The first night Brittany Clayton and Andrew Hirko had a real conversation, they chatted by the pool of the apartment complex where they both lived until the pool closed and guards were chaining the gates closed.
"We've been together pretty much every day since," says Clayton, 24, who works in Provider Services at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.
That didn't change when they got engaged in June 2013 and began planning their wedding, set for this September.
"We made our Save the Dates together; we did our invitations together," says Clayton. "The only thing he hasn't been involved in was picking out my dress."
Hirko, 25, who works at TVA, has gone with Clayton on countless trips to Hobby Lobby, Michael's and antique stores to collect materials for their charcoal-gray, pastel-pink and glittery-gold wedding, to be held at the Church on Main.
"Going into it I had no idea what to do at all," says Hirko. "I've definitely stepped out of the box doing the wedding thing. It's not my favorite thing to do, but it's my wedding too."
Clayton, who says she is "the worst decision maker ever," is thankful for the help.
"I have a friend who got married last year who always tells me how lucky I am that he's so hands-on," Clayton says.
• Mismatched groomsmen outfits. Taking a page from trendy mismatched bridesmaids dresses, groomsmen coordinating long distance can let the guys show up in their own suits (saving money), or let them buy a suit they'll actually wear again.
• "Smart casual" attire. Bow ties, suspenders, casual button-down shirts, linen pants and even jeans let a groom and his party feel like themselves on the big day.
• English heritage. Tweeds, herringbones, paisleys and plaid add a clever twist to the traditional "black tie" look for groomsmen.
• Art Deco and the 1920s. Top hats, canes, saddle oxfords and linens; Brooks Brothers even sells a white "Gatsby" suit.
• Color: Black suits can be boring. Think pastel blues, subtle darkly colored suits and even groomsmen in different brightly colored suits.
But Hirko might not be just one in a million. Straying from the long-held stereotype of grooms who barely manage to make it to the altar on time, more Chattanooga grooms are stepping up and getting involved with planning the nitty gritty of their nuptials.
Elizabeth Deal, senior planner and director of operations at wedding and event planning agency Veo Wedding & Events in Chattanooga, says that, although a wedding day is still primarily a bride's shining moment and pet project, in the past few years she's seen a bump in groom involvement.
"Before, I worked weddings where honestly I didn't meet the groom until the rehearsal or the day of the wedding," she says. "Now I'm seeing them more. They have more input."
These days, grooms might attend the initial consultation with the wedding planner, even stand in for brides who can't make meetings with planners and vendors. They haggle over prices, take over the reception planning. Many have a definite vision for the wedding, which they see as being their day, too.
"I had one groom who actually sketched out a diagram of what he wanted the seating arrangement and the floor for the reception to look like," Deal says. "He had a very specific vision for the reception."
With Pinterest boards to comb through and quirky ceremony trends - think food trucks, DIY decorations and photo booths - each couple wants their wedding not only to tie their knot, but to be memorable and special for everyone, something guests will talk about in months to come, Deal says.
"Even people who are staying with the traditional want that 'wow factor' - one big thing that will make their day a real experience for the guests," she says.
According to the Emily Post Institute, home of all things etiquette, among the groom's jobs are:
• Select the engagement ring. Although brides nowadays may also be involved.
• Choose his wedding party - best man, groomsmen and ushers.
• Choose the attire for the groom's wedding party. Keep with the style of the wedding.
• Select thank-you gifts for his wedding party.
• Arrange - and pay for - lodging for his wedding party.
• Select a gift for the bride.
• Compile the groom's part of the guest list and make sure that his parents provide their guest list.
• Plan the honeymoon.
• Go with the bride to choose wedding bands together.
• Arrange and purchase the marriage license.
• Make arrangements for transportation from the ceremony to the reception site, if necessary.
• Give the ceremony officiant the fee or donation or arrange for the best man to present such fees.
• Dance the first dance with the bride, dance with the couple's respective mothers and the maid/matron of honor.
Deal's company includes packages such as "Bride's Best Friend" and "Bride's Helping Hand." The former details every aspect of the day from start to finish, the latter a bit more scaled back.
