Far back in my closet, past the unflattering dresses purchased during my online shopping phase and behind the jeans I wore three sizes ago, there is a wasteland of taffeta and chiffon. There, in the very back corner, layer upon layer of fabric—mint, midnight blue, cranberry, purple, slate gray—meld into one swollen lump of bridesmaid regalia.
Each dress represents a part of my life. Their faded embellishments, tailoring and tattered edges conspire to make me feel, in the most cruel way, like someone else wore them. They are faint and distant memories, blurred by stress, exhaustion and Champagne.
Seven nights. Seven dresses. Seven brides brave enough to invite me into the most sacred of traditions: the wedding party.
Bridesmaid history is traced back to Roman Law. To confuse evil spirits, which apparently loitered around wedding ceremonies to target new couples, witnesses would dress similar to the bride and groom. Other lore says a group of women would accompany a bride to the village of her husband-to-be to avert scorned suitors from kidnapping the fair maiden.
But in the modern tradition, bridesmaids can seem like a mere bridal accessory. They are an extension of the bride’s vision and color palette and a representation of their social history. “That’s the bride’s childhood friend, and that’s her sorority sister and that’s her grad school roommate,” an aunt will report to her table. Being a bridesmaid can be a mark of friendship, an emblem of sisterhood, a badge that says, “I’m important.”
But from the viewpoint of a bridesmaid, the role is often conflicted.
I first bought a bridesmaid dress from a small, window-less Sears on the outskirts of San Luis Obispo, Calif. Big, lavender flowers covered the ankle-length dress that reminded me, even then, of something I would have worn to a middle school dance. I was 19 and my soon-to-be stepmother (eventually, my evil ex-stepmother) had made three simple demands about my function as a bridesmaid.
“Wear a pastel dress. No cleavage, no leg,” she said.
I showed up the day before the wedding. I wore pastel, and I stood in line next to her and my father as they said their vows. And then I went home.
I must have done something right because from there my bridesmaid career flourished. That’s largely because my immediate family went on a marrying frenzy. I stood up at three more family weddings: another for my dad (the second one much more joyous than the first), one for my mom and one for my brother. I also bridesmaided for two college roommates and one former co-worker. And next year, I’ll stand by my best friend as she says, “I do.”
I’ve learned something from each wedding I’ve attended, and so much from the ones I’ve been a part of. There are a few obvious rules: never get blood on the bride, always wear shoes that you can walk, stand and drink in, never order your dress two sizes too small in hopes that you’ll lose weight and always have a good tailor on speed dial.
Still, I feel like I’ve gained a certain amount of unique wedding wisdom from my experiences.
Here are the five truths of being a bridesmaid:
1. Consider it a compliment to be chosen as a bridesmaid, but know this is not an easy role.
She likes you, she really likes you! Or maybe she feels obligated to you. Or maybe you picked her to be your bridesmaid, and now she thinks you’ll be mad if she doesn’t pick you. Or maybe she had too many margaritas on New Year’s Eve 2009 and, caught up in the moment, she said she loved you like a sister and if she ever gets married she totally wants you by her side. Anyway, it’s flattering. Savor it. But while you have been chosen to take an important role in this person’s impending nuptials, this position also comes with responsibility and sacrifice. Be ready to work. Be ready to make sure the bride feels supported. Be ready to sew place-settings, pen addresses on 150 envelopes and dance the YMCA. Be ready to wear pastel even when it makes you look pasty, pasty white.
2. The bride just wants you to agree with her.
Sure, she’s your best friend and she’s always loved your sarcasm and your persistent honesty. But your teasing and grimaces must turn into lovable, agreeable nods when you help the bride make decisions about décor, shopping for dresses or discussing her fears of marriage. Just smile and nod, tell her that all is well. As much as she says she wants your honest opinion, she needs your validation.
3. This is a financial commitment.
Over the last decade, I’ve spent an estimated $15,000 on being a bridesmaid. That includes dresses and shoes, tailoring, plane tickets, hotel rooms, car rentals, manicures and pedicures, hair styling, makeup, gifts and bachelorette party décor and entertainment. According to WeddingChannel.com, it costs about $1,695 to be a bridesmaid for one single wedding. Traveling can make that soar, but even for a local bridesmaid, the financial commitment is substantial.
4. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
Being in a wedding is exhausting. You’ll probably get up early to get your hair and makeup done, you’ll drink mimosas and lounge around the hotel room, oohing and aahing as the bride is frosted like a big, sparkly cake. And then for the next 10 hours, you’ll be shuttled around, told how to walk and where to stand, introduced and propped up in front of hundreds of people. It’s something to prepare for. Get a good night’s sleep the night before, drink water and keep yourself satiated. Don’t drink too much alcohol. I had a friend who once took an anti-anxiety pill the morning of her best friend’s wedding. She ended up having to leave the ceremony to go vomit in a bush. Don’t be that girl.
5. It’s all worth it.
While I may lament the aches and pains of being a bridesmaid, I’ve never regretted it. From high upon your heeled perch, it’s a beautiful view of one spectacular moment. When you are standing behind a woman who you love, watching her make a commitment that is authentic, it puts all the stresses and strains into perspective. My bridesmaid mantra is “It’s not about me,” which can sound snarky and over-dramatic. But it’s not about me. It’s about celebrating and supporting this couple and their future together. They will appreciate your efforts, and you’ll feel selfless and accommodating. But remember, it’s not about you.