Real Life: Rules of the big engagement: Ivana isn't alone in splashing out. Betrothal today doesn't come cheap, says Hester Lacey

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Indy Lifestyle Online
ANYONE thinking of popping the question in the near future, take note. A halting proposal stuttered out in the front room at home over a glass or two of methode champenoise simply will not do.

Trendy couples may eschew the whole process as quaint and outdated ('I'd as soon get a brand on my forehead as a ring on my finger,' sniffs one resolute anti-wedlock cohabitee) - but 97 per cent of British couples who made it to the altar last year got engaged first. The modern betrothal is glittering, lavish, a Big Event in its own right. If, like Ivana, the ex-Mrs Trump, who plighted her troth to the Italian businessman Riccardo Mazzucchelli last Monday, you can kick off with a press conference, so much the better.

'Once the news broke we had thousands and thousands of calls from different publications, I could not possibly do individual interviews in the time frame,' explained Ivana from her New York office (Concorde whisked her back to the States the day after the party). 'So we said 'Why don't we invite the press before, from six o'clock to seven o'clock?' '

Ivana wished to reassure any sceptical Independent on Sunday readers that the presence of around 50 journalists and cameramen in no way compromised the intimacy of the soiree. 'I have many friends in the press. When the press is not good to you it's just a hazard of public life. I've learned to live with that kind of thing. I know who I am - I'm a good person, a decent person, I handle myself with dignity - that's all I really need to know, and my friends know it too.'

Social hostess and PR Liz Brewer (herself a veteran of six engagements, three simultaneous, none of which ended in marriage) helped organise the celebration at Syon Park stately home. They decided only to invite 'very close friends and relations', and whittled an initial list of 500 down to a modest 120.

The guests were regaled with ballottine of salmon with a dill-flavoured beurre blanc, followed by a brace of boned quail stuffed with foie gras and wild mushrooms with a thyme-scented Madeira jus, and entertained with a Brazilian cabaret. Blue moire tablecloths scattered with heart-shaped crystals echoed the blue and white of Ivana's Burmese sapphire and diamond ring - 'like a Fellini movie', according to Ms Brewer.

Once the press had left, speeches were kept to a minimum. 'We just thanked our friends for coming - they all wanted to know the date of the wedding, so they could get their plane tickets already.' It is likely to be the second or third week of March. 'We have a new house in Palm Beach and we will have it there, in a beautiful gazebo just outside our home, overlooking the ocean.'

This party was only the European leg of a whole series of engagement celebrations for Ivana and Riccardo. 'Parties are quite the custom in America,' explained Ivana. 'One friend will give you a party for 15 people, not a huge thing, you know, and another will give you a little sit-down dinner for 20 friends, another one gives you the bridal shower in a restaurant over lunch.'

But despite all the glitz, she believes the razzmatazz is not the most important part of the occasion. 'It's a very important, very scary step. The most important thing is that it is a happy moment.'

Maybe. But increasing numbers of soon-to-be-happy couples seem to prefer a larger- than-life approach. 'People are getting more romantic, pulling out all the stops,' says Jane Bruton, who writes for Wedding and Home magazine. 'A wedding takes a long time to organise, but once you announce your engagement you can celebrate right away.'

The average engagement, sealed with a ring costing an average of pounds 448 (usually a diamond), lasts 20 months, according to the magazine's latest survey.

The frothier the proposal, the more romantic. Sarah Jackson, 20, was amazed when her boyfriend whisked her off one evening in a limousine. After plying her with roses and champagne, he went down on one knee in the middle of the crowded restaurant and produced a large diamond, to applause from all sides. 'It'll be lovely to have something special to look back on rather than just saying 'Oh yeah, well, we decided to get engaged',' says Sarah.

Overstepping the mark, however, does not impress. 'A not-very-close friend of mine threw an engagement party in a marquee for 200 people and had the nerve to enclose a present list along with the invitation,' snorts one aggrieved party guest. 'I forked out as gracefully as possible, but to add insult to injury they split up a year later. Did they return my pine breadbin? No way.'

Colin Dachtler of Wedding List Services began offering engagement lists last year. 'If people are going to buy presents they may as well buy you something you want. The engagement party tends to be smaller than the wedding, and most guests would almost certainly buy again from the wedding list,' he says.

Drusilla Beyfus, author of Modern Manners, is shocked by the idea of engagement gifts. Ostentatious bashes are also socially dubious. 'It's a question of balance,' she says. 'You don't want to overshadow the wedding itself.'

Getting the rock on the finger in front of as big an audience as possible, however, can also be a security measure. 'Any kind of public announcement firms things up so that one party can't wriggle out,' Ms Beyfus points out.

(Photograph omitted)