Two decades ago, when young girls wondered how brides were supposed to look and behave, they'd most likely conclude—with some prompting from Cinderella—that on their big day they'd be a princess. They'd be blushing, virginal and wrapped from head to toe in tulle and lace.
So why is it that these days, some brides seem to be taking their cues more from Jessica Rabbit than Cinderella? More vamp than virgin, they're having bachelorette parties that are as raunchy as their fiancés' sendoffs. They're selecting cleavage- or lower-back-baring bridal gowns that might get a gasp from conservative relatives. "A big-selling style is a sheer lace corset midriff," says Millie Martini Bratten, the editor in chief of Brides magazine. "It's clearly meant to look like you're seeing through someone's shirt." And today's wife-to-be is hiring photographers for what are called "boudoir shoots," where they pose Maxim magazine-style in lingerie or nothing at all and give the prints to their grooms—a trend that Bratten says began about three years ago. "It's the ultimate display of freedom and empowerment," says Bee-Bee Kim, the founder of Weddingbee.com, a wedding-planning site that gets more than a million unique visitors a month.
The rise of the bride who is more bold than blushing can be explained by a host of sociological factors, most of which have nothing to do with the word "bridezilla." For one, our entire culture is loosening up and becoming more sexualized, and taking the wedding ceremony—and young girls' dreams of what theirs will be like—with it.
This is, after all, is a generation that is comfortable with "sexting" and posting provocative pictures of themselves on Facebook and MySpace. And it's an age when respected actresses and role models pose seductively on the covers of the lad magazines. "In American society now, you see little girls being sexed up," says Chrys Ingraham, a sociologist and author of White Weddings: Romancing Heterosexuality in Popular Culture, a critique of the wedding industry. "You can't disconnect that from the way the wedding industry is going. We have 13-year-olds getting makeovers and having oral sex."
Women are also getting married later in life, at 26 or 28, when they are perhaps more likely to want to mimic Carrie Bradshaw in her plunging Vivienne Westwood dress than a more chaste-looking Disney bride. "One of the biggest changes is, the bride is independent," says Carol Wallace, the author of All Dressed in White: The Irresistible Rise of the American Wedding. "She's working. She's earning her own money. She's working out. She feels perfectly comfortable dictating her own terms."
The first glimpse of the bride as sexpot came with racy bachelorette parties. According to the sociologist Beth Montemurro, author of Something Old, Something Bold: Bridal Showers and Bachelorette Parties, these become more popular after sexually liberated working women started appearing on television programs like Moonlighting or Murphy Brown in the late '80s and '90s. Women decided they wanted a real night out, too, instead of afternoon gifting and the bride in a hat made of ribbons from the presents she got. "The women I interviewed didn't like bridal showers," Montemurro says. "They saw their fiancés going out and having these nights where they were drinking, and thought, 'It's not fair that I'm in this stilted ritual where I have to act very feminine and proper while the guys are going out and having fun'." Strip clubs, bars and whoever makes those glow-in-the-dark penis-shaped rings capitalized on this sentiment by marketing to brides, and women everywhere adorned in condom-covered veils went out to celebrate.
At the actual ceremony, however, brides were nearly as reserved in the 1990s as they'd been in the 1950s. But then the numbers of women who got married in churches started to drop, and so did the strictures on what was appropriate to wear. (According to a survey by Condé Nast bridal media, only 46 percent of brides were married in a church or synagogue in 2006, down from 55 percent the year before.) As more couples began to get married in homes, in hotel ballrooms or on beaches on Capri—anywhere but places of worship—the bridal gown lost its ceremonial meaning as a virgin's garb. It became a fashion garment only. "For a long time wedding dresses were this backwater," All Dressed in White author Wallace says. "They were very different from what anyone would wear in their normal life. But now it's perfectly clear that white no longer symbolizes virginity. It's become a symbol of merely being a bride. So once virginity goes out the window, why wouldn't you show more of your breasts or have a back cut down to your waist?"
Couples are also living together before they get married, of course. About six out of 10 brides check their single lives at the door of a shared apartment years before their wedding day. In response, sociologists say, the sexier dresses and the handoff of pin-up pictures—which was introduced into the wedding prep about three years ago—are ways to add spark to an already-established couple's sex life and mark the marriage as a monumental life change.
"When a girl left her parents' house to be married, she was making an enormous transition," Wallace says. "The wedding celebration was to help her negotiate the change. Now very often there is no functional difference between marriage and living together." And some of the new emphasis on sexuality is an effort to mark the occasion in a new way. Shannon McLaughlin, 25, a freelance illustrator in Philadelphia, did a boudoir shoot for her groom in part because after six years (five of which they lived together), she'd run out of romantic gift ideas. She also thought it might be good for her, too. She'd read on wedding Web sites that it was a freeing experience. "I figured it couldn't be all that special," she says. "It's just a woman taking photos with some skimpy clothes on. But that isn't the case at all. When I saw the photos, I gained self-confidence and realized I'm way too hard on myself." McLaughlin even posted the photos on Weddingbee.com, where she got about 70 comments telling her how great she looked. "It took a lot of courage for me to share the photos," she says, "although I did crop them so my father wouldn't have a heart attack."
While most sociologists agree that women admitting to lust and wanting to be sexually empowered is a good thing, they see a problem with making exhibitionism the centerpiece of the wedding ceremony: it might crowd out other aspects of the marriage. "You're highlighting what should just be a piece of the relationship," says Stephanie Coontz, a social historian and the author of Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, which looks at how recent the idea of marrying for love is. "I worry that it can take over. The message you're sending about your appearance can override other conversations you should be having about your future." And in what she wants for the future, Jessica Rabbit has got nothing on the average American bride.