Peach Taffeta Nightmares

The High Price of Being a Bridesmaid

The “thrice a bridesmaid, never a bride” curse can be broken, I’m told, by being a bridesmaid seven times or more. Which means I’m back in the running. As a bridesmaid veteran, I have pulled duty 12 times, with a batting average of 66 percent — only four of those marriages ended in divorce. Of course, the bridesmaid tour of duty can wreak havoc on one’s ego, nerves, and pocketbook.

I recall one frantic year I stood four times, as did my fellow ’maiding veteran, Kim. One hot afternoon in Glendale, I witnessed Kim have a quantifiable Bridesmaid Meltdown, a disturbing phenomenon rarely seen in public. As we unloaded our gear for yet another wedding, Kim’s makeup bag broke open, spilling its contents onto the parking lot’s scalding cement. With fat curlers in her hair and a dry cleaner’s bag over her shoulder, Kim snapped.

Armed with a pink plastic clothes hanger, Kim launched a tirade and beat the crap out of my truck’s upholstery (okay, Mexican blanket), screaming ’maiding-themed epithets. “All the (wham!) *&%#@ time and (wham!) %#$&@% money I have spent (wham!) and I (wham!) just %#$&@% can’t take it (wham!) any %#$&@% more!” Vicariously, it was glorious for I knew her pain well. I had recently spent $250 on a hot-pink taffeta dress to wear for a wedding in Barstow … in July. Kim eventually recovered long enough to reclaim her composure, gather all her makeup, and smile for the cameras. Ironically, a few years later, she asked me to be in her wedding.

Clearly I have my own sordid bridesmaid history, but what about the History of the Bridesmaid? As with most modern wedding traditions, the history of the bridesmaid varies across cultures, religions, and time periods. In early Roman times, bridesmaids formed a “bridal infantry” as they accompanied the bride to the groom’s village. This similarly outfitted girl gang would intervene if any wayward thugs or vengeful suitors tried to hurt the bride or steal her dowry.

However, the Western bridesmaid tradition seems to have originated from later Roman law, which required 10 witnesses at a wedding in order to confuse the evil spirits who often attend marriage ceremonies. (Wedding crashers, it seems, have always existed in one form or another.) This “zebra strategy” had the bridesmaids and ushers dressing in identical clothing to the bride and groom in order to bewilder those evil spirits.

Even in 19th-century England, the belief that ill-wishers could administer curses and taint the wedding still existed. In Victorian wedding photographs, for example, only upon close inspection can one pick out the bride and groom among the matching bridal party.

Dark forces aside, bridesmaids didn’t officially become required accessories to matrimony until the mid 1930s, thanks to the printing press. Originally called So You’re Going to Be Married and distributed as a pamphlet in New York and New Jersey, this helpful guide eventually went national, adding pages along the way and changing its name to Brides. Etiquette? Sure, the publication offered plenty of useful advice, but it also marked the first public suggestion that a bride-to-be might consider the production value of her Special Day. A 1942 article from the magazine offered this advice: “Bridesmaids, like ladies in waiting, furnish the colorful backdrop to your wedding pictures, so the prettier the girls, the lovelier the wedding.” (I’m sure the groom is very nice but pageantry is the name of the game, baby!)

Of course, participating as a well-coiffed photo prop does have some drawbacks. Beyond the shame of wearing the same peach taffeta nightmare as seven other women, there is also the financial burden of ’maiding. In May 2005, the Fairchild Bridal Group released a survey of 1,000 brides, which found the average American wedding costs more than $26,000 — a 73 percent increase during the last 15 years. It’s no secret that much of that trickles down to members of the bridal party. According to the Web site, the typical wedding with three or four related events can cost a bridesmaid $1,400. (Still itching to wear specially dyed pumps?)

Being a bridesmaid wasn’t always so costly; etiquette expert Peggy Post, author of Emily Post’s Wedding Etiquette (5th Edition), insists heightened expectations for the Big Day created a burst of new “traditions” that didn’t used to exist. A bridal shower, for example, tended to be a small, intimate gathering of friends; these days, some brides might expect two or three showers, plus a bachelorette party and possibly a spa outing. (The price of friendship starts to add up right about here.) But, according to Post, bridesmaids are not obligated to participate in or pay for any of these activities. Brides who expect or even insist on these gestures “cross a line,” she writes.

Once the bride pops the question, weigh the cost against your desire and obligation to participate in her special day. It’s difficult to turn down a sibling or best friend, but a former college pal you rarely speak to who lives across the country? Puh-leese. Have your accountant write you an excuse, if you have to. Remember, as happy as you may be for your dear friend, no one is financing your retirement except you. There are plenty of ways to celebrate her future while keeping yours on track.

And Your Total Is …

Here’s a rough breakdown of how much you may be spending and some tips to cut costs:

Dress: $210. “I picked this dress so you can use it again!” rarely applies, although I have put these good intentions to test at least twice. Measure yourself before ordering the dress as most stores overestimate to ensure alterations because they are all part of a sinister bridal industry conspiracy. Beg the bride to pick a dress with sleeves rather than a strapless one — those stupid shawls will cost extra. Also, ask about dress rentals and discount outlets.

Alterations: $75. I was once talked out of alterations by a busy seamstress who asked me point-blank: “Do you really want to spend more money on a dress you’ll never wear again?” Answer: No. Grab a pal and a box of safety pins — you’ll be fine.

Shoes: $25 plus. Many considerate brides skip this. My last three brides said, “Doesn’t matter what the style, as long as they are black.” And what self-respecting female doesn’t have black pumps?

Strapless bra: $40. A necessary tool in the fight against droopage and gregarious nipples. You can try the less expensive “boob tape” but keep in mind it only works on the A- or B-cup gals.

Hair, nails, and makeup: $150, including tips. Sometimes the bride will spring for a group mani/pedi.

Gas for travel: $50 per trip × 4 trips = $200. Carpool with the other lucky ’maids, if you can. If this is a “destination wedding” that requires plane travel and a hotel room, expect costs to soar considerably.

Two shower gifts ($35 each) plus wedding present ($70): $140. Instead of purchasing a gift, go personal: Make a slideshow out of old photos or offer to pet-sit while the couple is on the honeymoon. Also, no need to buy from the registry — that’s for other people with more money and less personal knowledge about the bride.

Contribution to shower: $30. This is often the burden of the maid/matron of honor or someone’s mother.

Bachelorette party: $75-$100 (estimated). She can’t buy her own drinks, can she? Just hope you are both on the wagon.

Spa Treatment: $60-$100. Often done the morning of the Big Day, it’s become an increasingly popular bridal request.

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