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The '90s Princess

Ever-Practical, She'd Rather Pick Superlative Substitutes Than Pay a Mint for Tradition


While many American girls spend more than 20 years fantasizing about the fairy-princess gown they hope to be married in, another kind of bride, who lives in the real world, also wants a beautiful start to living happily ever after. The practical type questions the wisdom of spending a lot of money on a dress that will be worn only once, at a time when the costs of a wedding, honeymoon and starting a new life can be considerable.

As heretical as her position might sound, the practical bride is not the anti-bride. Chances are she is every bit as romantic as her more extravagant sister, and no enemy of tradition. But she isn't willing to mortgage the farm or ruin her credit rating to pay for her dream dress, and she takes advantage of a number of strategies for staying on a budget, including shopping for a discounted gown, buying a white dress not expressly designed for a bride or even dressing up an inexpensive bridesmaid's dress with a headpiece, veil and a bride's bouquet.

Emotional highs and down-to-earth prices can be in conflict. Peer pressure is another psychological force menacing the cost-conscious.

"One of my friends couldn't stop talking about her $3,200 dress," said Christine Franke, a development assistant for the Pasadena Symphony who was married in the spring. "I was determined to stay in the $400 range, but that didn't mean I wasn't as excited as she was about getting married."

On an emotional level, skimping on the cost of a bridal gown can seem like a metaphor for not valuing the marriage that is about to begin. And the bride's place at the epicenter of the ritual makes many women feel they're worth it, no matter what "it" is. When a wedding is held up as the apex of female achievement, its vaunted importance gives a woman license to splurge.

"I think brides want to feel they can blow their wad and be a little crazy," feminist author Letty Pogrebin said. "They think, 'If not now, then when?' Being a bride gives them the chance to be illogical, to be in charge, to spend in a kind of lunatic way. I've heard many women think back on it and say, 'I can't believe I did this. Now the dress is in a box under my bed, and I wish I had the money.' The overspending happens because not enough women feel they have power in the rest of their lives."

Michelle Kessler is the quintessential happy, practical bride. With her long, sun-streaked brown hair and athletic body, she'd make any "Melrose Place" casting director's head turn. A marketing executive for a fashion company in New York, Kessler bought her unconventional wedding dress soon after she became engaged.

"I walked into the Calvin Klein boutique on Madison Avenue because I love the simplicity of his dresses," she said. "My personal style is not to be dressed up. I wouldn't feel comfortable in anything elaborate or fussy. I never went into a bridal store, and not because I didn't think I could find something simple. But something simple at Vera Wang would cost me $8,000. I'm 31, and the whole fantasy of the big cake and all the people has worn off for me. I'm more focused on the marriage, and, at my age, you start thinking about how you'll pay tuition for the children you're going to have."

For her summer wedding, she chose a long, white, sleeveless linen dress lined in silk.

"I took it off the rack, tried it on, they pinned the hem up a little, and that was it. It cost $800, and I won't wear a veil. If I wear any jewelry at all, it'll just be little diamond stud earrings. My goal was to find something simple, elegant and comfortable that I could wear again and that I would feel like myself in. I didn't want to look like I could be popped onto the top of a cake."

Simplicity has been the most significant bridal styling trend of the decade. When Carolyn Bessette Kennedy married John F. Kennedy Jr. wearing a plain, bias-cut gown two years ago, instead of being in the vanguard, she merely personified the no-frills look brides had been favoring for years. But simplicity doesn't necessarily come cheap.

"Ironically, the more expensive a gown is, the simpler it will often be," said Renee Strauss, who owns Renee Strauss for the Bride in Beverly Hills. "A woman who pays $5,000 to $10,000 for a gown is paying for a designer label and often for custom details like a longer train or a detachable train. In general, you expect that the styling of the more costly gowns would be better, and that's what you're getting for your money, but there are exceptions."

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