Authors: Siri Agrell
Lindsay D. was once asked to be a bridesmaid for a woman she had cast in a short film the year before. “I had sort of kept in touch with her afterward, in a professional kind of way,” she remembered.
The Bride had since moved from Canada to the States, and the wedding was to be held in Palo Alto, California. Lindsay cobbled together the airfare, as well as money for the dress and alterations, a commitment she would soon regret. During the ceremony, she was glared at by The Bride when she tried to take the bouquet at the wrong time and was told afterward that she
could buy a copy of the wedding video or individual photographs for twenty-five dollars apiece. It would be her only experience as a bridesmaid, and she would never quite figure out why she had put herself through it.
“But,” she reasoned years later, “I was the one who said yes.”
It is almost impossible to refuse a bridesmaid invitation, regardless of whether the bride is your arch-nemesis or your conjoined twin. Books of bridal etiquette encourage women to select attendants who will be obedient, helpful, punctual, and—above all—grateful to be a part of it, like sorority rushes begging to be ridiculed for their baby fat while vying desperately for a collection of new best friends.
Sarah G. said she agreed to be in the wedding of the woman she met on vacation because The Bride’s excitement was contagious, and she didn’t want to ruin the moment.
“I thought, ‘Well, if you think I’m
I don’t know…’ I like people to think I’m nice,” she said. “Not anymore, though.”
The Original Bridesmaids were selected not because they were nice but because they were disposable. Servants or sisters, concubines or commoners, bridesmaids were meant to be decoys from the main attraction. The institution began, like many doomed displays of power, in Roman times. Back when every day was a toga party, bridesmaids served as a protective shield, accompanying the bride to the ceremony and prepared to intervene—with their presumably dainty fists—if anyone made a move to kidnap her or steal her dowry.
Many brides were barely teens when they were led down the
aisle, and bridesmaids were also there to dress them, instruct them in the ways of “pleasing” their new husband, and ensure that they didn’t bolt before taking their vows.
When bridesmaids of yore weren’t thwarting crime or babysitting the bride, they were upholding societal standards in a more basic way, acting as witnesses to the marriage itself. Roman law required that every wedding have ten witnesses, the historic precursor to today’s absurdly large bridal parties. Everyone knows you can’t build Rome in a day, but some women think they can recreate the customs of the late empire while exercising their marital might. And many brides take on the air of Cleopatra from the very beginning.
“She was so excited about being waited on hand and foot that in her head it was like becoming the queen,” Rosie G. said about the friend for whom she was a bridesmaid. “She really saw her bridesmaids as people working for her. We were staff. In her mind she had constructed it as this perfect event, with her bridesmaids carrying her on their shoulders.”
The underlings of a blessed union should be prepared not just to honor and obey their bride but also to contend with one another. Every bridal party has a pecking order, and more often than not that pecking can escalate into full-blown bitch-slaps.
Wendy H. was asked to be a bridesmaid seven times in one year while she was still in college, and despite the obligations to her studies, she said yes to all of them: high school friends, college friends, even distant relatives. Out of all of the weddings, she dropped out of only one: that of her best friend from grade school.
Wendy had been asked to be Maid of Honor, the senior member of a bridal parry that also included a woman named Rachel,
whom she totally despised. A month into the wedding plans, Wendy began to feel like the other bridesmaid was sabotaging her every move. Unhappy that she was not the Maid of Honor, Rachel was going out of her way to make Wendy appear incompetent and was positioning herself as the heiress apparent, a Shakespearean villain for the H&M set. “She kept suggesting all these weird things, like trips to Mexico that she knew I couldn’t take while I was in school,” Wendy said. Eventually, The Bride suggested that Wendy relinquish her duties altogether, passing the MOH torch to Rachel.
“She basically moved in with her,” Wendy said of the conniving co-attendant. “And I couldn’t drop everything to drive across the country looking for these odds and ends.” Wendy gave up her gig and was recast as a lowly bridesmaid, but things within the bridal party did not improve.
“I just couldn’t get along with Rachel, and it made me feel like I had nothing in common with The Bride,” she said. “Between the two of them I didn’t even want to go to the wedding anymore.”
