, tasseled floor pillows, braided baskets with furry blankets hanging out just so, a ton of tasteful neutrals. In addition to the once-humble picnic, giant letters haven’t enjoyed this much shine since Sesame Street. A proposal might include three-foot-tall light-up letters spelling out “Will You Marry Me?” (one vendor quotes $1,700 for that, plus the cost of delivery and installation) or a custom proposal message on the Anthem’s marquee.
And, of course, there are ornate floral arrangements. Photographer Rodney Bailey recalls a proposal on top of the Hay-Adams hotel that he describes as a “complete explosion” of flowers. The groom-to-be had hired a florist to create a runway of ombré pink roses for the perfect shot. “Some weddings haven’t seen that many flowers,” says Bailey.
Like Taylor Swift concerts or the Barbie movie, an entire economy has popped up around proposals. Marvin Velazquez’s business, the Heart Bandits, is based in California but plans events internationally, including dozens around DC, such as a recent $5,000 Fathom Gallery betrothal in Georgetown with a violinist and a rooftop floral arch shaped like an engagement ring. Some proposers start the process by sending Velazquez social-media or Pinterest images of the desired vibe—often, these are pics that the proposer’s partner has very conveniently left open on their computer or not-so-subtly sent them on Instagram. A big part of working with a planner is securing said decor. After all, it’s unlikely the average layperson knows a guy for cold sparklers or marquee letters.
The Heart Bandits’ Washington-area proposal packages range from the low hundreds to around $2,000, the price for the group’s flash-mob package. (Velazquez has organized many such engagements at the Georgetown waterfront, where a proposer bends a knee surrounded by a bunch of seeming randos who have actually been hired to break into a choreographed dance.) But those are simply guidelines. “There is no limit as to how high a proposal can go,” he says, adding that, post-Covid, 2021 and 2022 were the company’s best years ever. “There was so much pent-up demand.”
Riley Hess of the Yes Girls, another national, California-based proposal-planning group, organized an almost-$7,000, travel-themed engagement, also at Fathom Gallery, complete with hanging paper airplanes, a pink-and-green floral arch, world-map decor, and a barrage of candles. She threw a $6,000 engagement at the same location with buckets of the kind of bright flowers you’d see at a farmers market and a huge custom tapestry containing a poem that the proposing man had written outlining his fave things about his girlfriend. Says Hess: “Her love language is words of affirmation.”
Like Taylor Swift concerts or the Barbie movie, an entire economy has popped up around proposals.
Of course, an epic proposal requires an epic venue. La Vie is kind of the local mother ship: Peet anticipates she’ll do as many as 20 proposals this year. Her greatest hits include a proposal at one of the restaurant’s rooftop igloos with a violinist that TikTokers went wild for and one in which the man asked for a fog machine for his intended to walk through—he was a DJ, naturally. The open sea is another option. Chef and sommelier Troy Knapp charges up to $3,500 for a Potomac sailboat cruise via his company, Sip & Sail DC. The premarital bliss includes Champagne sabering and wine pairings, plus Knapp’s photo-staging expertise—he swings the boat around pre-question so the Washington Monument is in the background for content optimization.
Melanie Boothe, the private-event director for Fabio Trabocchi restaurants such as Fiola and Del Mar, says the usual is a rooftop or patio proposal with the classic rose-petals/candles/marquee-letters mash-up. Then the happy couple typically heads to a private room for a prix fixe dinner with family and friends. All of this can cost as much as $13,000. At the two-Michelin-star restaurant Jônt, one guy rented the entire place and had hospitality director Nitiya Sin create stations representing key relationship moments—such as scoops of ice cream to commemorate the couple’s first date at Jeni’s—all leading to the patio, where a romantic video montage played and a photographer waited. Afterward, he treated 16 loved ones to a tasting menu of about 20 courses with drink pairings—Sin won’t share the exact bill but says the pricing for this kind of event starts at $12,300.
