Here it is: your big debut as a hostess, and just look at the guest list. With his Aunt Wilma, your boss, and that poet your college roommate is dating, there's a crazy quilt of personalities—crazier than most hostesses would dare to entertain. But that's exactly what makes weddings (and all the gatherings that go with it) so wonderful and terrifying to pull off.
So how do you, a modern, busy woman, suddenly become "a hostess of charm," to borrow a 1920s turn of phrase? The answer lies in warmth, wit, and a little advice from some of our favorite party givers, women who think nothing of hosting a dinner for 12 or a gala for 500.
"Be yourself and don't struggle to impress people," counsels Memphis, TN-based wedding designer Pat Kerr. "A party can be simple or elaborate, but its graciousness is most clearly reflected through its genuineness."
"Think of all the little things that will make everyone comfortable," says Alexandra Stoddard, a decorator and author of over 20 inspirational books. Leave scented soaps and teas in guests' hotel rooms. Welcome friends and family by setting out a plate of cookies, a pitcher of lemonade, a silver bowl of pistachio nuts—a little something that will help guests take the edge off their travel stress and relax into the specialness of the day. The more of yourself you can weave into a party, the more your guests will feel as though they've spent time with you, not just attended a cookie-cutter event.
If you love pansies or narcissi, set them out in pots as table centerpieces, something New York decorator Bunny Williams likes to do. If you're proud to be from Kentucky or New Orleans or Texas, serve local specialties, such as a Pimm's Cup, crustless chicken sandwiches, or jalapeño cornbread. If you're traveling to Paris on your honeymoon, name the tables "Tour Eiffel," "Arc de Triomphe," and "Nôtre-Dame" instead of numbering them One, Two, and Three.
When it comes to tending to guests, a bride has two goals—to make sure everyone has a good time—and that you do, too. "If a bride wants to enjoy her wedding and not just watch it on video, she can't do all a hostess normally does," explains New York caterer Serena Bass. Which is why, she says, brides need to enlist help. Typically those best equipped to assist are a mother, a mother-in-law, a caterer, or a party planner. But help can also come from friends, relatives, and bridesmaids:
Assign your best friend from high school to someone who's single and might not have anyone to dance with; ask your cousin to look out for a visitor from afar who will need help with directions; get your brother to keep tabs on that aging uncle who has trouble with stairs.
To encourage mingling, plan an activity. Mary Cleaver, a New York caterer who specializes in serving organic foods, tells of one wedding where a Polaroid camera was set up on a tripod so guests could take pictures of themselves and write something for an album.
Angele Parlange, a designer known for her New Orleans parties, gets the conversation going with clever place cards. At a party for her cousin, she played up the fact that the groom was a dedicated outdoorsman by making eight-inch-tall silhouettes of a hunter and setting one at the place of each male guest. For the women, she cut out a glamorous girl, dangled a tiny purse from one arm, and decorated her with a jeweled necklace.
You can also break the ice by setting out pictures of the bride and groom when they were children. For her son's wedding, Peri Wolfman, vice president of product development for Williams-Sonoma and author of numerous entertaining books, paired photos of the bride and groom at ages one, three, nine, and so on. "You can put the name of a guest and table number on the back of each picture frame and have this be a party favor," says Wolfman, who points out another benefit of doing this: You can confirm who's sitting across the table from you. "How many times have you forgotten the name of someone you've just been introduced to?" she asks.
Of course, the classic way to make a party memorable is to perform dinner-table alchemy and arrange for the artist in the crowd to sit next to the architect, for the uncle who hitchhiked through Europe to meet the young international entrepreneur. "I like a seated meal, because it's an opportunity to mix people up," says Williams, who believes in the surprise of combining different families and, more important, seating the young with the old. "I worry that people don't do it enough," she says.
In planning your seating—especially if you have a sizable guest list—allow yourself at least a week to perfect your table assignments, says Selwa Roosevelt, former chief of protocol at the White House. For the benefits she hosts, Roosevelt makes a seating chart with one circle for each table. She writes guests' names on gender-coded pink-and-blue tabs that let her quickly calculate a table's male-to-female ratio. "I arrange my tabs and go away. Each time I come back and see something I hadn't seen before," says Roosevelt. She advises working carefully with your fiancé to make sure everyone has the best possible dinner partner.
Among the seating questions you'll need to consider is whether to place husbands and wives at the same table—at sophisticated parties, they are never seated side by side and are often at different tables—and whether you want to keep the bridal party together or split it up. "Use your feeling about what would make a good party," advises Roosevelt. "But don't be afraid to mix things up."
In planning your wedding, keep in mind that older people may want to leave at an hour you consider early. Encourage them to linger by designating an area apart from all the noise for them to sit, have coffee, and chat. When Bass caters weddings, she makes sure the speakers are turned away from one corner of the room. If possible, she furnishes it with comfortable chairs and sofas.
The success of a wedding stems from a thousand thoughtful details, from an adequately staffed coat check to hair dryers in the ladies' room. The quality of the food, the choice of music, and the beauty of the cake are all important. But what counts most is an atmosphere of warmth and welcome. "It's the giving of yourself," says Kerr, "that makes a gracious bride."