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May 29, 2005

Mother of the Bride? Nice Dress


CAROL BERMAN'S daughter is getting married this fall, and she is determined to find the perfect dress for the occasion. But Ms. Berman, 63, a psychotherapist in West Hartford, Conn., is not shopping for chiffon. Instead, she is taking a cue from her daughter, who has selected a young, sexy design by Mika Inatome, and looking for something beautiful, not necessarily formal and, yes, sexy.

"With our youth culture, women have tried so hard to maintain themselves," she said. "We want to look as good as we can." For her son's wedding three years ago, she wore a lime green strapless gown with a cashmere shawl of the same color.

Even as the age of the average bride continues to climb, the typical mother of the bride is looking younger than ever, according to several wedding planners and dress retailers. "These women are often in as good shape as their daughters," said Mara Urshel, an owner of Kleinfeld Bridal, which is based in Brooklyn. "They go to the gym, work out, they're confident about themselves."

Often, these mothers are baby boomers, part of the generation that, in the age of Botox and cosmetic surgery and "Desperate Housewives," is steadfastly resisting growing old. "It's a different generation from their mothers," said Rachel Leonard, the fashion director for Bride's magazine in New York. And the change is reflected in the way many mothers of brides dress for one of the most pivotal moments in their lives.

Increasingly, affluent urban mothers of brides are turning away from the so-called M.O.B. dresses of old - the pastel chiffon gowns and long-sleeve jacket ensembles that practically screamed "matronly." Today, the dresses worn by many mothers of brides, like the women themselves, are more stylish, youthful and even daring. "There are no more limits," said Monique Lhuillier, a Los Angeles-based designer known for her sleek bridal and ready-to-wear gowns. "Women will wear whatever makes them feel pretty."

That means lower necklines, strapless gowns and "back interest," all designed to show more skin, according to several dress designers and owners of dress shops catering to mothers of brides. Styles are more fitted and jackets are likely to be bolero style. Soft colors still reign, but they tend to be warmer jewel tones rather than pastels. And instead of bridal shops, mothers of brides are flocking to boutiques carrying the evening wear of designers like Ms. Lhuillier and Stephen Yearick, who has a following among pageant contestants as well as brides and their mothers.

Ms. Lhuillier (pronounced "LOO-lee-yay") created the gown worn last September by Britney Spears at her wedding to Kevin Federline, and dresses for all of the women in the party. For Ms. Spears's mother, Ms. Lhuillier created a chocolate brown V-neck column dress that flared below the knees.

"It's not dressing juvenile, it's age appropriate," said Leigh Price, the director at Stephen Yearick. "But what is age appropriate has changed."

Sometimes, brides themselves are urging their mothers to be more daring, said Susan Matejka, a manager at Bridal Reflections in Massapequa, N.Y. Brides come into her shop with their mothers and tell her that they don't want their mom to wear something "typical" or "matronly," she said.

A young-looking mother of the bride can actually help set the tone for the wedding, Mr. Price said. "A really glamorous, young-looking mother knocks the whole wedding up a notch," he said. "The key is to go sexy without going vulgar."

That can be a fine line, however, and wedding experts offer cautionary tales of mothers gone wild. A mother can upstage her daughter with an overtly sexy look like a plunging V-neck, Ms. Leonard said. And even if styles are changing, she said, traditional etiquette still holds. The mother of the groom should defer to the mother of the bride in choosing a dress, and for either, the ultimate sin remains wearing white.

Some women say designers are going to extremes. "It's either very dowdy or too young," said Teresa Downey, 58, who has been searching for a dress for her daughter Sandy's wedding in August. "There's no middle ground." Ms. Downey, who describes herself as voluptuous on top, says she has no interest in strapless numbers or boleros. "I'm not in bad shape, but I'm not Jane Fonda," she said.

Similarly, Terri Berland, an interior designer who lives in Los Angeles, struggled to find dresses she liked for her first two daughters' weddings and wound up having gowns made for her. With the wedding of her third daughter fast approaching - June 4 at the Beverly Hills Hotel - she scoured Barneys New York, Neiman Marcus and other stores to no avail. "I was starting to sweat it," Ms. Berland said. But after trying on several of Ms. Lhuillier's creations at her salon in Beverly Hills, Ms. Berland found a black tea-length dress with tulle that she described as "young and playful," yet sophisticated. She added another adjective: appropriate. "It's not 'Look at me,' " Ms. Berland said. "It's 'Look at her.' "



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