Boothe says she’s seeing proposers quickly max out their budgets with all the necessary Instagrammy decor and then have to make cuts elsewhere: “Back in the day, [you’d] want to make sure your guests are taken care of and they have the best wine and the best food. But now it’s like, ‘You know what? They don’t need all that. We’ll just add more flowers.’ ” And, duh, you also have to pay for a photographer. “If you go that above and beyond,” Boothe says, “your sole purpose is to make sure you’re documenting every moment.”
While most people don’t go through the effort of planning an involved proposal without being fairly positive their beloved will say yes, an elaborate surprise sometimes means starting the marriage with subterfuge. If a post-engagement party is planned, out-of-town guests will often turn off location sharing on their phones so a suspicious betrothed-to-be isn’t tipped off. Photographers often help. “What I found is that people who are getting ready to propose are like deer in headlights,” says photographer Rachel Hegarty. Many photographers will advise proposers to fabricate a party or dinner reservation so the couple can get dressed up without arousing suspicion. For a proposal on the Speaker’s Balcony at the US Capitol, photographer Megan Rei went undercover, pretending she was a staffer taking photos of people touring the building. Dressed in business attire, she informed the soon-to-be-engaged couple she was shooting an image for a brochure so she could be in the right spot when he popped the question. “I had to really utilize my acting skills,” she says.
Pulling off an intricate proposal takes a village, and a proposer will often deputize friends and family to the planning process. When 28-year-old media-relations professional Seth Kwiecien proposed to 35-year-old communications consultant Jacob Palalay, he opted to recreate the couple’s 22-hour first date in Adams Morgan. The proposal day involved six stops, a new white sweater for Palalay, and bespoke invitations summoning friends to a post-proposal party at the couple’s Cleveland Park apartment. “I wanted it to be special for him,” says Kwiecien. “I wanted it to be this really amazing moment and memory in time.” To that end, Kwiecien recruited four friends. One scouted the location and marked the spot with tape, another hid to take photos and helped set up a Champagne picnic, and the others coordinated the after-party—arranging flowers and candles along the staircase for when the couple returned.
Even pets are being pulled into proposal plots. When 24-year-old HR professional Jonathan Heinze got down on one knee for 24-year-old sales engineer Meghan Widmaier, the couple was taking their Boston terrier, Yoshi, for a walk in Georgetown. The dog began tugging on his leash toward the Old Stone House’s back garden, where Widmaier walked a candle-lined path to a luxurious Champagne picnic, pulled straight from the autumnal vision board Heinze had created for the event, inspired by the rich color palette in the Wes Anderson movie Fantastic Mr. Fox. Yoshi had to put in the work, too: Heinze had spent a month training the dog to stop at the park whenever they passed it, awarding him with a treat. “I really Pavlov’d him,” he says.
Of course, there’s always the possibility a well-laid plan can go awry. Photographer Georgette Tsongos describes one winery experience at which the proposal kept getting pushed back because the fiancée-to-be had too much to drink, threw up, and opted to sleep it off in the car. She recovered in time for her partner to pop the question during the last half hour of sunlight. (Tsongos now recommends proposing at the start of a vineyard day—before the wine starts flowing or the place even opens.)
To lure his partner, Sheridan, to the rose-scattered rooftop, Jones, the video producer, told her they were attending a dinner party at friend’s new girlfriend’s place in NoMa. The day of the betrothal, Sheridan texted that she was feeling sick. But with a surprise engagement party scheduled for the next day at a Virginia winery, Jones was determined to pop the question that evening. Sheridan felt well enough to come out, but when she couldn’t find the right door, the texts began:
“So they laid down cement how the f— am I supposed to get in.”
“Why I couldn’t just walk thru the house is beyond me and f—ing stupid.”
“Whatever, I’ll stay for an hour, then I’m going home separately. I do not want you to come w me.”
Luckily, all was forgiven when Jones finally got her upstairs. “I said something like, ‘Surprise! You almost ruined your engagement,’ ” he says.
Not all endings are so blissful. Tiffany Balmer of the DC Event Planner recalls a $12,000 proposal in which a man rented a 45-person yacht, filling it with family and friends, and when he popped the Q, the woman took a literal minute to respond. “In proposal time, that’s a century,” Balmer says. She finally said yes—then ran to the bathroom and burst into tears. Not the good kind.
