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PREPARING FOR MARRIAGE. The dress

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A woman's wedding day is the one time she may feel justified in dropping $800 for a dress. But the purchase is plainly to be thought through - not something to attempt in a panic. Experts agree that it may take up to six months to choose, order, and buy a full-scale wedding dress.

So ordering it may be one of the first things a woman does after she discovers she's getting married - along with selecting a site for the wedding and reception.

The size and atmosphere of the wedding will give a clue as to what to look for in a dress. ``If you're having a 6 o'clock Saturday evening wedding, it is going to require a different outfit from a Friday afternoon in-house affair. And a long cathedral train would look out of place at a justice of the peace,'' says Karen Metz, of Priscilla, The Bride's Shop, in Boston.

Ms. Metz identifies three types of wedding dresses: sophisticated, traditional, and romantic-country-garden. ``Everybody has a little bit of tradition,'' she says, ``a little bit of romance, a little bit of `star for a day' as part of their personality. But one dress cannot be all of those things.''

According to James Sullivan, vice-president and fashion merchandise director of Jordan Marsh in Boston, ``The major statement of the season is color - from pink to blush to peach. Color is happening because people want to look different, and how many different white dresses can you show to a customer?''

Another novelty is that brides are choosing to do their entire wedding party in the same color. In the last few years, there have been all-pink weddings, and even taboo-breaking all-white and black-and-white weddings.

The older bride's taste is more established. She is more likely to want to look different, Sullivan says. Her wedding is more likely to be an extension of the way she lives all the time.

For the wedding with a very sophisticated feel, the older bride could wear a wonderful tailored dinner suit in pink, peach, beige, or white. She might miss the fun of feeling ``bridal,'' but afterward she has a wonderful tailored dinner suit.

Laura Ashley has a line of wedding outfits: simple white dresses in cotton brocade and silk, with flowered bridesmaid dresses. These are less expensive than many bridal salon dresses, but are very definitely wedding dresses in the country-garden style.

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