Wedding dress.

Has the traditional wedding made a comeback? Photo: Michel OSullivan

In many ways, I was an outstanding mother of the bride. I smiled and supported and suggested. I accepted all decisions about the guest list. I praised the choices of colour scheme and table layouts. I did none of the expected interfering. But, in truth, that part was easy: I had no opinions. In other ways, of course, I was useless. I could not provide the reassuringly confident judgments needed on flower combinations or style of photography or lettering on the wedding invitations.

I avoided the three-day full-on hen's party, and struggled to summon up the enthusiasm required to sustain a 160-kilometre round trip to view a potential bridesmaid dress in a particular sub-shade of the selected midnight blue.

Having spent the '70s fighting the common assumption that a traditional wedding was every girl's dream, I was stunned to discover that it seemed to have become exactly that. I had failed to take in that the traditional wedding had made such a spectacular comeback and, more shockingly, that it had resurrected itself with (almost) all the gender-role trimmings in place.

How had that happened? In the '70s, I naively thought we were fighting off gender assumptions not only for ourselves but also for women of the future. Why should it be the man's job to propose? We just agreed to get married. Why should I advertise my unavailability when he did not? I had no engagement ring. Most publicly of all, why should I be given away by a man? I remember enjoying our small visual contribution to the feminist cause as my mother and I walked down the aisle together.

And then, more than 30 years later, what did I find in my daughter's 21st-century wedding organiser? That if the bride's mother is a widow, the bride should be given away by "a relative of mature years, an uncle for example". Oh, and that the toastmaster should refer to the bride's mother in the absence of the father as "Mrs John Jones".

I can hardly claim to have been the most rebellious bride of my era, though. I did wear a white dress (bought off the peg); I did have two bridesmaids (in summer frocks); and the bridegroom did wear a suit (wide-lapelled, flared brown pinstripe, clashing beautifully with the best man's mauve). I reassured myself that we embraced those traditional elements to appease our parents. Now we, in the parental role ourselves, are embracing them again, only this time to appease our daughters.

For ageing feminists like me, our daughters' decision to go for the full froth-and-flowers function can be baffling - even something of a betrayal. My three strong and independent daughters and their friends expect to be proposed to, advertise their status with expensive engagement rings and agree that it is the groom's duty to decide on the honeymoon destination. They also seem prepared to plan the wedding details for months. The wedding industry, of course, has risen magnificently to the occasion and expectations seem to have grown exponentially. In the 1970s, our photographer stayed for an hour, did three other weddings on the same day and delivered the proofs by the end of the reception. Now the photographic event begins with a prenuptial photo shoot, followed by dawn-to-dusk digital recording of the day itself.

Alongside this growth in expectations is a similar growth in cost. The average Australian wedding apparently comes with a $50,000 price tag. Saddled with student debt as they often are, and often saving for a deposit on a house, why does this generation think it appropriate to spend that sort of money on one day? I can't imagine that they will look at their wedding photos any more frequently than we have looked at our - so much less expensive - ones. I am sure it is not the $2000 cost of the dress that makes the bride look beautiful. And do the couples enjoy their day so very much more than we enjoyed ours?

Perhaps it's because that is their peers' expectation, too. They are as much a product of their times as we were of ours. For us, getting married was still a rite of passage. For most of us it still marked the official moment of leaving home, the start of living together, and therefore it brought a huge change in our circumstances. A wedding probably did not mark the start of a sexual relationship, but it did mark the start of the public recognition of the sex.

Perhaps that is the difference. My daughter has not had to creep across the landing. She had been living with her now husband for some time before their wedding. Getting married was not a growing-up moment in quite the same way.

If the event is no longer a rite of passage, maybe the day itself has to take on greater significance: it needs to be bigger because the transitional moment itself is smaller. If it is to have the ceremonial solemnity that matches, and justifies, the investment in time and money, old traditions need to be revitalised, including those that depend on gender roles.

Maybe there is a more positive interpretation - that our children can afford to play gender-specific roles at the wedding because in reality they all assume an equality in marriage that we were still fighting to establish. But I can't help feeling a bit uncomfortable with the knowledge that my daughters and so many of their peers, male and female, have been persuaded by a successful industry that they need to act out ancient inequalities to celebrate a modern union and pay through the nose for the privilege.

*April Fraser is a pseudonym.

Guardian News & Media 2010 with Sunday Life