Virginia Weir got engaged in December 2019 — “the chef’s kiss of timing, as far as weddings go,” she says. When, months later, the country’s first lockdown stretched past those promised two weeks, the 29-year-old finance influencer and her fiancé, Joe, realized that the chaos-making global pandemic actually had a faint silver lining for them. Because of COVID restrictions, it was suddenly the safe, responsible choice for them to do what they wanted to do anyway: elope.
“Weddings are performative, a show for family and friends over what you and your future spouse truly want,” Weir says. “We were aiming for something vastly different than that route.” After scouring Instagram, she found the perfect photographer — Sean Oblizalo of Vows and Peaks — and, with him, they began planning their day. The result was a strikingly photogenic handfasting ceremony (a Celtic ritual in which the couple’s hands are tied together) that took place as the sun rose over the mountains of Governors Basin in Colorado. The only witnesses to the splendor were the couple and Oblizalo — and everyone else who saw and double-tapped the images on Instagram.
When the pandemic first unfolded, there was a wave of quick, cheap weddings, often with just a handful of in-person guests. But Weir’s story is part of another trend, one ignited by the restrictions of the early pandemic that has evolved in the months and years since: elopements, or “micro-weddings,” as they’ve now been rebranded, that are neither spare nor frugal, quick nor cheap, but elaborate, photogenic celebrations only made possible the fact that there are very few — or no — guests.
“I saw a large increase in elopements in mid-2020, which has yet to trend back down,” says Dawn Brown, a Texas-based wedding photographer. For years, her bookings were about 75 percent weddings and 25 percent elopements (which she defines as 14 guests or fewer), but since mid-2020, those numbers have flipped to 65 percent elopements and 35 percent weddings. Summer Swee-Singh, a ceremony and cocktail-hour musician, says that she used to only play a couple elopements a year; in 2021, that number was 15.
The word elope can be traced back to the early 14th century, when it meant a wife leaving her husband for a lover. In the 1800s, the meaning shifted to the one we use today, and elopements have been a well-established, if slightly scandalous, wedding option since. They’ve waxed and waned in terms of popularity (allegedly reaching “epidemic proportions” in the Gilded Age), but today, they are not only decidedly having a moment — they’ve also transformed into something as fancy and intentional as a big traditional bash.
Even the definition of elopement has evolved, no longer implying just the couple and an officiant: Inviting a very small group of the couple’s nearest and dearest now counts as eloping. Jenny MacFarlane, founder of Eloping Is Fun, describes these “micro-weddings” as “a bridge between traditional elopement and a bigger wedding.”
As restrictions have lifted, elopements are sticking around as an aesthetic choice. “They’re no longer a cheap and quick option,” Oblizalo says. “They’ve really evolved into an experience where couples invest their wedding budget into things that matter most to them.” Kari Bjorn, a wedding photographer in northwest Arkansas, says that the elopements he’s shooting in 2022 and 2023 are “more intentional and designed” than the ones he shot in 2020, signaling a shift toward elopement as a point of creative expression, not convenience or budget.
This means any savings from cutting dozens or hundreds of guests from the final bill aren’t exactly being saved. Couples are still using that money for the big day, creating imminently Instagrammable weddings by paying top dollar for luxury experiences (think helicopter rides, spa services, excursions) and baroque tableware, music, and food — even if they’re the only ones to experience it IRL. “Opulence is definitely the new trend,” says Anastasia Stevenson, a floral and events designer.
For Brett Beardsley and his now-wife Stephany, their micro-wedding in Manhattan allowed them to create décor that he describes as “a dream.” They chose a corporate event space near the Highline that was unused because of COVID and worked with Design House Decor to “transform a blank canvas into an iridescent floral dream setting” with surround-projection walls that turned the space into what Beardsley describes as “a dynamic cloud.”
“I was wondering if the influx of elopements would mean a downtick in my bookings,” says Singh, the musician. “This was absolutely not the case. While I was often only getting booked for the pre-ceremony portion of weddings prior to COVID, I’m now often booked for pre-ceremony, ceremony, and cocktail hour for smaller weddings.” When Maddie Cohen, a 28-year-old ghostwriter, decided to skip the big wedding for her November 2021 ceremony, she and her fiancé “went all out” on food and drinks, creating a custom menu of steak, lobster, and Champagne for their few guests. Fewer mouths to feed means more “private chefs with multicourse meals over buffets or larger catering companies,” says Meredith Ryncarz, a Savannah-based wedding photographer.
Most of all, however, the budget seems to go toward locations and décor — and photographers, of course. Cohen, for instance, chose an all-inclusive elopement package at a resort on the Minnesota-Canada border, where she and her now-husband tied the knot on an arresting cliffside with just their pets. “The alternative would have been to get married at a restaurant my parents own, which would have been lovely but very different from how we pictured our day,” she says. “We met in the woods eight years ago — working outdoor jobs near Lake Tahoe in our early 20s — so it meant a lot to be able to connect outside and really focus on what brought us together in the first place,” says Cohen. “The images of the wedding just felt like us.”
Whereas elopements began as a way to surreptitiously tie the knot, today, they’re all about creating something special, specific, and small — but by no means secret. These events are not meant for large crowds in the moment, but they are meant to be shown off, and so incredible photography becomes a nonnegotiable. “Sharing our elopement with our people was important,” says Weir. “COVID stripped away so much, but it wasn’t going to take away from us getting married and showing the world our love. Sean’s art allowed us to document an intimate day and share that with people after-the-fact.”
“Most of my current couples are putting photography first on the list of priorities in their elopement plan,” says Bjorn. “They want their day to be a unique experience from start to finish and for it to be documented accordingly.” Macfarlane adds that she’s seen her videography grow fourfold since 2020, with demand for documentation so strong that they’ve introduced a new five-hour photography package, focused on creating a complete narrative of the wedding day.
As Brown describes it, elopements allow couples to “treat themselves to their flavor of extravagance” — one that is suddenly attainable. So if a traditional wedding is vanilla or chocolate, think of this new brand of elopements as an Instagram-only hot-fudge sundae with a gold-leaf brownie balanced on top: It is lavish and luxurious, aspirational and impressive, meant to be admired by friends and strangers via social media. Delicious enough onscreen, but even better in real life.