The seamstress made a face as I stepped up to the platform for alterations. My dress, a flimsy gray(ish) chiffon thing with wide straps that exposed the entirety of my rib cage and puddled on the floor, was a far cry from anything else that had entered my closet, let alone her Upper East Side atelier.
“It’s a bridesmaid’s dress,” I explained defensively. “My sister is getting married and she picked it out.”
“I think this sister… doesn’t like you,” the seamstress concluded, giving the dress another critical once-over.
In the end, the alterations to render it wearable cost triple the dress itself. And I was the lucky one: the maid-of-honor’s gown went up in flames during the sparkler send-off and my husband and I frantically attempted to stomp out the fire without distracting from my sister’s final bridal wave before she, or anyone else, was burned. We ushered the sobbing girl inside, away from the (deadly) sparklers. “I’m sorry I can’t stop crying,” she finally said, taking a shuddery breath. “It’s just that I was on fire.” I motioned to the bartender for another round.
It would be easy to pinpoint this as the moment when I decided bridesmaids’ dresses were a complete and utter waste, but truthfully I had already developed a strong dislike for the tradition.
Oddly, the ritual of matching bridesmaids dresses is an ancient one, documented in Ancient Rome when the good tidings of a wedding was thought to draw evil spirits and bridesmaids would dress identically as decoy brides to confuse them. Fair enough! But as the practice has evolved over the years, there was shift to dressing like the bride to wearing something I am fairly certain the bride would never put on her own body. We gather our nearest and dearest and force them into a uniform of our own imagining, some alchemy of “color palette,” “childhood visions,” and, to raise my seamstress’s point, “to ensure they don’t look better than we do on our wedding day.”
Reader, I can feel you getting defensive already. You feel as though you have perfect taste and your friends and family were absolutely delighted to be dressed by you. You are sure they wear their old bridesmaids dresses all the time! To the many other parties in which it is totally normal to show up in a floor-length chiffon gown! Or maybe, they spent even more money in addition to the money they already spent on said dress and your festivities to have it shortened and dyed so they could look, presumably, like an extra in Grease. Reader, dear reader, you are delusional.
In my sister’s defense, she had been trying to avoid the faux pas of asking her friends, all recent college grads, to spend a lot of money on their dresses, which I am sure they appreciated up until accidental immolation. And there isn’t a good way to go about this. If the bride chooses an expensive dress, then there will be complaints of cost. Then there are the unhelpful suggestions of looking for the identical dresses secondhand (rarely works). There is also letting everyone battle it out over “same fabric and color, but different style for each person” (stressful and vaguely Lord of the Flies). Or worse, asking them to “just pick a dress in this color,” which leads to everyone, including the bride, feeling disappointed and the resulting photos are inevitably awkward and mismatched. Who knew lavender had such range?
So what is the solution? I personally opted for no bridesmaids at all. Instead I sent notes to my friends and sisters explaining that I would like for them to be on "team bride." This entailed planning the bachelorette and sharing a house for the wedding weekend, but no procession, no standing during the ceremony, and most importantly, no prescribed dresses. As a bonus, I could have as many as I liked without worrying about balancing groomsmen on the other side (another issue!).
If you have gotten this far in the article and still have a firm conviction that you need bridesmaids dresses in your life, then there are some ways to make it as painless as possible.
Foot the bill for the gowns yourself. Yes, this is expensive on your end but it acknowledges that your bridesmaids are already spending money on your bridal shower, bachelorette, wedding gifts, and any surrounding travel and beauty costs. You are getting married, not winning a Pulitzer, and they will appreciate this gesture far more than any monogrammed flip flops you ordered from Etsy (please skip those by the way).
Let the bridesmaids pick the silhouette themselves, but don’t force everyone to pick a unique style. It will be totally fine if cousin Betty and your college roommate both opt for off-the-shoulder straps.
Skip pastiche bridesmaid styles. If it could be in a J.Crew wedding catalogue circa 2004, it's a hard pass. Experiment with jumpsuits or maybe even something in the vein of YSL's Le Smoking. Do a poll! Maybe your bridesmaids have some ideas of their own.
Stick to neutral classics, ideally all-black or all-white, which both look striking and might genuinely be worn again. No promises though.
A few more suggestions, below.
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