In part four of Catalyst Wedding Co. editor Liz Susong's new weekly column devoted to the feminist bride, she dives headfirst into the history of bridal parties. Liz investigates here.
This is no holier-than-thou sermon about my enlightened approach to bridal parties. I have a confession to make: when it comes to making demands of friends on behalf of one’s wedding, I was a bit of a pain-in-the-butt myself. I was pretty conscientious about reducing financial demands on my social worker-type friends (although surely the expenses were not insignificant), but looking back, I was, what one might accurately perceive to be, an emotional vampire. My wedding could be described as: suburban-raised, former gifted child listens exclusively to Mumford & Sons for entire year before celebrating marriage to similarly over-educated spouse via country barnraising. Yeah, you know the type.
However, asking my friends to help me DIY my wedding to death pales in comparison to some of the historical expectations for bridal parties. For instance, the best man used to earn this role by risking his life for his buddy. The role of best man “dates from the days of marriage by capture, when a would-be bridegroom swooped down on the bride of his choice and rode away with her,” according to wedding historian Susan Waggoner. “The groom needed a companion and assistant who could cross swords with the angered relatives and hold them at bay while he escaped with his bride.” When I read this, I was like, “...say what now!?” But it turns out that bride kidnapping, which has taken place all over the world, is still a very real problem for young women in various regions, although the practice has been largely criminalized.
Additionally, groomsmen were once known as “bride’s knights,” as their role was to ensure a bride’s safe journey to the church. “In an era when vandals and robbers wandered at large...a show of male force was a deterrent to mischief makers,” says Waggoner. In fact, the groom and his men traditionally stand on the right of the altar in case they need to draw a sword to defend the couple from envious suitors, anxious family members, or petty criminals. Honestly, weddings are boring now.
And bridesmaids had their own protecting to do. They dressed alike to confuse evil and mischievous spirits, who might wish ill will on the bride and groom. Nowadays the only evil spirit at the wedding might just be the bride. Save her from herself, dear bridesmaids! But by and large, “the bridesmaids’ role has been more form than function,” Waggoner explains. “They are companions who provide a pretty context for the bride and...moral support.” So in essence, the role of groomsman has drastically changed over the years from “violent sidekick” to “guy who brings the cigars,” while bridesmaids still play the role of increasing the bride’s enjoyment, often to the detriment of their own pocketbooks.
“I’m talkin trips to Puerto Rico, say the word and we go…” and if you’re lucky that’s what you like. Between bridal showers, weekend bachelorette parties, expensive dresses, professional hair and makeup, travel, and gifts for the happy couple, bridesmaids typically spend somewhere in the $1,500 range.
I recently spoke with a woman who told me she was in 10 weddings in three years, shortly after college. I commented on how expensive that must have been for her, and she did not mince words in her response: “I was financially ruined.” Mo of Chicago discusses her bridesmaid experience: “It was great to be a part of my friends' special day, but I started to resent all the expenses that piled up. It was difficult for me because I am a grad student on a tight budget. It seemed like my only options were to go along with everything, or create drama.” Sarah of Wisconsin summarizes: “I'm not sure when sticking the wedding party with thousands of dollars in costs became the norm, but it seems like a good way to ruin a relationship.”
And certainly it is not at all uncommon to spoil relationships with friends due to wedding-related interactions. A number of people disclosed to me that they no longer speak to friends whose weddings they were asked to be a part of. Brooklyn of Ohio found herself in this situation. Looking back, she says, “I think there is a lot of pressure from society and from the bride (depending) to be a certain way in a bridal party, and often those things aren't clearly communicated, and people on both sides can end up hurt.”
It’s not all bad news, though. Some couples are able to decenter themselves and show genuine consideration for their friends and family. Kendyl of Ohio shares, “I was the maid of honor for my best friend. She knew that the cost would be a huge stressor for me at the time, so she included my costs in her wedding budget even though she wasn't exactly rich either. I will be forever grateful for that thoughtfulness, as it allowed me to truly be present to celebrate with her and her husband instead of fretting.”
Other couples are sensitive to the fact that selecting friends to be in a bridal party can result in some feeling left out. Erica of North Carolina shares, “We could have very easily had a huge bridal party, but we didn't want to put a financial burden on our friends coming from out of town, and we really didn't want to play the whole ‘who are the BEST friends’ game that often happens when picking bridal parties. We kept it simple, saved money, and everyone had a good time!”
Rachel and Adam of Ohio took a creative approach to avoid creating a friend hierarchy: “We asked a group of our friends and their partners to be in our choir. Everyone was invited to say something during an open mic part of our reception, and they did a little singin' during our ceremony, and it was fabulous.”
Couples may also be sensitive to their friends’ unique identities, styles, and gender expressions, so they don’t demand uniformity in dress (evil spirits be damned!). Instead, they may ask participants to wear whatever they like or to dress in a certain color scheme. Carly of Virginia puts it plainly, “I just didn't want to tell grown-ass people what to wear, ESPECIALLY when it comes to gender expression.” Dawn of Ohio shares her approach: “We didn't have a traditional bridal party because we wanted everyone's identities to be represented. Those who were more comfortable in pants stood on Njaluka's side, and those who were more comfortable in dresses stood on my side.”
Others shared how they changed the language to allow for gender inclusivity in their wedding party, using terms like “Team Bride/Groom” and “bridal brigades” so that men and women were not relegated to different sides. So, the good news is, if you think you need to have gendered sides, equal numbers of bridesmaids and groomsmen, or matching outfits, you don’t! You don’t need to have a bridal party at all, or you can limit it to family only.
Daniel of Virginia says, “I’ve been a groomsman in one wedding and have been asked to be a bridesman in two coming up and a best man in another. I would do anything to help my friends make their weddings what they want. It is expensive, and the costs add up, but my friends do not ask for much, so to celebrate them and their loved ones is an honor.” (I have Daniel’s number if you’re looking for new friends.)
In the role of bride or groom, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the slogan it’s your day, and certainly it is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate your love, your way. But it can be too easy to lose sight of the stress placed on our loved ones. We often expect what comes easy to us will come easy to our friends. If money is not an issue for us personally, we expect our friends won’t wince at spending a bit to participate in this awesome party. Or if you’re like me, you understand that money is tight, but you don’t shy away from asking for a larger emotional investment from friends and family; after all, I LOVE helping my friends DIY their weddings and events. I’m not asking for you to be completely self-forgetting or submissive to the needs and desires of others. I’m simply reminding you that all relationships require compromise, so whether you are planning a wedding or in a wedding, remember to give a little.