Marriage may be an institution, but bridedom is a cult.

The cult has long led a bride to believe she is doomed to drop from the sky, wearing a polyester-taffeta parachute, into a circle of attendants in matching mauve. She then will toss a bouquet equivalent in cost to the down payment for a nice little two-bedroom and break out in hives because someone forgot the sterling cake knife engraved “The Best, Most Perfect Day You’ll Ever Have In Your Whole Life. Ever.”

The tyranny of the cult has been challenged, however, and a generation of revolutionaries is emerging. Witness, for instance, the parade of books explaining how to throw a great wedding for under $5,000.

A returning favorite is “Bridal Bargains: Secrets to Throwing a Fantastic Wedding on a Realistic Budget.” Authors Denise and Alan Fields, the Ralph Naders of wedding books, expose industry scams that make the exploding Ford Pinto look like a pi ata mishap.

Even more to the point is the “Anti-Bride Guide: Tying the Knot Outside of the Box,” by San Francisco authors Stephanie Rosenbaum and Carolyn Gerin, who have set out to show that Vera Wang and Martha Stewart aren’t the last word on weddings.

The authors don’t use budget as an excuse for being alternative: If creativity happens to save money, so be it. Released in December, the book’s already in its second printing and is being sold through, of all places, Target.

“From what I could see from this wedding industry, it had nothing to do with getting married,” says Rosenbaum, a writer with and the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

“We also wanted to make sorority girls feel a little bit rebellious,” Gerin explains, who owns a San Francisco Web design firm and is the one with nuptial experience.

Despite the countercultural title, “Anti-Bride Guide” is not a cynical tirade but actually a cheerfully helpful book, with frequent reality checks and tips, such as “If possible, plan so that your period (and your PMS) is out of the way at least a week before the wedding.”

Such simple practicality should help ground brides otherwise susceptible during this wedding season, which culminates in mass June ceremonies. The battle, though, is fierce, as the cult is skilled in the ways of bridal thought reform. It lurks behind the teeth-whitened smiles of gift registry shopgirls. It has its own scripture, those bridal magazine tomes that weaken you with their sheer weight alone.

To help gird your defenses, we’re here — with some help from Gerin and Rosenbaum — to present the Bridal Reality Check, a quick deprogramming guide against the insidious effects of bridal brainwashing.

* Psychological warfare: Whether you’re a bride or a member of the bridal support group, you will be entering an alien world wrapped in tulle and learning a language that uses words like “ecru.”

Remain gracious without being intimidated; be flexible without being indiscriminate. Recall the words of the great samurai Miyamoto Musashi who once said, “the Way of the warrior is resolute acceptance of death.” In fact, “Book of Five Rings” might be good required reading.

* Establish priorities: Talk to your fiance about what made weddings you’ve attended great, even if you didn’t really know the newlyweds. Chances are, it won’t be the engraved tent cards.

Pick three things that are non-negotiable for you and your partner — like a live band, or banishment of the traditional garter toss.

Repeat this mantra, courtesy of Gerin: “It’s not about the bride looking fabulous. It’s about love and commitment. You don’t need the dress. You don’t need the cake.” Take time, instead, to retrench and establish your own standards.

“There’s plenty of cattiness all around when weddings are involved,” Gerin points out. In other words, pleasing everyone is a doomed enterprise.

* Conducting the ensemble: Are you lace-averse? Do you lack royal blood? Do you look wan in white? Then why swaddle yourself in it like a wee babe? You don’t have to look like you’re in a “marriage protection program,” says Gerin, who wore a blue vintage dress to her celebration. Err on the side of good taste, but be sure to only wear something that makes you look happy.

That said, if you go to a bridal boutique, prepare to abandon all dignity at the door. You may need to endure excessive peppiness, but at the first sign of rudeness, take your business elsewhere.

* Be a bride, not a prima donna: In turn, be polite to and understanding of clerks who have to deal full time with “bridezilla,” the not-so-secret code word for the demanding, screeching harridan the “Anti-Bride” authors learned about from vendors.

As for the attendants, unless you’re paying for the outfits — and money doesn’t give you tyranny rights, by the way — they don’t have to look like quintuplets. Defy the man-made-fiber sect: Consider natural fabrics — even cotton.

* Find friends in enemy territory: Thought reform is best conducted in a controlled environment. Bridal fairs gather into one room every conceivable wedding service, ranging from the logical (venue sites) to the improbable (teeth-whitening services), while invariably a live band plays “Girl From Ipanema” (a proven method of bridal hypnosis).

Some fairs herd their attendees down cramped aisles. The elite ones, such as Gump’s, are more delicate in dipping into your coin purse.

Aside from occasionally providing reasons to be appalled, remember: Bridal fairs are useful for uncovering helpful ideas and plausible vendors.

* Involve that guy: Even men brave these elements — as they should. At a recent bridal show at the San Francisco Concourse, Randy Baumgartner of South San Francisco accompanied his bride-to-be, Kim Ryll of Benicia.

“We liked it,” Baumgartner said, adding they found “a lot of ideas and helpful, friendly people.”

Approached with the right state of mind, a bridal fair offers a couple the chance to efficiently consider options and cost factors. It also gives the bride and groom a reality check about the pressure most beleaguered near-brides are under.

* Bring backup: Some women, like Ai[DMM5] Masuda of San Francisco, bring their wedding planner to keep them grounded. If you don’t have a wedding planner, stalwart gal pals can serve as backups. Beware, however; some fairs may treat them like second-class citizens, snatching the shrimp tray from any female hand that lacks an engagement ring.

* Tools of the trade: Bring at least three items: the budget, a thermos of tea (to ward off cake-induced comas) and address labels to use for entry forms — but only if you don’t mind spam or you truly believe you will win that seven-day/six-night safari honeymoon.

* Warning — prices may vary: Prepare for sticker shock. Professionals won’t likely publish their lowest competitive rate in an arena such as a bridal fair. If they can’t accommodate you, consider finding a trustworthy mom-and-pop equivalent operation for catering, for instance, or a public park instead of a $20,000 hotel ballroom.

* Call for intervention: When the bathroom reading material is Martha Stewart Weddings magazines, partners only meet over cake tastings and china patterns, or friends and families are reduced to heads for the catering count, an intervention is required.

If you’re the bride, Rosenbaum suggests, go on a date — preferably with the intended. If you’re an observer, reintroduce the bride to the simple things in life — such as her former interests — or spirit her away to a place with no nuptial connections.

* Beware the body snatchers: Then again, it could be the reverse. The cult sometimes gets to you through your closest friends and family, who can talk about nothing except the “big day.” Suddenly, maids of honor inexplicably demand to share the limelight, or siblings think their shared genetic material qualifies them to dictate your life. You must know when to yield and when to stand your ground.

* Vows to make before the vow: Remember, it’s not just about you. It’s not about the gifts. It’s not about the honor of your family. It’s about the love between you and your intended, and the community you both will gather to witness it.

“It’s not fulfilling your inner Barbie, it’s just a day,” Gerin says. “It’s a day that you make a commitment to someone you love. It’s not a pageant.”

Vera H-C Chan is the Times event editor. She can be reached at 925-977-8428 or at