Bridal Paths

the ring cycle

Pity the poor bride-to-be of 1998. Though she lives in a cultural climate so carnally explicit it makes Lenny Bruce seem like a Teletubby, she's still expected to swath herself in 50 yards of tulle, stick something frothy on her head, force a passel of attendants to don hideous matching outfits, and careen down an aisle on the arm of her father.

Trouble is, half the time she isn't speaking to her father, or doesn't know where, or who, he is, or just plain can't stand him. For this and other eventualities, the bridal magazines, 600-page tomes that prey on a captive audience of hapless couples who need a road map through a wilderness of high drama and even higher expense, offer comforting solutions: yes, it's ok for mom to wear a tux and give you away; no, there is no acceptable way to ask guests to skip the toaster ovens and foot massagers and give you cash; yes, you may hang on to your original name--just have the officiant announce, ''and now, the newlyweds--Felicity Smith and Herbie Jones!''

How to cut down on the astronomical amount your soiree is going to cost? In ''80 Ways To Save Money and Still Have the Wedding of Your Dreams,'' Modern Bride suggests that you be flexible about the color of your limousine (black or silver is way cheaper than white) and skip the souvenir geegaws. (In a stunning fit of candor, the magazine admits that ''often these low-cost favors are thrown out by the guests.'') Perhaps the best suggestion of all is to simply dump the last hour of the party: ''People will hardly notice that your reception is four hours long instead of five.'' Au contraire--they'll fall to their knees and kiss the ground you walk on, especially if you've elected to hold the festivities in one of the marble-lined, fountain-festooned mortuaries advertised in the backs of the bridal mags.

Of course, the heart and soul of your special day resides in your choice of outfit. You may be walking down the aisle led by a Doberman, you may be exchanging vows suspended from balloons 7000 feet above sea level, but damned if you'll be wearing anything but a pinched-waisted, bead-encrusted, cartoon Cinderella dress. Carolyn Bessette's ivory column notwithstanding, the bridal magazines don't admit a whole lot of heresy. So what if nobody's been seen in a dress with a hoop skirt and balloon sleeves since the Civil War! Brides even features a glass slipper--ok, so it's vinyl and you get two--by Stuart Weitzman, for $198, to complete the fairy tale impersonation.

Upscale brides spend thousands and wait months for their personalized confections at tony boutiques like Vera Wang, but at a place called Tati, The French Bridal Superstore, newly opened on Fifth Avenue and 41st Street, everything is under $500 and ready to go. On a recent Saturday, grubby brides-to-be with reluctant fiances in tow plied the aisles, their cut-offs and flip-flops at war with the ersatz Victoriana lining Tati's walls. Even your preferred transportation (a black limo?) can get into the act: for $11.99, Tati will sell you a product called Auto Tulle, a swathe of pink or white netting that--the sullen salesgirl informs incredulous you--is for your car. (You can use it again when your car gets married.)

Tati's fine if you're convinced you need a Gone With the Wind gown, but to get a real sense of the art of the possible, forget the shops, chuck the magazines, and plant yourself outside City Hall on Centre Street for a few hours. Here you'll see a parade of pairs ready to leap into the final frontier, from obvious marriages of convenience to shotgun arrangements (even more obvious) to domestic partnership registrants (alas, no ceremony available for them) to some seemingly genuine heterosexual love matches. The clothes range from the accidental--whatever prosaic pants and T-shirts the couple pulled out from under the bed that morning--to high-camp fantasies complete with feathered chapeaux and towering tophats.

On a recent spring day, a willowy bride-to-be is resplendent in a strict navy pants suit; a shy young woman, whose much older intended does the talking for her, cowers in flimsy white embroidered cotton; and a stylish vamp in a brown boucle sheath giggles that her fiance designed her dress. There is even a bride in an elegant Bessette--ish slip dress who confesses that she found her gown at JC Penney for $115. Some couples beam with excitement, others barely glance at each other as they empty their pockets of keys and coins for the last time as single people and slouch through the metal detector. Regardless of their mental state on this historic day, they have one thing in common: the blessed anonymity and impromptu insouciance of a City Hall wedding have afforded them the delicious freedom to wear exactly what they please.

 
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