WHEN GAIL MAYR GOT MARried last month, she had been to enough weddings to know what she didn't want her gown to look like.
No ruffles. No elaborate beading. No train the length of a buffet table.
"I didn't want the dress to overpower me. I didn't want everyone to say, 'Oh, I see the dress, but where's the bride?'" says the petite 25-year-old.
After a three-month search, the secretary, who lives in Westminster, found exactly what she was looking for: a short-sleeved snow-white gown with scalloped neckline and fitted bodice.
Like Ms. Mayr, many brides today are trading in their dreams of flouncy fairy-tale confections for sophisticated styles that whisper rather than shout "I'm getting married." The traditional high-neck, lace-covered dresses of old are being replaced by a variety of options, from the bejeweled sheath to the mermaid style. And the most fashion-forward women are going to daring lengths -- donning bodice-hugging, thigh-revealing, cleavage-baring creations that decades ago would have looked more appropriate at a charity gala than a wedding ceremony.
"Bridal gowns are still very romantic, but they're becoming more simple," says Diane Forden, fashion and beauty editor for Bridal Guide magazine. "There's less embellishment. There's still beautiful beadwork and lacework -- that attention to detail -- but we're finding that the detail work is quiet, more subtle."
The current trend is being chalked up to several factors: the later age at which many women are marrying; the personal style and sizable bank accounts they often cultivate during those pre-wedding years; and the societal shift toward less ostentation in the aftermath of the greed-filled '80s.
As silhouettes become more streamlined, fabrics are often capturing a bride's fancy. Organza, brocade and silk shantung, the less-expensive sibling of raw silk, are especially popular. "There's also greater interest in textures, too. A bride may want a dress that combines tulle with stretch lace," says Ms. Forden.
If there is one area still receiving ornamentation, it's the bodice, finds Lucinda Finnerty, bridal consultant at Gamberdella's in Towson. "Where a lot of girls used to go for the decorative train, now they're asking for that work in the bodice," she says. Consequently, a profusion of pearl beading, embroidery and lace is now gracing the middle of many dresses.
In color, white and ivory are still perennial favorites, but shades of pink, blue and champagne -- once considered only appropriate for bridesmaids, family members and guests -- are now being worn by the star of the show. "It doesn't always go over with mothers," Ms. Finnerty says.
That's nothing, though, compared to how some mothers, and in-laws, react to the bare skin some brides now reveal.
"Brides are not as covered up as they used to be. Gowns today can be quite sexy," says Ms. Forden. Strapless dresses with bolero jackets, which would have been considered downright unbridelike 20 years ago, now grace store racks and magazines. A bride often removes the jacket, and sometimes her detachable train, after the ceremony as she gets ready to party.
This daring spirit is being attributed to the long hours many women have spent keeping trim on Nautilus machines and in aerobics classes. "If a bride has a body, she likes to show it," says Simone Lizmi, who custom-makes gowns with her sister in Pikesville. High slits, nude-colored silk linings and snug waistlines are some of the body-revealing options.
Another has been the number of fall and winter dresses with short sleeves. "You used to only see short sleeves in the spring and summer," says Lorraine Baumel, bridal buyer for John Sims in Pikesville.
In the same vein, brides are often opting for open necklines and off-the-shoulder styles today. But experts remind that it's always best to take height, weight and bone structure into account when selecting a neckline. "Some girls have long necks, for instance, and when they wear an open neck, it can give that ostrich look," says Esther Nam, sales associate at her family-owned namesake, Esther's Bridal Boutique in Silver Spring.
The same less-is-more philosophy is being applied to headpieces. "Blushers have fallen by the wayside," says Ms. Finnerty of the veils that cover the face. "The biggest trend is to wear something small at the back of the head. A lot of times, it's a bow or fabric flower petals and then we attach a pouf veil."
At John Sims, Ms. Baumel has found that tiaras and Juliet caps, which capture the "regal look," are attracting attention. In addition, several manufacturers have made life easier for brides by designing veils that complement their dress lines, she says.
An influx of well-known designers -- including Victor Costa, Carolina Herrera and Scaasi -- who started creating bridal fashions recently testify to the high quality available and importance of the market, says Ms. Forden.