Details like photo booths for guests to document their fun and cigar rooms for the grooms' party are becoming more common. Elaborate proposals and surprise choreographed dances debuted at receptions by grooms, all made popular by the Internet, also have inspired grooms to plan their twists on the big day.
Shaun Cox, owner of DIY Affair Weddings in Cleveland, Tenn., works with clients who have already sketched out their wedding plans but need someone to smooth out the details; Clayton and Hirko are his clients. She says the rise in more casual weddings - muted colors, bow ties for grooms instead of tuxes, outdoor ceremonies and family friendly receptions - make grooms' involvement much more welcome.
"People don't want their guests to feel awkward, not knowing what to do or what to wear," she says. "They want people to have fun, and they want their wedding to reflect who they really are."
Cox notes that the trend of groom involvement is recent, saying she's seen a steep jump in involved grooms even between last year and this year.
Couples who are paying for their own weddings also are more likely to have all hands on deck in the planning of their days. Not only does that give them total control - as opposed to in-laws who are footing the bill and calling the shots - it also gives an extra incentive to make choices that will keep their wallets full.
That was the case for Hirko and Clayton, who are paying for their own wedding.
"We're really budget shoppers," says Clayton, who pinched pennies by buying linens from another bride instead of renting her own, choosing a more minimalist floral design and opting for a DJ instead of a more-expensive wedding band.
Hirko says a lot of his opinions have been influenced by finances.
"I want to make sure I get the best product for what we're paying for," he says.
When it came to the reception, though, he wanted to make sure their guests had a fun, interactive experience. A transplant from Massachusetts, Hirko will host family from the East and West Coasts, mingling them with Clayton's Chattanooga-based clan.
• ThePlunge.com: With a "cool guy" tone and Facebook share-worthy titles, The Plunge lets you create an account with a by-the-day countdown to the wedding, an interactive checklist to tick off and a scoreboard letting you know how many tasks you've completed and how many you have left. There's even a penalty box for slip-ups.
• TheGroomsList.com: From Proposal to Honeymoon, tick off your tasks until checklist reads 0 percent - honeymoon time.
• GroomPower.com: Lots of categories (The Perfect Shave, Wedding Disco) for every single thing you need to know. It even lists questions you should ask each vendor to make the best decision ("How long have you been a DJ?")
"I just want it to be a good party," says Hirko. "I have three older brothers and they are all married, and I wanted to match or beat their weddings."
Aaron Lewis Lockhart got married last November but, as a wedding photographer, he's been on both sides of the wedding planning fence. Lockhart says he did far more than his fiancée for their wedding, picking the DJ, venue and - naturally - the photographer.
He says that's not uncommon. At a bridal expo earlier this year, he saw most couples making decisions as a unit, the grooms chiming in with questions and opinions. And with the average budget for a Chattanooga wedding hovering at around $13,000, according to Lockhart, grooms are taking matters into their own hands with do-it-yourself attitudes.
"It's the bells and whistles," he says.
Lots of grooms take it upon themselves to enlist their friends and family to get the job done as cheaply as possible. Renting tables and chairs for a venue can cost about $600, but hiring movers to transport them can tack on an extra $400, a task the groom and his buddies can take care of themselves.
Jeremy Jones, owner of Entertainment Solutions, a full-service party DJ company, handles music at lots of weddings. He's seen grooms more and more involved, but he wouldn't call it a trend. But it makes sense that busy, career-oriented women - who are getting married at a higher average age, 27 for women and 29 for men - have less time to plan every detail, he says.
They also have more egalitarian views of duties in the relationship.
"Brides don't want to do things that their fiancé doesn't like," says Cox. "It's really great to see. These couples are listening to each other, they respect each other. It's very equal."
Still, if a bride really wants something for their wedding day, she largely has the power.
"I'd say it's about two to three out of 10 couples where the groom will be really involved," Jones says. "But if there's ever a dispute between the two, the bride always wins."
No matter how involved he is in the planning, Hirko says, Clayton still has veto power.
For example: "I wanted to get [NFL Patriots quarterback] Tom Brady's face on my groom's cake," he jokes. "Brittany said no to that."
Contact Anna Lockhart at alockhart@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6578.