When Dominique Brown walked down the aisle in a twinkling, $175 re-worked vintage party dress to swap vows under a chuppah of candy-colored streamers, the singer and photographer knew she'd succeeded in creating exactly the wedding she and her husband wanted.
That's because it was a wedding that was totally "them."
For Brown and her husband, Ron Pruitt, both vintage fiends, that most-them backyard wedding included lots of campy 1950s touches and DIY details, like the handmade star headpiece she changed into for the reception, transforming into a rock-and-roll Glenda the Good Witch before tucking into fish tacos from her favorite food truck.
These days, more and more brides are going that nontraditional route, eschewing the standard church-dinner-white-strapless-gown affair in favor of weddings that are a better reflection of who they really are. Call them indie, call them fresh, just don't call them cookie cutter.
"I do think there has been a gradual shift over the last five years toward personalization that goes beyond monograms on the napkins or wedding colors," said Ariel Meadow Stallings, publisher of the blog Offbeat Bride, which dishes inspiration and advice for couples craving "authentic weddings full of intention and personality" and that, in turn, gets 2.2 million page views a month. It also explains the sense of community that has cropped up on Indiebride, the get-real, refine-what-it-means-to-be-a-bride site founded in 2001 and recently acquired by HuffPost.
"I think this is a pretty understandable response to the more extravagant, template weddings that were popular in the '90s," Stallings said
In many ways, this idea of the wedding as an expression of something fundamentally "you" is rooted in historic shifts in the institution of marriage. According to Priscilla Yamin, Ph.D., professor of political science at the University of Oregon and author of the forthcoming American Marriage: A Political Institution, modern weddings reflect broader societal shifts away from common law, community-based marriages, to a vision of unions based on love.
"Love-based marriage is considered a personal expression of you, which has opened up weddings, too," Yamin said. "This celebration -- it's your public expression of yourselves, which can mean everything is [about you], right down to the flowers." She believes this will only continue with the advent of same-sex marriage in many states.
But that desire for self-expression runs beyond simple aesthetic choices.
Stallings says that in recent years, she's seen more "structural" trends -- changes in the very DNA of what a wedding ceremony and reception can entail. People are changing up the timing, like opting for dawn weddings, and turning to friends and family rather than professionals to help with the planning and various elements from "friendors" not vendors, as she put it.
Couples are also increasingly designing their own custom ceremonies from the ground-up.
Leah Stern and her husband Teague Hopkins personalized almost every element of their recent ceremony at the Old Town Hall in Fairfax, Va.
They asked the advisor of the college literary society to which they both belonged to marry them. They weaved together elements of Judaism and Buddhism, handpicked readings from cherished children's books and even took the time to personally translate a Pablo Neruda poem to best reflect its full meaning to them as a couple. They also included language from the Massachusetts Supreme Court case that made same-sex marriage a civil right.
"Your wedding should be about you," Stern said. "It should be about what is meaningful to you and your partner."
But as Stallings opined in a post grappling with just how trendy "offbeat" has become, nontraditional is still hardly the new traditional as far as weddings are concerned.
Indeed, many brides and couples still opt for more classic affairs. A 2009 survey of more than 5,000 women conducted by TheKnot.com found that 94 percent of brides still wear some shade of white on their wedding day, and nearly three quarters opt for strapless or sweetheart necklines for their gowns.
Kristin Koch, senior editor of TheKnot.com, said that much of that can be driven by families, who may have certain expectations for what, exactly, a wedding should entail. Some parents may be uncomfortable when their daughter announces she wants to get married in, say, a favorite bowling alley. In those cases, there are no easy fixes; families and couples have to work it out.
"But most parents know their children," Koch said. "If they have an independent streak, they know that already."
And as recent bride Ivy Risser points out, personalizing a wedding does not necessarily mean forsaking tradition, nor does it mean doing things for the sake of being weird. The New York-based writer and her performer husband wanted to honor the ritual elements of a wedding, which is why they opted for a church ceremony.
But to make it them, they chose a Greenwich Village church that's widely held to be the birthplace of modern dance, and they then filled it with the voices of their musician friends and their own, personally crafted vows.
And when that was over, they jumped into a pedicab and headed towards a giant dim sum hall in Chinatown, where they danced the night away to a 10-piece horn band in a bright scarlet and gold room they decorated with thousands of Chinese coins.
"It wasn't that we wanted to reject everything associated with wedding -- it was just a lot of the stuffiness that we don't identify with in the least," Risser said. "We thought, 'Why do we want to get married? What does it mean to us?' And then we tried to reflect that."