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Disengaged

A prospective bride ponders the modern wedding

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I always thought that if I decided to get married, I would elope. Having a complicated family arrangement, far-flung friends and a distaste for tradition, I figured going under the radar would save everyone money and fabric. But when my boyfriend and I recently decided to get hitched, we realized we actually did want a full-fledged wedding. Our friends tied the knot in September and made it look easy: just invite guests, have someone play music, ask everyone to bring a dish to the reception and - voilà! - you're married and you've had a great party.

I figured there would be just a few major details to iron out: location, food, clothes, officiant. Then we'd be done until the big day arrived. Once I began looking into these details, though, I realized my naïveté. And if I needed any more evidence that I'm in over my head, I got it at the Vermont Wedding Affair. The event, hosted by Vermont Vows magazine on November 11 at Shelburne Farms, was a nuptial bonanza targeting brides-to-be. The Vermont Wedding Association held its own extravaganza, the Burlington Bridal Show, at the Wyndham the following weekend. But I figured one wedding expo per lifetime was enough.

I pulled my dented Toyota Corolla in to the Coach Barn and was immediately faced with a dilemma. A valet stood by to park my car. Having never actually participated in valet service, I didn't know the rules of engagement. Should I tip as I handed the car over, or just when it was retrieved for me later? Erring on the side of caution, I chose both. During the 20-minute wait to get in the door of the overcrowded event, I saw that I was lacking an important accessory: a friend, family member or fiancé. Most brides came bolstered with at least one, but I'd decided to let my boyfriend off the hook and go solo. I held my newly purchased wedding planner - the only non-pink one I could find - like a shield to cover my growing self-consciousness.

Once in the door, I found chaos in full bloom. The Vermont Wedding Affair filled five large rooms and a tented stage. The woman at the door suggested I start at the gift-registry table for Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma, so I headed left. But the registry area was slammed, so I snuck around and wandered the aisles between tables.

I had come hoping to narrow down my choice of caterers who could prepare vegetarian and vegan food, cake bakers, wedding-gown proprietors and stationers. What I found was nearly 40 vendors eager to provide everything from Botox treatments to horse-drawn carriage rides.

Each question I was hoping to answer produced a new set of questions. Many of them came as a shock for someone hoping to have a frugal wedding. Was I interested in spending one thousand or three thousand on invitations? I nearly fell over. Such figures were beyond extravagant, even for a stationery lover like me.

The air at this affair was thick with perfume and tension, families gathered in too-close quarters, and fiancées pushed past the limits of frou-frou endurance. I decided it was time to use one of my drink tickets - and saw that I wasn't the only one who needed some relief.

The demand for mimosas was outstripping the speed at which they could be poured, so I went into the events tent and caught the end of a panel discussion about "destination weddings." Janet Dunnington, president of CEO Weddings & Events, was noting that the average American wedding costs $30,000 - though she sounded skeptical, explaining that her weddings run from $50 to $100 K. I tried to square this figure with the average annual income for women, which was less than $32,000 in 2005. And I had to ask myself: Who is getting married here? Undoubtedly there are some who tie the knot with celeb-style extravagance, but what about people like me, who just want to have a party for friends and family without maxing out several credit cards?

Putting my financial concerns aside, I headed towards the fashion show, eager to get some ideas for my own attire. While the runway was being set up, I flipped through a dress catalogue provided by one of the vendors. The glossy pages were filled with models who all looked too young to legally marry, and were all throwing sly glances over their white-satined shoulders. Nothing could make me less interested in a bridal gown than seeing it on a little girl acting like a Frederick's of Hollywood model.

Billie Holiday swooned out of the speakers as the fashion show began. Despite dresses that were a tad too long, the models tried to float down the runway, stepping carefully to avoid trampling their own trains. All the dresses featured some combination of lace, taffeta, satin, sequins and fluff. They were pretty, but lacked the combination of elegance and charisma I was holding out for. And they all looked so . . . white.

As it turned out, this crowd wasn't as interested in the fashions for women as they were in the physiques of the male models, who, surprised but game, took to the catcalls and hoots like Chippendales. One lingered a bit too long at the end of the runway; a Colin Farrell look-alike did a little soft-shoe; the other tried not to laugh at the whistles his every movement elicited.

Towards the end of the day a rumor circulated that the Style Network was looking for one "wild couple" to get married in Fiji in a month. All expenses paid, with cut-rate travel for families and friends. At that point, I welcomed the chance to just let someone else take care of everything. For a moment, I fantasized about saying "I do" on a tropical island. But even with discounted tickets, Fiji would cost more than a flight to Burlington. So we'll stick to our original plan: a wedding in the park next door to our apartment.

After spending hours looking through the wares of Vermont's wedding "professionals," I had no more sense of what to wear, what food to serve, or what invites to send than when I'd arrived. I was simply looking for some areas where I could go off the map: A dress that wasn't drained of color. Imaginative food. Unique décor. But I was in the wrong place for that kind of thinking. The Vermont Wedding Affair wasn't only by the book, it was the book. It just wasn't my book.

I left Shelburne Farms feeling not only confused but economically inferior. Were we doing the right thing? Should we elope after all? Then I remembered that the point of a wedding is having the most important people in our lives in one place, for one day, to witness our commitment. And in the end, that's a lot more important than the height of the cake.

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