Bridal gowns: from simple charm to formal elegance

Do you buy or rent a wedding gown for the big day? At current prices, most relatively inexpensive bridal attire is so awful it tends to put one off the idea of a formal wedding altogether. Too often the sleazy fabrics and cluttered silhouettes are trimmed like a Christmas tree. But is it worth lifting the nuptial heart by spending the equivalent of the price of a honeymoon or equipment for the new home for a dress worn for a few fleeting hours?

Many brides are opting for the practicality of renting a wedding dress from specialized firms (also equipped to outfit the groom in morning coat, cutaway, or tails). Some are borrowing a gown from a couture house if they can wangle the connection, saving the money to set up housekeeping. There's enough expense as it is with the cost of the engagement and wedding rings, which generally equal one month of the groom's salary, plus the outlay for the reception, photographs, and big send-off.

As the average ages of the bridal couple have become younger in France in the past few years (24 for the man and 22 for the woman), common sense seems to be taking priority over sentimentality. The bride is no longer swayed by the tradition of passing her gown on to her future daughter, who will probably be taller and heftier in any event, and unable to fit into the dress at all, according to prognostications for the increasing height and girth of the coming generations.

In France and Spain the most popular months for weddings are June, July, and September. The average couple allows four months to prepare for the all-important day. This includes the marriage contracts to arrange for the civil wedding and all the details of the church ceremony, reception, honeymoon, and readying the future home. Every major department store and many shops specialize in the liste de mariage, where the fiancees make their personal selection of gifts in all price ranges, permitting family and friends to choose something suitable within their budget.

The former tradition of having the bride's parents pay for everything is gradually giving way to a 50-50 sharing of the wedding expenses by both families. The trend toward informality is also evident in those immortal photos taken on the wedding day. Couples are choosing fewer posed portraits in the studio in favor of candid shots on the church steps, and casual snaps in the park or garden and during the reception.

When money is no object, wealthier young couples are having their wedding filmed on videocassettes. While the rented garb is not destined for future generations, at least the descendants will have a fabulous record of grandfather and grandmother's wedding.

Trends in wedding gowns seem to change as fast as fashion itself, but almost every bride chooses to appear ultraromantic. According to Les Mariees de France and ProNuptia, which each dress approximately 150,000 brides every year, current selections are often retro - updates of gowns from 1925 through the early '30s, which was ironically the era of the worldwide depression when money was scarce and extravaganza even less so.

Country weddings in a rural setting are popular in the summer months. The bride often wears a charmingly simple gown in organdy and eyelet embroidery, and a picture hat rather than a veil. Movies and TV serials exert a strong influence; ProNuptia reports that the copy of Lucy's wedding gown in the ''Dallas'' series (shown here two years later than in the United States) has been purchased by more than 300 young women who are altar-bound this year.

If styles in wedding gowns tend to fluctuate, so does the bouquet the bride carries. The tender little round nosegay of pale posies has more or less ''had it'' in favor of cascading garlands similar to what Diana, Princess of Wales, carried at her wedding two years ago. Classic orange blossoms are currently replaced by jasmine, freesia, and white flowers of the season set off with long trailing tendrils of ivy or vines.

Every June as the annual brigade of brides parades toward the altar, one is reminded of Queen Elizabeth's speech on the occasion of her 25th wedding anniversary. I was in London at the time and heard her quote the Anglican bishop's remark when he was asked to discourse on ''sin.'' The high-ranking churchman announced, ''I am against it!'' The Queen summed up marriage by replying, ''I am for it!''

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