Maybe an elaborate affair isn't your thing. Or you're short on the time—or bucks—needed for a formal wedding. Good news: It's easy to achieve a stress-free celebration that's loaded with style. Start by rethinking the traditions. A few (the vows, food, drink, some kind of music) are nonnegotiable. Others (like a parade of bridesmaids) are yours to dispense with. Here are a dozen tips to get started.
1. Keep it Short: You can pack a lot of celebrating into three hours, especially if you're not having a seated meal and dancing. Plan the party for a slightly off-hour—say, from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. (Bonus: You'll save money because you won't be expected to serve a full meal.) You might want to choose a less popular day, too, like Friday or Sunday.
2. Rethink the Numbers: When's the last time you wanted to spend the evening with 200 "friends"? Never? Thought so. To edit the invitees, pretend you're making a guest list for your birthday party. Chances are, any friends who wouldn't be at that event wouldn't take offense if they don't receive an invite to your intimate wedding.
3. Pare Down the Ceremony: You won't have to decide who will walk you down the aisle or what role to give your older sister—but you will still need to appoint an officiant and exchange vows. Two ideas: Have a private ceremony with a justice of the peace, then celebrate later in the day with loved ones. Or have a friend ordained to do the honors at a cozy party. (Either way, nix the rehearsal.
4. Don't Channel Eva Longoria: Just because celebrities have million-dollar, weeklong events doesn't mean you have to. Instead, go into planning mode with a vision of a fabulous cocktail party or an elegant luncheon. Either can work for a wedding, and will be more fun and meaningful to you and your guests than a big, impersonal blowout. Bonus: no paparazzi!
5. Book a Restaurant: Your favorite Italian trattoria or that trendy new tapas place can make the ideal unwedding environment—and it probably has many of the assets that a ballroom or country club has, like a bar, a full kitchen and furnishings (table, chairs, dishes). And thanks to the venue's focus on food, rituals like the receiving line and father-daughter dance won't be missed. A restaurant also comes decorated so embellishments can be as simple as one or two floral arrangements and some well-placed votives.
6. Play with Tradition: Opt out of details like a big bridal party, programs and favors or keep them understated. For your honor attendant, order a cocktail dress instead of a long gown and a simple clutch of flowers; for the program, make a printout of your personalized vows; for favors, give guests something they'll use, like a bottle of wine or a tin of mints.
7. Think About the Seating: Even if you're having a cocktail party, be sure there's a place to sit, like chairs or couches (especially important if you expect elderly guests). Serving food more elaborate than cocktail nibbles requires tables on which guests can rest plates or glasses; bistro tables look cool and take up minimal space.
8. Don't Forget About the Music: A string quartet might seem too traditional (and an orchestra would just be wrong), but it won't feel like a party without music. Find out if your restaurant has a high-quality audio system you can use; if not, rent speakers you can hook up to an iPod or laptop loaded with music appropriate to the ambience and venue.
9. Word it Right: Guests receiving a formally worded and engraved invitation will assume that they're going to a formal wedding. So choose a typeface that's stylish but not overly ornate, and use language that's more colloquial than traditional. Wording like "Please help us celebrate as we exchange vows at 4 p.m. on Saturday, August 8, at City Bistro" tells guests to expect a more casual event.
10. Wear it Well: Since an unwedding's lack of traditional rules may leave some guests clueless about the dress code, give them a heads-up by printing "cocktail attire" on the invite. As for the two of you, plan on wearing a spectacular dress (white is always right, but you might skip the veil and train), and ask him to wear a suit that he'll be excited to put on again. The goal is to look like your best selves, not that plastic cake-topper couple.
11. Pick the Right Photographer: The old-school shooter who insists on at least an hour for posed photos with every member of your families probably isn't the best fit for your boutique bash. Instead, hire a photographer who's more flexible to shoot the ceremony and a few important family shots; then ask a couple of friends with cameras to take the party pictures.
12. Go Sweet and Low (Key): Even if you're nontraditional, you'll probably want a wedding cake, but one with your own spin. The classic tower of tiers suddenly looks funky and fun iced in lime green. Or slice into something unusual, like a torte or cheesecake. An engraved cake knife is nice but unnecessary: This day marks the beginning of a beautiful new phase in your life, and that's about as special as it gets.