- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2004

Jeannine Nelson is searching for a Scottish bagpiper. Not that the Arlington free-lance writer and editor is Scottish. Her ancestors were mostly Polish. But Miss Nelson hopes to incorporate both Eastern European traditions and her fiance’s Scottish customs in the couple’s Feb. 21 nuptials at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Annapolis.

Miss Nelson is among the American brides who are redefining the ceremony of matrimony. Customs are changing to reflect changes in culture: Weddings are more elaborate and more expensive than the simple rituals of the past, and fewer brides today walk down the aisle in virginal white.

It’s not your mother’s wedding.

Today’s newlyweds are older, more financially independent and spend, on average, close to $22,000 and 14 months planning their fete, say bridal industry analysts.

“What we’re seeing is the opportunity for people to start planning and designing weddings that are very much a statement of style,” says Colin Cowie, a celebrity-wedding planner and author of five books on style and entertaining.

“Today’s weddings are much more personal,” he says. “They tell the story of who the couple are. They embrace who they are.”

Linda Kevich, director of the International Institute of Weddings and director of the www.superweddings.com Web site, agrees.

” main goal today is to have a ‘one-of-a-kind’ wedding that will stand out in the memories of their guests as being extra special,” Miss Kevich says. “Brides today tend to want to see every available option so that they are able to pick the one they feel most perfectly makes the statement they want to make, or expresses who they are.”

As the wedding market has ballooned to a $25.3 billion industry, the bride and groom have a plethora of choices that enable them to personalize details both big and small, from the venue to the ceremony to embroidered napkins.

“My advice to the bride and groom is, let’s design your ultimate party and then we will insert a ceremony into the weekend,” advises Mr. Cowie. “Invariably by doing that, I come up with something that is tailor-made to their tastes. And all of a sudden I have broken the thought process in how to originate thinking and approaching the wedding.”

Miss Kevich observes that an increasing number of weddings are taking places at such venues as quaint inns, beaches, art galleries and wineries. The “destination wedding” the concept of gathering an intimate number of family and friends for a weekend at an island resort or deluxe bed and breakfast is becoming more popular.

But 85 percent of weddings still take place in a church or synagogue. Caroline Cox, a British historian and author of “I Do: 100 Years of Wedding History,” says there is a reason for that.

“I see this massive link between the position of women within society and how culture perceives femininity and also, most importantly, how culture perceives weddings and marriage and how that’s related to women’s sexuality,” Ms. Cox says.

“Interestingly, when you find heterosexuality, and even marriage, is under siege and people are kind of questioning it, and you’ve got sort of rises in feminism and gay rights and sort of equality, that rather peculiarly is when the traditional wedding is most popular and most people want it,” Ms. Cox says.

Although many couples still want the traditional wedding, the 21st century finds couples, and consequently weddings, are more likely to be interracial, intercultural, less religious and more “spiritual,” says Mr. Cowie.

In today’s post-modest fashion era, weddings are apt to be a little sexier as well, he adds.

“More brides are wearing dresses that are very beautiful and flattering to them, a little sexier,” Mr. Cowie says. “The day of the girl with puffed sleeves is long come and gone.” Glamorous, sexy and romantic are the new key words when it comes to bridal fashion, he says.

But there are dueling worlds when it comes to bridal fashion, says Ms. Cox.

Fashion varies greatly from the everyday bride to couture gowns, she says. The most popular dress for the average woman is a Victorian-inspired crinoline silhouette, with a fitted bodice, a tiny waist and the big skirt. But the couture designs of the Parisian designers of the ‘50s and ‘60s currently inspire high-fashion wedding dresses, Ms. Cox says. The gowns are heavy, made out of fabrics such as duchesse satin and brocade. The styles are strong and graphic, minimalist without much decoration, sheath dresses with no sleeves.

More brides or perhaps dress designers are skipping the traditional virginal white for “shades of white; ecru, oyster, pearl, and even pale pastels,” Miss Kevich said. That is a fortunate trend for brides, she says, because few people can wear a bright white very well.

The trend toward ivory is inspired both by couture and culture, says Ms. Cox. It’s impossible to achieve a brilliant white in the finest fabrics such as duchesse satin.

“Also, from a cultural notion, the sort of brilliant white wedding dress doesn’t apply to most women now, the tradition of a woman being a virgin on her wedding night is sort of not the case anymore,” Ms. Cox says.

As more brides discard virginal pretenses, more are marching down the aisle proudly in off-the-shoulder, strapless or other daring styles. “These are all things that allude to a sense of sensuality,” says Mr. Cowie.

“Recent trends suggest that the cult of the body beautiful has changed the shape of many wedding dresses,” Ms. Cox writes in her book. “Our obsession with fitness, diet and exercise has streamlined the wedding dress into a garment that shows off a body perfected through a grueling fitness regime.”

She suggests that it’s not a coincidence that couples are investing more time and money to stage the perfect wedding when, for more than two decades, half of American marriages have ended in divorce.

“Women well, men as well but women are so worried about what the future of their marriage will be, somehow by spending that type of money on a wedding is almost a sort of magical talisman to prevent things going wrong,” says Ms. Cox.

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