Present Tense

Expert tips on navigating the ever-murky waters of today's bridal registries

Two years ago, I went to a jaw-droppingly nontraditional wedding in Malibu, CA: The bride and groom, Lorelei Sharkey and Joey Cavella, each wore a white suit; they kicked off their vows by forming a football huddle with both sets of parents, shouting, "Go, team!"; and their first dance was to OK Go's power pop song "Here It Goes Again" (they replicated some of the band's treadmill moves from the video). The two also set up a PayPal account to accept donations toward their Italian honeymoon. One hundred sixty dollars bought them a hotel room in Florence; $70 paid for a cruise along the Cinque Terre coast; $100 purchased a day trip to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa. "It wasn't our style to ask for appliances," Lorelei explains. "Neither of us are wealthy, so we thought this would be a great way to be able to do it right." When they returned from their trip, they sent all guests who'd contributed to their honeymoon photos of themselves at the individual location relating to their gift. "Everyone loved it," she confirms. "At least, that's what they told us."

Behind their backs, however, there may have been detractors or cynics. These days, nearly everyone has an opinion about what kinds of wedding gifts are (and aren't) appropriate. When Elizabeth Blum, the guest of a wedding to take place in NYC, spotted an electronic footbath on the bride and groom's registry, she was taken aback. "It felt gross to me, like they had somehow crossed the line in terms of intimacy," Elizabeth says. "Who wants to imagine the two of them at home, soaking their feet?"

Gifts weren't talked about so much before because what you gave as a wedding present was fairly standard: china, crystal, flatware, serving pieces. "Now, because your registry can go in so many different directions, with tons of options out there, there's more reason to focus on it and discuss—and more of a tendency to look at the choices couples make and judge," says Susan Fitter, a recent bride, Middleburg, VA-based etiquette expert and cohost of TLC's Mind Your Manners. "In general, there's the feeling these days that we're always being judged, and it's an added pressure here, even if it is somewhat subconscious."

Certainly, with the old rules blurred and registries so very public, there is increased attention turned to wedding gifts, as well as a new level of doubt in terms of what's fair game—and it's unclear how friends and family may feel about the ultrapersonal picks. When Mandy Briggs, of Arlington, VA, was strongly urged by her sister to register, she finally relented and built one at Target, with items ranging from a flatscreen television and KitchenAid mixer to a badminton set and Scrabble and Monopoly games. "Why would you register for board games when you can buy them yourself?" her sister asked, exasperated. "Because we want them," Mandy replied. "Why do you care?"

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