For all the effort and expense that go into them, elaborate proposals are not only for public consumption. They’re acts of love, opportunities to show your partner the lengths you’ll go to make them feel seen, celebrated, and cherished. “It’s a way to say, ‘I’ve been listening, I know your preferences, I love you very much,’ ” says florist Holley Simmons, who is doing more and more TikTok-ready proposal arrangements—such as an $1,800-ish floral-and-wood backdrop bedecked with rustic-chic Edison bulbs—through her shop, She Loves Me.
When 29-year-old attorney LeeAnne Pedrick proposed to 29-year-old operations manager Sarah Pedrick on a rented boat in 2021, she had already cycled through two other plans: a trip to Italy (quashed by the pandemic) and a hot-air-balloon ride (hello, weather concerns). The adventurous proposal ideas weren’t motivated by a photo opportunity but rather by a reflection of one of the things Pedrick loves most about her wife. “Sarah embodies what I hope to be and push myself to be in terms of travel and doing fun things,” says Pedrick. “I knew it couldn’t be something ordinary.”
Those being proposed to feel the impact. Alisha Ghosh, a 32-year-old DEI professional in Alexandria, reflects on her husband Vivek Subramanyam’s 2021 proposal, recalling the gown the 33-year-old attorney had her wear for an attorney gala, the marquee “A&V” letters on the rooftop of Arlington events venue Top of the Town, and the friends and family who had flown in from around the country. But what really touched Ghosh was what she learned after saying yes: Vivek had spent months planning the surprise, calling multiple venues and coordinating with her family members’ schedules so they could attend. “It felt amazing—especially because I know my husband is not the best planner,” says Ghosh. “He really tailored it to everything I would want. It just meant a lot that he went really above and beyond to make me happy.”
If showing love in very specific, elaborate, and public ways sounds familiar, well, there’s a reason the US wedding industry was worth almost $71 billion in 2022. Like the Christmas shopping season’s inexorable march backward from late November to early fall, wedding creep is real. You’ve probably heard of high-school prom-posals, but people are also now “proposing” to bridesmaids, leading to an industry of Etsy merch—custom Champagne-bottle labels reading “Pairs Well With Naid of Fonor Duties” or “Candles Proclaiming Can’t Get Hitched Without My Favorite Bitch.” Some customers at La Vie, Peet says, are upping the game when it comes to DTR-ing. (For those unfamiliar with the term, that’s short for “defining the relationship,” a newish name for the age-old conversation about dating exclusively.) Instead of just asking, “Will you be my girlfriend?,” people are “proposing” by having the restaurant write the question in chocolate sauce along the dessert plate—typically, the cotton-candy baked Alaska for optimum wow-age.
Proposal mania also sets a higher bar for everything that follows: the bridal shower, the bachelorette party, the actual nuptials. “You can’t necessarily have, like, a nice engagement brunch and not have an extremely nice wedding,” says Ashshaheed, the planner behind the elaborate La Vie event. Indeed, couples often work with many of the same vendors across their odysseys from yes to I do. “We always remind [proposal customers] like, ‘Hey, wink wink, we do weddings,’ ” florist Holley Simmons says.
Peet recalls a La Vie proposal that cost around $7,000 in which the difference between starting block and finish line wasn’t just blurred—it was erased. The woman loved Hello Kitty, so the man had the staff hold Hello Kitty balloons to create a path leading to a pink-and-white floral backdrop. Once he asked the big question, the woman’s friends showed up—with a white dress. Unbeknownst to the woman and the entire La Vie team, the couple was doing it live. As in getting married right then and there.
The bride ran into the bathroom and threw on the dress. The couple did the whole till-death-do-us-part thing. They then went directly into a cocktail hour and a seated dinner. “In my brain, I’m like, Wait, don’t you have to sign your marriage license?,” says Peet. “But then I’m like, I guess [they’ll] do that after.” The legal details could wait. After all, there was content to post.
This article appears in the November 2023 issue of Washingtonian.