Bikini-clad brides, wacky song-sheets, guest participation: weddings have become the ultimate style statement. Spare us, says Hester Lacey
Last week the charming wedding of actress Kate Winslet brought a tear to the nation's eye. Miss Winslet, now Mrs Threapleton, struck a chord with her unpretentious nuptials.

The service did not feature a hundred-strong choir or a host of celebrity acquaintances; the low-key half-hour ceremony was held at her local church in Reading and conducted by the minister who christened and confirmed her. She did not hire a castle for the reception, but held it at her local pub, the Crooked Billet. Guests were feasted, not on carpaccio of guineafowl with lavender jus, but on bangers and mash followed by bakewell tart and custard. There was no media feeding-frenzy - the celeb wedding sharks Hello! and OK! magazines had not succeeded in buying up the whole thing with a six-figure cheque, thus necessitating security guards and bouncers and unseemly scenes with paparazzi. And while the bride's dress may have been Alexander McQueen, it was a dignified ivory affair, with no ostentatious ruffs or puffs.

Compare and contrast the recent wedding of Scary Spice, which brought the village of Little Marlow in Buckinghamshire to a standstill. All the guests had to wear white from head to foot, perhaps to tone with the tasteful white canvas tunnel that shielded the bride from onlookers as she made her way to the church. There were bouncers on the church door, security guards with sniffer dogs, an enormously lavish reception and a huge cheque in the post for exclusive magazine rights to the pictures. Kate Winslet's wedding was a refreshing change, but ostentatious celeb-style knot-tying is far from dead: Posh is rumoured to be looking for the perfect Irish castle for her own wedding.

Showbiz weddings tend to be as over-the-top as the personalities at the altar. A simple do just doesn't reflect inflated status; throwing money at the problem is of course the first solution, but it's those little extra touches that make a wedding really stand out. Gazza, decked out in gold brocade, laid on a pipe band for his do with Shezza. Sylvester Stallone hired Blenheim Palace. Trudie Styler wore a Gianni Versace creation to perch side-saddle on a white horse led by her groom, Sting.

When Liz Taylor married Larry Fortensky, her trip up the fake-turf wedding aisle was serenaded by a pianist playing a white grand piano. Billy Connolly and Pamela Stephenson were married in Fiji and in keeping with the theme sent sarongs as invitations; a local choir had to learn "Loch Lomond" and the theme of The Archers at short notice.

And the desperation to do something different can also lead to some curious costumes. Victoria Lockwood's now-dissolved union with Earl Spencer saw the bride in a strange medieval style ensemble, with pageboys in broad- brimmed hats, midshipman's trousers, wide sashes and ruffled blouses. Emma Thompson opted for ruffled petticoat, patterned hat and shoes with little bunny ears on her wedding day. Paula Yates wore scarlet. Lisa Butcher wore a daringly cut-out little number to marry Marco Pierre White. Pamela Anderson wore a white bikini to become Mrs Tommy Lee; the groom wore black trunks and the ceremony was performed while they lay on sun loungers and sipped cocktails. (To say that all five sartorially-ostentatious couples have run into marital difficulties is to understate the case.)

The desire to come up with something achingly memorable for the big day is by no means confined to celebs. Since the introduction of the 1994 Marriage Act, which allows couples opting for a civil wedding far more choice about where to hold the ceremony, there has been ever more potential for the pretentious: pretentiously grand, pretentiously wacky, pretentiously individual. Suddenly reptile houses, football grounds and deep ends of swimming pools are appropriate venues.

Wedding magazines fuel the flames. "Why send an ordinary invitation?" asks one ad in this month's Modern Bride, above a picture of one so bedecked with lace and ribbons that it is illegible. Dresses are embellished with bonkers details like fringes and feathers. Entertainment choices include a range of eager musicians from flautists and harpists via Spanish guitarists to Tudor minstrels in costume with period instruments (gulp).

And the role of the guests has changed. From simply having to stand up or sit down, suddenly they're expected to participate in singalongs and cavort about in the spirit of things. "At one wedding we went to recently," recalls one, "we were all handed bundles of gold-sprayed twigs and we had to hold them in a circle round the bride and groom while they did their vows."

Song-sheets are an ominous sign. "We had to sing `Get Me To The Church On Time' as the bride came down the aisle," says another. "None of the younger guests knew the tune. It was all a bit of a cacophony."

Difficulties with simultaneously impressing one's sophisticated friends and accommodating one's dowdy old family can lead to friction. "In the end we could have done with two separate events," says one recent bride. "We had a very traditional family who just wanted the meringue dress, roast dinner and disco, but we wanted something much more individual. In the end it was a very uneasy compromise."

While OK! and Hello! may want value for money, great aunt Gwendolen could find your careful theming, whether Pride and Prejudice or Elvis Lives Again, totally bizarre. Though the couple featured in Modern Bride's article on wedding theming had a lovely time at their "snowball wedding": the invitations looked like Christmas cards, the bride wore marabou and the happy couple travelled to the reception in a horse-drawn carriage where they were serenaded by carol singers.

Jane Anderson, features editor of You and Your Wedding magazine, believes the Winslet marriage hit the right note because of its simplicity. "She just looked so in love and really happy. She seemed like a real person, her nose was all red with crying through the ceremony. It wasn't a prima donna showbiz affair, it was a family day." This, says Ms Anderson, is a genuinely attainable goal for any bride. "Some brides take on too much, the wedding becomes this big stressful event. People think there are rules about guest numbers and what you have to provide. But if you use your imagination you can come up with something that can be a lot cheaper and a lot more charming."


For weddings, while pretentious is pretentious, naff remains oddly acceptable...


Any form of transport that isn't a car, including pony and trap, coach and four, hot-air balloon, sedan chair, sled pulled by huskies etc. Conversely, an enormous white Rolls-Royce, while ludicrously over-the-top for anything else, is fine: leather seats, walnut dash, built-in drinks cabinet, the lot.


Any form of theming. The bunny-girl usherettes or teddy-boy best man may seem wildly amusing for a bit but are unlikely to stand the test of time; likewise the music-hall singalong, the Lizzie Bennet/Mr Darcy reconstruction or the medieval banquets where all the guests have to seek out doublet and hose and/or wench gear. Theming can add 10 to 20 per cent to wedding costs; spend it on more champagne.


Strange dances that mean dragging everyone onto the floor and shouting at them. Some swear by barn dances ("the ultimate ice-breaker!") and others may try to coax their wedding guests into line dancing. But this is the time when a Seventies disco complete with mirror balls and coloured flashing lights is just so right.