Now is the time for all summer and fall brides-to-be to start shopping for their wedding gowns. Anyone who finds early spring a little early simply does not have a clue as to what the preparations for a full-scale ceremony can involve.
Although as Jacqueline McCord Leo points out in her book ''The New Woman's Guide to Getting Married'' (New York: Bantam Books, $7.95) tying the nuptial knot isn't what it used to be, some 85 percent of today's brides still opt for a traditional marriage. The focal point of the big day's doings is, of course, the bride in her beautiful wedding dress.
Six months is a safe and reasonable lead time to allow for finding the dress of one's choice, according to Mrs. Leo, who as fashion editor of Modern Brides magazine speaks with authority. The gown of one's dreams - of pure silk with hand-clipped French lace and hand-sewn seed pearls, for example - will have to be specially ordered. Samples of the latest gowns arrive in the stores in mid-February, and the usual procedure is for the bride to try on various possibilities, make her final selection, and have her measurements and other specifications sent to the manufacturer. Some four months will elapse before the gown is delivered.
Although traditional wedding dresses do not stray too far from the norm from year to year, there are always influences that reflect the going fashions of the particular time. A few adventurous souls may wish to express their individuality by coming down the aisle in culottes or knee breeches, but that sort of thing would have to be custom-designed.
This year's way of being slightly unconventional would be to wear off-the-shoulder ruffles, an innovation no doubt inspired by what Lady Diana wore when she exchanged her vows with Prince Charles. Bared shoulders are options proposed by several designers. A daring bride could even appear to the strains of Mendelsohn's march in a strapless bustier dress encrusted with lace. Up to now, exposure around the top has been limited to sweetheart necklines.
Still, only a portion of the more than 20 million women who will get married this year will spend from $1,500 to $7,000 on a wedding gown, headpiece, and veil from a prestigious bridal design house such as Priscilla of Boston, Galina, Phyllis Bianchi, and Ron LoVece, all of whose creations may be purchased only by special order. Less expensive gowns, which will be polyester stamped with lace and glued with beading, cost from $150 up but come in sizes and can be bought off the rack, fitted, and taken home in a matter of days.
Considering that 30 percent of today's ceremonies are remarriages, it is not surprising that, as Mrs. Leo reports, only a little more than half of all brides wear traditional dresses. The rest choose informal looks - a wedding suit or a dress from the misses department.
The catch in buying something ready-made is that anyone can buy a Ralph Lauren Victorian blouse and long flounced lace-trimmed skirt or a Perry Ellis linen suit. Mrs. Leo tells of the bride who selected an Albert Nipon voile dress , white with pale lilac flowers, trimmed in Val lace. ''The first gasp came from the friend who happened to be wearing the same dress,'' Mrs. Leo writes. ''The second gasp came from the bride herself.''
One way to ensure that there will be no such unhappy duplication would be to wear an antique dress. But the author cautions that the condition of a vintage garment should be carefully checked beforehand. Mummy's wonderful lace flapper dress or grandmother's Gibson Girl blouse could disintegrate at a crucial moment.
Another way of making sure the dress is one of a kind and exactly what the bride wants is to sew it (or have it made) from a Vogue or Butterick pattern. Both companies also provide patterns for headdresses and veils.
Even second (and third) weddings tend to be the kind that observe formalities these days. Mrs. Leo cites the case of Anne and David, who were not ''exactly a traditional couple'' but a trendy pair who wore funky clothes and ate only organically grown food. Yet when it came to a decision, they did not choose to be married on a mountaintop by a guru but in a church with all the standard trimmings.
This can cost big money. Last year's formal weddings and receptions added up to a grand total of over $2 billion. If she is careless or hasty about planning, the unwary future bride may find herself caught up in the toils of the vast wedding industry and all it entails - from caterers, invitations, and musicians to attendants' dresses and groom's present, ad infinitum.
Mrs. Leo's book should be a great help in mapping out the bridal territory. Besides giving information on the prescribed rituals, she offers advice on how to break the news to co-workers in the office. The book also deals with such modern dilemmas as premarital financial agreements (''Does Your Lawyer Make House Calls?'') and coping with the minister who would rather not have a reading of a Shakespeare sonnet interjected into the marriage vows (''How to Handle the Clergy'').