Her breaking point came at the bridal shower, when Rachel hired a stripper to attend—along with The Bride’s grandparents and various impressionable children. The surreal scene was too much for Wendy to take, and she told her friend she was leaving. The Bride cautioned her that exiting the event early would buy her a one-way ticket out of the wedding party, but Wendy took one look at the naked man gyrating around Granny’s lap and fled.
Unfortunately for bridesmaids like Wendy, there is no pren-uptial agreement between friends, no guarantee that you will recover your losses if things go wrong during the wedding, and no makeup sex after a particularly nasty argument has you lunging
for each other’s throats. And yet bowing out
things get ugly is nearly impossible if you want to stay friends with the bride. Ironic, isn’t it?
Rebecca L. was asked to be a bridesmaid for a friend and roommate, a woman with such a domineering personality she would make Madonna seem demure. Despite her visions of losing a relationship and a rent-controlled apartment if things went wrong, Rebecca couldn’t imagine saying no.
“I thought it would cause friction, and I would still be hearing about her wedding all the time anyway,” Rebecca said. “I thought the easier path to take would be to just grit my teeth and do it.” After two weeks, however, it was clear she had not selected the path of least resistance. The Bride had become so demanding that other members of the bridal party were trying to back out, with one woman telling her, “If I stay a bridesmaid, we won’t be friends.”
It seemed like a rational thing to admit, but The Bride would not let the woman go that easily. She cried and sent the bridesmaid flowers, adopting the tone and technique of an abusive husband promising that things would be different the second time around.
“Basically she wooed her back,” Rebecca said.
After the first failed escape, two more bridesmaids decided to run the gauntlet together, hoping at least one of them would make it out alive. At a planned sit-down, they suggested that The Bride’s vision of a classy black-tie wedding would be better served if she had just one bridesmaid, her sister.
“She didn’t buy that, either,” sighed Rebecca, who ended up walking down the aisle as part of a completely intact, if not altogether willing, bridal party.
Even legitimate excuses like expense, distance, and work can fail to impress a bride in need of bridesmaids, or release a girl from the shackles of servitude.
“I had a girlfriend who was sort of iffy about coming in from Australia,” remembered three-time bridesmaid Tamara B. The plane ticket alone would have cost the woman $2,500, an expense she was not prepared to incur.
“All of a sudden, because she had been anointed bridesmaid, it was like, ‘What do you mean you’re not going to spend that money?’” Tamara said, recalling The Bride’s reaction. The woman remained Down Under despite the Bridal Ultimatum, and the friendship between them soon headed south as well.
If women cannot decline even the most unexpected or far-afield invitation, imagine how hard it must be to say no when seduction is in play. The modern bride now sees each element of her engagement as an opportunity to acquire the best, and is ready to do almost anything to get what she wants. From an ice sculpture shaped like a childhood pet to a kindergarten friend flown in from Siberia to waltz down the aisle, if the bride wants it, it will be hers.
Cele Otnes, co-author of
Cinderella Dreams: The Allure of the Lavish Wedding,
says that brides regard their bridesmaids as one more part of the wedding to customize, and they soup up their friends like a human version
of Pimp My Ride.
“The more attendants, the more lavish,” Otnes says. “If you’re really going to have a perfect, luxury-laden day, everybody’s got to buy in to it.”
Taking a page from the awkward and acne-riddled twenty-first-century teenage boys who use balloon-o-grams and midnight serenades to beg out-of-their-league girls to accompany them to the prom, some women have invented elaborate methods of adding pizzazz to the bridesmaid selection process.
Three-time bridesmaid Jenny T. claims that straightforward inductions into bridal parties are now a thing of the past among her friends. They’ve stopped picking up the phone like normal human beings and have begun issuing formal invitations, each one with an increasingly outlandish presentation. One bride showed up at Jenny’s door with a poster that she had decorated with photographs of the two of them over the years, taken everywhere from childhood sleepovers to university keg parties. She had laminated it like a freakish eighth-grade art project and written a personalized poem of rhyming couplets that told the story of their relationship and asked, in the final stanza, for Jenny to be a bridesmaid.
