All the worldly goods a bride could want

The marriage dream may be tarnished, but the wedding industry is going great guns
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YOU WOULDN'T have thought, walking into London's Olympia last week, that the number of weddings in Britain has just sunk to a 20-year low, while the number of divorces (now that divorce has replaced death as the most reliable terminator of marriages) continues to rise.

According to the excitable reps on the stands at the National Wedding Show, trade is brisk, bookings are up, and people are getting married like never before. Marriage is usually described as an institution, a religious ceremony, a legal contract or a public declaration of love. But at the Olympia trade fair it revealed itself to be an industry.

The business involves everything from pearls to crackers ("celebrate married life with a bang"). The 878 stands promoted shoes, kilts, hats, flowers, cakes, music, rings, event organisers, mobile phones, stag weekends, photographers, cosmetics, wigs, bags, hen nights, video services, tiaras, sugared almonds, stationery, vintage cars, gifts, heart-shaped chocolates, honeymoons in the sun, and tips on speeches. Exotic honeymoon beaches beckoned - the Seychelles, Barbados, Antigua ... the Isle of Wight.

There were dresses for the richer bride, the poorer bride, the larger and the smaller bride. Someone was even touting a luxury portable loo ("for that special occasion").

The exhibition was opened by Adriana Skelarikova, the new (married) Wonderbra model, who strode through the hall about a foot taller and considerably slimmer than the average soon-to-be wife. A squadron of girls wearing Wonderbra's uplifting underwear sold raffle tickets for Walk the Walk, a breast cancer charity. I bought a couple from a sales girl who had the word "irresistible" stamped on her wonderbreast.

On the catwalk at the far end, willowy young models, most more beautiful than the 260,000 brides who will walk up the aisle in 1999, shook their silky shoulders at the photographers. A pair of grooms sauntered between them, trying not look embarrassed in Lawrence of Arabia headscarves. No one seemed to blink at the surreal comedy in which grinning 20-year- olds sashayed about pretending to be the bride's mother. But then the entire iconography was old-fashioned. Brides fell at the feet of aloof- looking husbands or gigglingly emphasised that diamonds were a girl's best friend.

In a marquee full of wedding dresses you could hear Simon and Garfunkel scored for a harp; a couple of string quartets were playing Vivaldi; a nightclub act belted out lounge-bar versions of "I will survive". But music, surprisingly, comes low on most couples' lists. "People spend thousands on dresses and then are surprised when Mrs Miggins and the choir aren't quite up to it," said David Guest of the Live Music Company. "And some of the questions you get asked. I mean, how many people are there in a string quartet?"

The most expensive dress I could see was the star prize in the raffle, a queenly pounds 7000 Russell & Haslam showpiece made from yards of Indian silk, with an avalanche of tulle and organza below a soaring halo of silver, gold and crystal. The cheapest (pounds 99, from Virgin Brides) came with the following advice. "Totally hand made. Slight irregularities are not to be regarded as defects. Loss of beads and sequins are a normal occurrence." Some brides are more equal than others.

On the whole, modern marriage remains a white and ivory affair, with a few traces of lilac and gold (for mothers and bridesmaids). But one designer stood out like a Christmas tree in a snowstorm. Chantal Mallett is engaged in a busy rebellion against the tyranny of white, and was displaying huge Gothic-inspired gowns in burgundy, gold brocade and a deep raven blue. "It's ridiculous," she said. "All this virgin bride nonsense. We deal with women who make their own money and their own decisions. They are getting married in stately homes and castles. Sometimes they've got children already. They want to look gorgeous,but they want drama and colour."

The show is very much about weddings, not marriage. Children aren't mentioned, except when it comes to posies for the bridesmaids. And the only signs of domestic life were the cheese graters and toasters on the Debenhams stand.

Otherwise, the only comment on married life came from Woody Allen, on a witty plaque in an accessory showroom. "Basically my wife is immature. I'd be at home in the bath, and she'd come in and sink all my boats."

The older, more patient craftsmen at the show shrugged at the party atmosphere. Dominique Pechon is a master baker whose grandfather (from Alsace) opened a patisserie in Queensway. Now he makes mouthwatering crocembouches, conical towers of profiteroles and caramelised sugar (pounds 302.50), or creamy white chocolate "cigarette" cakes (pounds 364.50).

"The pressure on marriage has never been greater," he said. "Perhaps that is why the desire to celebrate in style has never been greater." He appreciates the need for tact: he knows that some clients require large portions ("The Lebanese etiquette is strict, there must be a visible surplus"). And he is aware that not everyone has perfect teeth. "I once gave a piece of nougatine to a lady with false teeth. Never again. Now I always look."

As the day bustled on, and sunlight splashed in through the high railway- station windows of Olympia, the hall filled with brides and their mothers.

They seemed eager and cheerful. "It's nice to work in a happy industry," said Hazel Collins of The Gift List Company. "You're dealing with people who can't stop smiling. "She was offering (for pounds 75) a fantasy shopping day, a tour of London's elite boutiques. "One man put a Ferrari on his list," she recalled. "I think it was a joke."

No wonder her clients smile. But as the many consultants at the fair kept insisting, weddings are stressful. As the public fanned out among the exhibitors you could see the tension on their faces. Men looked at the prices on diamond-encrusted rings, winced, and cracked jokes. Young women climbed into dresses, stared into mirrors, and looked up hopefully at Mum, who shook her head. They looked deflated, and who could blame them? The mirrors confirmed the cruel truth: they did not quite resemble the bewitching models whirling their lovely arms on the catwalk a few yards away. The whole thrust of the National Wedding Show is to make you look good. Who cares if it ends up making you feel bad?