NEW YORK — SherryLynne Heller-Wells had always wanted a fairy-tale wedding.
So when she tied the knot last year, she spared no detail. She walked down the aisle in a flowing ivory gown with a long veil and a lacy bolero jacket. Ten flower-toting bridesmaids and seven groomsmen were in the wedding party. And after the ceremony, 100 guests dined on beef tenderloin, clams casino and a three-tiered vanilla cake.
The cost, including a fireworks show during the reception, was $45,000.
Heller-Wells wasn't some blushing new bride, though. When the retired registered nurse, 64, wed her husband, Clyde, a small-business owner who is 65, it was her second time at the altar.
"I met my Prince Charming. He swept me off my feet," says the Clearwater widow, whose first husband died in 2003. "We're hoping this will be the last marriage. Why not celebrate?"
Only a few years ago, it was considered in poor taste for a bride over age 55, particularly if she had been previously married, to do things like wear a fancy wedding gown, rock out to a DJ at the reception or have the groom slip a lacy garter belt off her leg. But those days are gone: Older couples no longer are tying the knot in subtle ways.
The trend is being driven, in part, by a desire to emulate the lavish weddings of celebrities of all ages. But it's also one of the results of a new "everything goes" approach that does away with long-held traditions and cookie-cutter ceremonies in favor of doing things such as replacing the first husband-and-wife dance with a group re-enactment of Michael Jackson's Thriller video. That's left older couples feeling less self-conscious about shelling out serious cash to party like their younger peers.
"The rules are out the window … whether it's what you're wearing or the cake you're serving," says Darcy Miller, editorial director of Martha Stewart Weddings. "Sixty is the new 40, and that is reflected in the wedding."
Couples age 55 and older made up just 8 percent of last year's $53 billion wedding business. But that number has doubled since 2002, according to Shane McMurray, chief executive officer of the Wedding Report, which tracks spending trends in the wedding industry.
It's in part because more couples are marrying in their later years. In 2011, women age 55 and older accounted for 5.2 percent and men in that age range made up 7.9 percent of the more than 2.1 million marriages performed that year in the United States, according to Bowling Green State University's National Center for Family and Marriage Research in Ohio. That's up from 2001, when 2.6 percent of new marriages performed were among women in that age group; for men, it was 6.6 percent.
And those older couples spend more. That's because they're usually empty nesters who don't have the same worries as their younger counterparts. They aren't saving for their first home or burdened by huge student loan debts.
As a result, older couples dish out about 10 percent to 15 percent more than the cost of the average wedding, which was $25,656 last year, down from the pre-recession peak in 2007 of $28,732, according to the Wedding Report.
At David's Bridal, the nation's largest bridal chain with 300 locations across the United States, business from older couples has doubled in the past two years, compared with modest growth for the younger group, says Brian Beitler, the chain's chief marketing officer.
And they're a lucrative bunch. David's Bridal, which is based in Consohocken, Pa., says older brides spend about $700 to $800 on gowns, including accessories. That's higher than the $500 to $600 that customers in their 20s and early 30s typically spend.
But older brides aren't just spending more; they're spending differently. For instance, in the past, older brides tended to stick with special-occasion dresses, but now they want traditional wedding gowns.
"She's our dream bride," says Catalina Maddox, fashion director at David's Bridal. "She wants everything that the 25-year-old bride wants, but more."
That's especially true for older first-time brides.
At 64, Yolanda Royal, who lives in Irvington, N.J., is preparing for her first wedding next July. She had lived with her partner for 20 years when he popped the question in May. The couple plan to spend about $11,000 on the reception for about 100 people, but for Royal, it's all about the dress.
Royal, a nursing attendant, was at David's Bridal in the Manhattan borough of New York with her 41-year-old niece on a recent Friday, trying on white wedding gowns that had small trains. Royal, who says she wants something "sexy," tried everything from off-the-shoulder to strapless designs.
"For my wedding, for my day, I want the dress I want," says Royal, who did not want to give details about the gown she settled on because she wants to surprise her future husband.
"I really don't think about age. I think age is something that people shouldn't think about. It's all about your life and the way you feel. I feel good about myself and my life."