The students are four brides-to-be, one groom-to-be, and a transvestite named Billy. They are in a little banquet room at the Sheraton Plaza, taking notes on how to have a perfect wedding. Except for Billy, who says he is at the seminar “just kind of getting information,” all the attendees are getting married within the next ten months. The teachers–wedding consultants Melissa Henz and Nancy Sarlo–furl their brows; a lot of banquet halls and florists and photographers are already booked through 1992, they say. But they’ll do the best they can.

The brides-to-be are worried about the way wedding decisions can affect family relations. One explains that she wants her bridesmaids to wear black lace dresses. “I know how hard it is to wear dresses again that are red or pink taffeta. But everyone’s fighting like cats and dogs. My relatives are from the old school. They think black is a curse.”

Another bride-to-be chimes in. “I know what you mean,” she says breathlessly. “My friend and her mother-in-law still aren’t speaking after two years because they couldn’t agree on a singer for the reception.”

There are tricks, the teachers say, to balancing the decision-making process. “If you don’t give a shit about your invitations, let your mother pick them out, but by God, tell her, ‘When it comes to my wedding dress, I know what I want,'” says Henz.

The groom-to-be is mainly interested in one thing: a polite way to let people know on the wedding invitation that their children are not invited. When a calligrapher visits the class later in the evening (along with a florist, a photographer, and a representative from Tiffany’s with some booklets on how to buy a diamond), she admits that she’s never penned such a warning. But she does explain how to address envelopes to married couples who are both doctors, or to couples who are not married. Then she describes all the print styles in which she is proficient and demonstrates a style of place card that can accommodate a last-minute change in table number if the seating is rearranged.

Billy, big and husky, wears heels, stockings, a stylish pastel suit, lots of makeup and jewelry, and a stiffly-styled wig. He wants to know the best place he can buy wedding gowns. Henz and Sarlo are stumped and debate the question well after class, even after Billy is gone. Nancy’s? Margie’s? They can’t decide which store stocks the broadest selection of larger sizes.

Henz and Sarlo tell the class to forget the weddings they’ve already been to–“Put all the garbage on hold for the evening,” says Henz–and write down words that best describe what their perfect wedding would be like. The students are asked to read their words off of little white cards. “Relaxed.” “Enjoyable.” “Neat.” “Sexy.” “Country.” “Elegant.” “Sophisticated.” Billy says his would be “romantic, stylish, well-planned, and feminine.”

“18- and 19-year-olds go for cookie-cutter weddings,” says Henz, “because they haven’t developed a personality yet. But 27- to 35-year-olds, which you are– your wedding should be a celebration of who you are. You have a life, and you can’t take what’s come before and what’s happening now and mold it into one concept.

“You have to realize you’re not stuck with just church, reception, band or DJ, and four hours of bar. But you don’t have to feel guilty if that’s what you want. One Polish photographer had a very exquisite wedding but with little Polish touches. It was at a high-end Polish restaurant, and she had a crown of flowers, and ethnic folk dances between the ceremony and the band. And she had an apron with little rolls of film and cameras stuck on, instead of the traditional little Polish babies.

“Another woman who had had a spiritual rebirth in northern Italy had busts all over the room at her wedding at Spiaggia. It had her personal signature.”

Personal signatures can go too far, though, according to Henz and Sarlo. “Like when bridesmaids wear prom dresses at 9 AM–that may be pushing the limits of good taste,” says Henz.

One of the brides-to-be asks if planning an outdoor wedding makes sense. “Well, how much angst can you put up with worrying about the weather?” asks Sarlo. “Are you someone who can go with the flow–or do you perseverate? Will you be happy with rain plans? With tents and heaters?”

The average cost of a wedding in Chicago is $13,000; half the money goes for food and booze. Henz and Sarlo think every bride, every couple, every family needs help in spending that money wisely. They consult with people for an hourly fee. Their business, called the Wedding Company, also makes money on referral fees from photographers, florists, and such–though they stress that their commissions are not passed on to the consumers by the service providers. For a flat fee, they will agree to be a personal servant/ surrogate mother/banquet manager on the big day, making sure everything comes off without a hitch.

Henz and Sarlo–who are sisters–bought the business from former Sun-Times features editor Carroll Stoner, who had started it after marrying off a daughter several years ago. Henz and Sarlo still refer to Stoner and her philosophies on wedding planning quite a bit during their seminars: “Carroll always said, ‘Your wedding…your way.'” They pass out an article about Stoner that appeared in Chicago magazine to seminar participants.

Like their predecessor, the two wedding consultants attack some of the most solid myths about weddings. For example, they claim the Drake Hotel is not the swellest place in Chicago to say “I do.” “There are so many cookie-cutter weddings at the Drake going on at the same time, guests can be at the wrong wedding and not know the difference,” says Henz.

They recommend going to a smaller hotel and “taking it over.” When a Sheraton Plaza employee drops by the class to serve champagne and hot and cold hors d’oeuvres and to offer the small group a tour of the hotel, she tells them, “If you have your wedding here, you will be the main event at this hotel.” Most of the time Henz and Sarlo have their seminars on “neutral ground,” like the Chicago Bar Association meeting rooms, so they don’t appear to be favoring any particular hotel. But sometimes, when they can’t find another location, they’re forced to use space at hotels.

In another break with tradition, the sisters believe a photojournalist should capture the big day, rather than a corny, traditional, posed-shot wedding photographer. As for videotape, they don’t see the point: “Who’s going to want to sit down and watch a video of your wedding?” asks Sarlo.

The most adamant advice they offer, aside from starting early and contacting a florist immediately, is to stay within a budget. Says Henz, “Couples shouldn’t have to rip open their envelopes during the reception to pay the bartender.”

But the students were interested in their guests’ budgets too. “If a person has their wedding here,” Billy asks the Sheraton employee, “do the guests have to pay for parking?”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.