By Anne D’Innocenzio
SherryLynne Heller-Wells always wanted a fairy-tale 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 lacy bolero jacket. Ten 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 cake.
The cost, including a fireworks show, was $45,000.
Heller-Wells wasn’t some blushing new bride, though. When the retired registered nurse, 64, wed 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 wear a fancy wedding gown, rock out at the reception or have the groom slip a lacy garter belt off 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. But it’s also one of the results of a new “everything goes” approach that does away with 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.
“The rules are out the window … whether it’s what you’re wearing or the cake you’re serving,” says Darcy Miller, editorial director of Martha Stewart Weddings.
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, said Shane McMurray, CEO of the Wedding Report, which tracks spending trends in the industry.
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 census figures. That’s up from 2001 when 2.6 percent of new marriages were among women in that age group; for men, it was 6.6 percent.
And those older couples are usually empty nesters, not saving for their first home or burdened by student loan debts. So they 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.
That’s meant big business for companies that cater to brides and grooms-to-be. Zaven Ghanimian, CEO of Simon G. Jewelry, which sells engagement rings and other jewelry to about 900 stores, says men in their late 50s and older have been investing more on engagement rings.
A few years ago, they were spending $1,500 to $2,000; now, they’re shelling out $4,000 to $8,000.
And at David’s Bridal, the nation’s largest bridal chain, business from older couples has doubled in the past two years, compared with modest growth for the younger age group, says Brian Beitler, chief marketing officer. While older customers represent only two to three percent of overall sales, the company expects that figure to keep growing.
David’s Bridal says older brides spend about $700 to $800 on a gown, including accessories like necklaces. That’s higher than the $500 to $600 that customers in their twenties and early thirties typically spend.
In the past, older brides tended to choose special-occasion dresses, but now they want more traditional wedding gowns.
“She’s our dream bride,” says Catalina Maddox, fashion director at David’s Bridal. “She wants everything that the 25-year-old bride wants, but more.”
The trend is so prevalent that the David’s store in Danbury, Conn., recently held a bridal fashion show at a nearby nursing and rehabilitation facility; the event was a hit with the residents, the store says.
Terry Hall, fashion director at New York City bridal salon Kleinfeld’s, also has seen a change in attitude among the older set. He said business from that group has doubled.
Hall says Kleinfeld’s 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 says. “Now, they’re saying, ‘Who cares? It’s my day.’ They want the dress.”
That’s especially true for older first-time brides.
At 64, Yolanda Royal, who lives in Irvington, N.J., is preparing for her first wedding next July. After living with her partner for 20 years, he popped the question in May. For Royal, it’s all about the dress. After that’s secured, the other details will fall in place, she says.
Royal, a nursing attendant, was at David’s Bridal in Manhattan with her 41-year-old niece on a recent Friday, trying on white wedding gowns that had small trains. Royal, who says she wants something “sexy,” tried everything from off-the-shoulder to strapless designs.
“For my wedding, for my day, I want the dress I want,” says Royal, who did not want to give details about the gown she settled on because she wants to surprise her future husband. “I really don’t think about age. I think age is something that people shouldn’t think about. It’s all about your life and the way you feel. I feel good about myself and my life.”
That’s not to say that some brides aren’t getting any pushback from their friends or relatives. For instance, Joan Hunter, a 76-year-old widow, is planning a big wedding with her fiance Guido Campanile, an 87-year-old widower, for October.
They are planning to have 10 people in the wedding party, including her two 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.
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,” says Hunter, who lives in Rosemead, Calif. “I’m really young at heart. I just wanted to do something that everyone would remember.”