Older brides increasingly unbound by the old rules

08/28/2013 4:50 PM

08/28/2013 4:50 PM

SherryLynne Heller-Wells always wanted a fairytale wedding.

So when she tied the knot last year, she spared no detail. She walked down the aisle in a flowing ivory gown with a long veil and lacey bolero jacket. Ten flower-toting bridesmaids and seven groomsmen were in the wedding party. And after the ceremony, 100 guests dined on beef tenderloin, clams casino and a three-tier vanilla cake.

The cost, including a fireworks show during the reception, was $45,000.

Heller-Wells wasn’t some blushing new bride, though. When the retired registered nurse, 64, wed her husband, Clyde, a small-business owner who is 65, it was her second time at the altar.

“I met my Prince Charming. He swept me off my feet,” says the Clearwater, Fla., widow whose first husband died in 2003. “We’re hoping this will be the last marriage. Why not celebrate?”

Only a few years ago, it was considered in poor taste for a bride over age 55, particularly if she had been previously married, to do things like wear a fancy wedding gown, rock out to a DJ at the reception or have the groom slip a lacy garter belt off of her leg. But those days are gone: Older couples no longer are tying the knot in subtle ways.

The trend in part is being driven by a desire to emulate the lavish weddings of celebrities of all ages. But it’s also one of the results of a new “everything goes” approach that does away with long-held traditions and cookie-cutter ceremonies in favor of doing things like replacing the first husband-and-wife dance with a group re-enactment of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. That’s left older couples feeling less conscious about shelling out serious cash to party like their younger peers.

“The rules are out the window … whether it’s what you’re wearing or the cake you’re serving,” said Darcy Miller, editorial director of Martha Stewart Weddings, a wedding magazine. “Sixty is the new 40 and that is reflected in the wedding.”

Couples age 55 and older made up just 8 percent of last year’s $53 billion wedding business. But that number has doubled since 2002, according to Shane McMurray, CEO of the Wedding Report, which tracks spending trends in the wedding industry.

It’s in part because more couples are marrying in their golden years.

In 2011, women ages 55 and over accounted for 5.2 percent and men in that age range made up 7.9 percent of the more than 2.1 million marriages performed in that year in the U.S., according to Bowling Green State University’s National Center for Family and Marriage Research, based on analysis of census figures.

And those older couples spend more. They’re usually empty nesters who don’t have the same worries as their younger counterparts: They aren’t saving for their first home, for instance, and they aren’t burdened by huge student loan debts they must worry about paying off.

As a result, older couples dish out about 10 percent to 15 percent more than the cost of the average wedding, which was $25,656 last year, down from the pre-recession peak in 2007 of $28,732, according to the Wedding Report.

At David’s Bridal, the nation’s largest bridal chain with 300 locations across the U.S., business from older couples has doubled in the past two years, compared with modest growth for the younger age group, said Brian Beitler, the chain’s chief marketing officer. And while older customers represent only two to three percent of overall sales, the company expects that figure to keep growing.

And they’re a lucrative bunch. David’s Bridal, which is based in Consohocken, Pa., said older brides spend about $700 to $800 on gowns, including accessories like necklaces. That’s higher than the $500 to $600 that customers in their twenties and early thirties typically spend.

But older brides aren’t just spending more, they’re spending differently. For instance, in the past, older brides tended to stick with special-occasion dresses, but now they want more traditional wedding gowns.

The trend is so prevalent that the David’s Bridal store in Danbury, Conn. recently held a bridal fashion show at a nearby nursing and rehabilitation facility.

Terry Hall, fashion director at Kleinfeld’s, the New York City bridal salon, that has the nation’s biggest selection of designer bridal wear under one roof, said older clients are spending $4,000 to $7,000 for a gown. That compares with the average purchase of $3,500 for the under-30 set.

“They used to be subtle,” Hall said. “Now, they’re saying, `Who cares? It’s my day.’ They want the dress.”

At 64, Yolanda Royal, who lives in Irvington, N.J., is preparing for her first wedding next July. The couple plans to spend about $11,000 on the reception for about 100 people, but for Royal, it’s all about the dress. After that’s secured, the other details will fall in place, she said.

That’s not to say that some brides planning big weddings aren’t getting any pushback from their friends or relatives. For instance, Joan Hunter, a 76-year-old widow for 33 years, is planning a big wedding with her fiance Guido Campanile, an 87-year-old widower, for October.

The couple is spending $10,000 on the reception, which will be held at a wedding hall. They are planning to have 10 people in the wedding party, including her two grown sons, ages 56 and 54, who will be giving her away, and her 5-year-old great grandson who will serve as the ring bearer. The couple also hired a DJ and a florist who is creating a floral arch.

But when Hunter first told her sons of her plans, they thought she was “crazy.” They wondered why she wasn’t just eloping to Las Vegas. “I told my kids that this may well be my last big party,” said Hunter, who lives in Rosemead, Calif. “I’m really young at heart. I just wanted to do something that everyone would remember.”

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