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MELISSA BLOCK, host: These tough economic times have forced Americans to spend less on just about everything. Case in point, the cost of the average wedding has dropped over the last two years. But when it comes to the big day, the slow economy hasn't stopped many brides from splurging on at least one item - a dress. In fact, the money spent on dresses has increased 20 percent since 2009, according to Brides magazine.

Caitlin Kenney from our Planet Money Team reports on just what brides are getting for their money.

CAITLIN KENNEY: Before wedding gowns reach stores across the country, they come here to New York International Bridal Week.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Style 2053 is definitely one of our top looking dresses so far this season.

KENNEY: What dresses you'll see in stores this fall, those decisions were made here in April. To figure out why those dresses cost what they do, you first need to understand what goes into making them.

ANNE BARGE: It's not just a white dress. It's the fabric and it's the workmanship and it's the lining and it's the fit.

KENNEY: Anne Barge has been designing wedding dresses for over 20 years. She points to a dress on one of her many racks and says, here, let me break it down for you.

BARGE: Here you're looking at a dress that has 25 yards of pure silk satin in it.

KENNEY: How much does that cost?

BARGE: Over a hundred dollars a yard for just the satin, not the tulle. And then on top of it, it's a very expensive embroidery which is done in India, because they do the most beautiful handwork of anywhere in the world.

KENNEY: All that adds up to real money, but it doesn't reach the total price tag of $8,000. That extra cost, it's the word wedding. So much emotion is tied to that word that's it's hard to put a number on it, but it's there.

Take this dress I saw at the booth of British designer David Fielden. It was long and understated with a high neck and it looked like something you could wear to any formal event.

Yurizan Morales works for the designer and I asked him what this dress cost.

YURIZAN MORALES: In dollars it would be around 2,700.

KENNEY: If it wasn't a dress for a wedding, if you were just selling it as a regular dress, do you think it would sell for the same price?

MORALES: No, it wouldn't.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KENNEY: Designer Anne Barge gets this. When she talks about her dresses she's selling emotion.

BARGE: It's the dress of your life. And if there's ever one picture your ancestors have of you, it's the one in your wedding dress.

KENNEY: That's a lot of pressure to put on a bride to be. Veronica Guerrieri was married last summer in her home country of Italy, and she says she felt it.

VERONICA GUERRIERI: They were trying hard to convince me that it was the best day of my life; that I shouldn't have thought about economics.

KENNEY: Not thinking about economics is hard for Guerrieri because, well, she's an economist at the University of Chicago. She says we're part of the reason prices are so high. They're high because that's what we're willing to pay.

GUERRIERI: I think on average, there's a lot of status and signaling going on on wedding days.

KENNEY: Signaling - a bride's dress can signal how wealthy she is, what her status in society is. But it can also signal how seriously she's taking this marriage. Sort of like saying - I'm only going to do this once, so I'm doing it big.

And this urge to spend a lot to send a message, it applies to brides with all kinds of budgets.

MARYANNE MARCHESE: We're for the middle man that works hard.

KENNEY: Maryanne Marchese owns Angel Bridal on Staten Island. The dresses in her store sell for between 700 and $2,000.

MARCHESE: I had a customer that the price was - that the gown was beautiful. And she says, well, you know what, that's too cheap, she says. I'm looking to spend more money.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARCHESE: I said let me change the label. Let me change the price. I'll add a two or three in front of it, will you be happy?

KENNEY: Will you be happy? There it is again, emotion. Buying a wedding dress isn't like buying any other piece of clothing. There's so much wrapped up in the purchase, so many feelings, that our normal urge to save money can just go out the window.

Caitlin Kenney, NPR News, New York.

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