Revisiting Princess Diana and Her Wedding Legacy (Part Two: A Costume Ritual)

03/10/2014 03:02 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2014

Once Diana lit up the screen -- during her princess-power wedding in 1981 -- brides-to-be were less and less embarrassed by their parents calling for a "traditional" wedding. The "studied informality of society in the 1970s," wrote Carol McD. Wallace, "often made brides and grooms uncomfortable with the old-fashioned ritual they enacted as they married." (The countercultural revolution of the late 1960s and 70s had been pushing against traditions of all sorts.) But Prince Charles in his dashing uniform and Lady Diana in her fairy princess gown made it all look so glamorous and appealing to the budding Yuppies of the 1980s. Now the conservative brides who dressed in rather unflattering white gowns with high-waists and sparse trim as well as the do-your-own-thing brides dressed in "slinky Qiana columns or muslin and barefeet" became passé and the "shamefaced posture... had been replaced" with visions of grandeur and a love of gilded tradition. (No hint of counterculture in sight!) Wallace declared in All Dressed in White: "If the wedding dress of 1973 said, 'I'm really not your typical bride,' the 1983 version said, 'Look at me -- I'm getting married!'"

Carolina Herrera and Vera Wang were two of the fashionistas who led the way for other fashion designers to enter what had been a staid, locked-in-the past, formula-driven business. Herrera was asked to design Caroline Kennedy's gown for her 1986 wedding and Wang jumped into bridal couture soon after her lack of success in finding a gown chic enough to wear for her own 1989 nuptials. Once she started her signature wedding dress business, Wang became the designer to celebrity starlets. And now every bride could be a star with her particular version of "red carpet" spotlight. At last, style was added to tradition, elegance to pomp and as a result, wedding dresses became sexy, glamorous, and pricey.

During the era of designer labels and "you are what you wear" mentality that followed, the bridal gown itself became a "celebrity" at the wedding -- sometimes more like a "guest of honor" as Leslie Barton experienced with her bridal clients. "It is treated with a delicacy and respect that few humans experience," the California photographer declared about the fabled gown in The Bride Revealed: An Intimate Look Behind the Wedding Veil.

The "resumption of grandeur prompted by the Wales' wedding in 1981," added Wallace, then continued after the wedding of second son Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson in 1986, grew into insane extravagance through the years. Movie stars and rock stars, highly paid athletes and business tycoons had weddings like royalty; royalty had weddings like no one else; and regular folks mortgaged their future. Many weddings came off more as staged pageants so the couple could "pose" for their shot at playing "celebrity" and, paradoxically, define themselves in a costume drama. In this consumptive wedding culture, the bridal veil -- and other "must-have" accessories -- became just more of the commercial formula.

The extravagance didn't let up until after the economic meltdown of 2009. Without unlimited budgets -- or perhaps more accurately, without unlimited credit -- even upscale weddings pared down, some even appearing a tad more real. (Maybe economic restraint begets thoughtful conversations when it comes to planning a wedding, restoring intimacy to the whole affair!) If so, then now perhaps the simple pleasures of a costume ritual could be felt again since nothing seems to replace the thrill of playing "dress-up" -- tapping into our "inner-princess," if even for a moment.

[Coming up, last of the 3-part series, "Part Three: Leaving Blessings in Her Wake"]