`Traditional' is back - at a price

With conservatism in full swing in the United States, the traditional wedding's popularity is as high as the top tier of the most elaborate, multi-layered cake. No more barefoot-in-the-fields nuptials, with free-form verse and wildflowers. Formality is back. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the bridal industry. Combine this with the fact that the average bride and groom are older (25 and 28 respectively), more affluent, and have spent a few more years in the workplace than their counterparts 20 years ago, and you have the ingredients for an all-out, sophisticated, even lavish affair.

Amid a steady stream of mostly women attending the Great Bridal Expo, a traveling national bridal show, on a recent Sunday afternoon in Boston's Marriott Copley Place, two young men mimic the introduction to the TV show ``Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.'' With noses pinched shut for just the right nasal British twang, they intone, ``may all your champagne wishes and caviar dreams come true.''

With the return to big, extravagant weddings, wishes and dreams alone, unfortunately, do not an opulent affair make; there are limits to that sacred, money-is-no-object attitude of current weddings.

``Half of the newly married couples that come to me are in debt $5,000 to $6,000 because they paid for their own weddings,'' says Doreen Goguen, a district agent of Prudential Insurance Company, who works as a financial planner and adviser to many newlyweds who are just starting out.

Many of the couples attending the Great Bridal Expo were seeking the sometimes elusive balance between having a memorable wedding and not delving into the depths of debt to do it.

Attendees Ellen Weiss and her fianc'e, Greg Candor, both of whom are attending school in Connecticut, voiced some common pre-wedding concerns.

``When I go into a bridal shop, I feel pressured,'' said Ms. Weiss. ``When we go to a grand wedding, we feel pressured to have one too. There's a fine line between elegance and going overboard.''

Mr. Candor concurs. ``It's become like the commercialism of Christmas. The meaning can get lost.''

``I mean, we hired a wedding consultant and felt like we had to do this and that,'' Weiss continues, ``and ended up ordering things we don't even need. We now have linen cocktail napkins ... I don't know when we'll ever even use linen cocktail napkins!''

Bill Heaton, creator and president of The Great Bridal Expo, an itinerant show that brings together local bridal merchants and prospective wedding consumers under one roof, sees it another way.

``Today's couple is very much in love. Bridal fashions are only part of the things we're selling here. There is a return to romance,'' he says. When asked if he is selling romance, his reply is ebulliently affirmative. ``No doubt about it. But you can't sell something that isn't already there.''

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