This weekend will see an orgy of elaborate, splash-the-cash nuptials featuring members of the England football team. But it seems more and more ordinary couples are buying into the fairytale wedding fantasy too - whatever the cost, says Sarah Harris
On Saturday, three members of the England football squad will utter two of the most expensive words of their lives: "I Do".
The grooms - Steven Gerrard, Gary Neville, and Michael Carrick - and their brides will languish on golden thrones, quaff Cristal champagne and flash 10-carat diamonds, while for the next week, OK! magazine readers gush and gape over the fake tans, chartered helicopters and designer gowns.
Lavish weddings are nothing new. Ever since Grace Kelly glided down the aisle in 25 'yards of silk taffeta' to marry Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956, these glittering events have fascinated and appalled us in equal measure - but now we are following their example. British couples lavish an average of £16,000 on their 'Perfect Day' - a 50% increase since 1998. More women than ever are leaving reality behind to squeeze their 6ft-long trains into Cinderella carriages to live the fantasy of the Big White Wedding. So what explains the growing popularity of this old-fashioned and over-inflated ritual? A ritual that sits so oddly in our post-feminist world.
Once upon a time, a wedding was a simple affair - as Andrew McCarthy put it in the 1985 film St Elmo's Fire, "a concept invented by people who were lucky enough to make 20 without being eaten by dinosaurs". The ancient Israelites saw it primarily as a legal agreement; and it wasn't until the Victorian era that the big white frock became part of the marriage institution. Today the British bridal industry is worth around £5bn a year.
Rebecca Mead, the author of One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding, sees the rise in extravagant weddings as a reflection of society's ever-accelerating desire to consume. She says: "Because of the declining relevance of religious institutions, increasingly the authority we turn to is a commercial one."
So our urge to splurge on the Big Day is more a symptom of our purchasing power than the disintegration of our feminist principles.
"People always want to keep up with the Joneses," says Mark Niemenko, founder of the luxury London wedding planners, Smith & Niemenko. "There's a lot of pressure to have the most expensive dress, the most beautiful flowers, the most stunning venue."
Some people, he says, will go to any lengths to impress. Like the multimillionaire Peter Shalson, who spent £2m hiring Elton John to play at his wedding, and a further £6m on the finest champagne and caviar.
One recent bride (who wishes to remain anonymous), was married last April and describes the culture of wedding one-up-manship where "everyone's got to outdo each other by being �ber original and creative – whether it's with your choice of venue, or the way you choose to tie your napkins. It's a competitive situation."
It seems that the further modern couples move from the traditional meaning of marriage, the more important the wedding itself becomes. Mead says the wedding is now a way for the couple "to express their personalities, give their friends a memorable party and prove, 'if we can get through this, we can get through anything'. The wedding itself is the rite of passage," she adds, "rather than signalling a real change in lifestyle."
Getting married used to mark the bride's transition from the parental home to the marital home; from adolescence to adulthood. But today, brides are no longer demure virgins in white lace quivering at the altar; rather, they are professional, self-supporting 30-somethings - more often than not masterminding the operation.
"In a way, getting married is a lot like a role play," said one bride.
"We have been fed this wedding story ever since we can remember, so when it happens you feel almost like actors playing the bride and groom."
But this fairytale fantasy doesn't make a wedding anti-feminist, says Mead. On the contrary: "This is the moment where women can enact this Cinderella fantasy – but it is a safe enactment," says Mead, "You can look like a virgin princess, but no one expects you to be a virgin, and the next day you can go back to being your strong, liberated self." She argues that the modern wedding is not a repudiation of feminism, but partly a result of it.
"Because the women who traditionally would have organised the wedding are now working professionals, increasingly they outsource to professionals to tell them what to do," adds Mead. " Weddings have become increasingly professionalised, so inevitably there is an escalation in production values."
But does this escalation in 'production values' threaten to turn the bride into a 'product'?
One newly-wed woman describes "beating herself up" in the weeks before her wedding over the fear that she would fail to live up to the commercial ideal of the "perfect bride". She said: "I was never worried about marrying my husband – I was scared of everyone judging me on my hair, my make-up, or my dress. It's bloody scary."
You only have to flick through any bridal magazine to see the pressure on women to conform. "You're told it's your job to turn yourself into this ideal woman: toning your biceps, whitening your teeth, losing weight, getting facials," says Mead. "There is this tremendous build-up of expectation that this day will somehow translate into the perfect self; the perfect day and the perfect future." But, as our incurably lavish footballers' wives bling and strut their way down the aisle next weekend, it's difficult to imagine them as the helpless victims of an outdated and misogynistic ritual. Rebecca Mead agrees: "These brides may dress demure," she says, "but their behaviour certainly isn't." For many women, their wedding day is the ultimate exhibition of wealth, and of personal and social success. Or, as Deborah Joseph, the editor of Brides magazine, puts it: "It has opened up a whole new world for women to unleash their inner princess".
Further reading: One Perfect Day by Rebecca Mead, Penguin Press, £13