It might have gone a little something like this:
We met, my friend, as little girls
Our socks worn high, our hair in curls.
In high school, yes, we grew apart,
You laughed when Adam broke my heart.
The cool kids called you, I felt their wrath
You drank in parks, I studied Plath.
Who’s laughing now, my former pal?
I’m getting hitched, you single gal.
So put on this dress, a lavender bomb.
You’ll be my bridesmaid, or I’ll tell your mom.
Okay, so maybe not exactly like that. But it rhymed, and the Poet Bride had written one for each of her fourteen chosen friends.
“Then she presented us with four yards of fabric for the dresses,” said Jenny. “I thought it was a joke.”
The lengths some women will go to in the name of building the perfect wedding party are deadly serious. In the world of celebrity, where excess is the name of the game, brides are capable of putting as much cash and firepower into their weddings as go into the average Spielberg flick. For her much-discussed 2004 nuptials, former talk show host Star Jones was preceded down the aisle by three matrons of honor, twelve bridesmaids, two junior bridesmaids, and four flower girls. The women she chose were friends, but were also conveniently assembled from an all-star cast of prominent Americans, including Vivica A. Fox, Natalie Cole, and Karenna Gore Schiff, daughter of former Vice President Al Gore and the only member of that family to successfully lead any party, bridal or otherwise.
Such Bridal Casting is not unusual, even for less diva-ish brides. Selecting impressive or attractive women to be in your wedding tells people that you, too, are impressive and attractive, and some brides even recruit long-lost friends from grade school or camp to act as living, breathing, bad-dress-wearing tributes to the different stages of their lives.
Another of Jenny T.’s friends created personalized jogging outfits for her crew of bridesmaids, an effort to brand them well in advance of the big day. Each woman’s name was printed on a jacket and matching tee, with the word
emblazoned on the bum—an attendant uniform for her team of wedding cheerleaders.
“We had to wear them at every wedding-related activity,” Jenny T. said ruefully. “It was meant to bring us together.”
Sadly, just because a bride has a brigade of strong women outfitted with gifts and gym gear, it does not mean they will work in harmony. Jenny said that most of the velour-wearing bridesmaids in her wedding party were barely speaking to one another by the time the wedding was over. And the outrageous demands made by Star Jones reportedly alienated her longtime friends and sparked an East Coast/West Coast feud between factions of the bridal party. Thankfully the wedding ended before we had another Biggie/Tupac situation on our hands.
There is only one excuse that seems to fly when it comes to bowing out of a bridal party, and it has nothing to do with losing your tracksuit or being called away to film
Kill Bill: Vol. 2.
In the hierarchy of female achievement, bearing a child trumps having a wedding—and no woman wants to be shown up on Her Day.
Brides will almost always release their pregnant friends from wedding obligations if they are worried about losing the spotlight, as people tend to find pregnant bellies even more hypnotic than large diamond rings. And God forbid the bride’s moment of glory is eclipsed by a surprise delivery halfway down the aisle.
Mary G. was three months pregnant when her two cousins, Liz and Melissa, descended on her doorstep for a girls’ weekend. Mary G. was the first of them to get knocked up, and her sister, Jane, had planned a fun weekend of baby talk and shopping. Liz, however, soon announced that she was engaged, and the conversation turned from babies to bridesmaids. She asked all three
women to be in the wedding the following May, a date just three months after Mary’s baby would be born.
“I was due in February, so the jokes started about me being the bridesmaid with porn star nursing boobs,” Mary said. “Then Liz tells Jane and Melissa that they are
to get pregnant between now and the wedding, as she doesn’t want any pregnant bridesmaids.”
Awkwardly enough, it turned out that Jane had just found out that she was expecting and was due two weeks before Liz’s wedding date. When she owned up to her status, you’d think it would have been cause for even more celebration. But instead of being happy for her cousin, Liz started to wonder aloud whether the bun-in-the-oven bridesmaid would be able to fulfill her duties.