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There is just one complicating detail. In reality, most contemporary bridesmaid dresses seem, on the hanger, to be objectively... sort of fine? "If you saw them on their own, they wouldn't be that ugly," observes Jen Doll, whose memoir Save the Date charts her experiences in and around a startling number of other people's weddings. "I don't know that they necessarily are ugly," Lucy Collins, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at FIT, tells me when I ask her about it. "It's so dependent on context." Plenty of wedding gowns are "hideously ugly," she points out, but we don't joke about those, because "that's a wedding dress." Whatever the bride wears, she is a princess. Whatever the bridesmaid wears, she is not.
Once, there wasn't much difference. Bridesmaid dresses have a long and storied history, full of gaps and contradictions. Until the 1880s, bridesmaids generally wore dresses identical to the bride's, a tradition that dates back to Ancient Rome. Historically, Cele C. Otnes and Elizabeth H. Pleck explain in Cinderella Dreams: The Allure of the Lavish Wedding, this served various practical purposes, such as confusing evil spirits, warding off potential kidnappers, and protecting the bride from the nefarious advances of her potentially rapacious groom. In identical dresses, bridesmaids weren't the bride's complementary cheerleaders; they were her decoys.
The idea that bridesmaids should look fundamentally distinct from the bride, but similar to each other — like backup dancers, or ladies-in-waiting, or sexy Easter eggs — didn't pick up until the later part of the 19th century, as brides became the stars of their increasingly pageant-like weddings. (Not that over-the-top weddings were some kind of radical new concept — during the Renaissance, laws had been enacted specifically to try to control consumption around weddings to prevent social climbing.) But thanks in part to a rise in detailed media coverage of weddings (think proto-Vows), Victorians were more aware than previous generations of what other, fancier people were doing, and — thanks to generally improved standards of living — middle-class families were increasingly likely to feel driven, or pressured, to copy it.
According to the 1865 nuptial guidebook The Etiquette of Courtship and Matrimony, bridesmaid dresses should "be as the depth of colouring in the background of a sun-lit picture." "The principal duty of the brides-maid is to look pretty, and not out-shine the bride," advised Rose Cleveland in The Social Mirror, her 1888 "Complete Treatise on the Laws, Rules and Usages that Govern Our Most Refined Homes and Social Circles." A 1920 issue of Vogue agreed that bridesmaids should look "charming, yet not too charming; distinctive, yet not too prominent."
Despite the precision of these specifications, there was a time — not so long ago, even! — when most bridesmaid dresses, for most people, would have been re-worn out of economic necessity. A single-use dress (distinctive, yet not too prominent as it may be) might have been "fine for wealthy people," Katherine Jellison, Professor of Sociology at Ohio University and author of It's Our Day: America's Love Affair with the White Wedding, wrote me, "but it only moved down into the middle and working class when folks on those rungs of the economic ladder acquired more disposable income" — likely not until after World War II. Today, says Kelsey Doorey, CEO and Founder of Vow to be Chic, which rents designer bridesmaid dresses, 86% of bridesmaid dresses (average price: $234) are worn exactly once.
The question of how charming, exactly, a bridesmaid should look is much discussed in etiquette guides, magazines, and, more recently, bridal message boards ("have you ever been to a wedding where the BRIDESMAIDS outshone the bride?" demands a thread on Wedding Bee. For the record, most Bees say they have not).
In these discussions, I keep hearing tales of brides who, in order to guarantee they won't be "outshone," pick intentionally appalling dresses. "How else to explain the profusions of plum-colored mushroom clouds, chintz Laura Ashley sofa prints, and flammable tents for two?" wondered Vogue. The problem with this theory is that I cannot find anyone, participant or historian, who will tell me it is true.
Though I talked to several former brides, I could not get any of them to admit they had intentionally sabotaged their bridesmaids to prevent them from being too resplendent. I turned where I turn in times of crisis, to Say Yes to the Dress: Bridesmaids, but I couldn't find one there either. I also could not find any former bridesmaids, even wedding-fatigued ones, who were willing to say they thought their wedded friends had intentionally chosen horrendous dresses. "At least in my experience, no bride has purposely tried to pick something ugly or bad," Doll says. She tells me about wearing a light blue J. Crew bridesmaid dress ("light and pretty") and a belted brown sateen one ("I guess aesthetically it wasn't ugly?").
The closest I came was an old Washington Post interview with Randy Fenoli, of Say Yes to the Dress fame, wherein he says he used to design bridesmaids dresses in the 90s, but stopped because people thought they were too attractive. "The brides came in, and they were like, 'Oh my god, look at these bridesmaid dresses they are beautiful, but I don't want them looking better than me.' And they turned around and went to the teal ruffled polyester dresses." I have no reason to doubt Randy Fenoli, a man for whom I feel a level of affection I usually reserve for members of my own family, but as a widespread explanation, this hypothesis is proving somewhat unpersuasive. Bridesmaids are supposedly people you like, which means that you generally want them to be happy, and also to keep speaking to you.
And yet, if pop culture reflects our anxieties back to us, then it is safe to say we are collectively terrified. On Friends, maid-of-honor Rachel is trapped in a humiliating Pepto-Bismol pink Barbie princess dreamdress; in My Best Friend's Wedding, the bridesmaids who are not Julia Roberts are decked out pink-and-mustard high-low dresses with bubble skirts. Not content with a single ugly bridesmaid dress, 27 Dresses features 27 of them. Tropes do not generate themselves spontaneously; the plum-colored mushroom clouds exist.
But if bridesmaid dresses, on the whole, are not uniquely unappealing — a mixed bag, but hardly a guaranteed crisis — then why do they inspire so much dread?
"One dress doesn't look good on everybody no matter what," Doll says, citing the obvious logistical problem of putting a bunch of different bodies in the same outfit and then parading them around. Some people can pull off cinched waists, or halters, or dusty rose better than others: it is a painful fact of life. Bridesmaid dresses invite an ongoing game of who wore it better, and the problem with this game is that someone always loses.
"When you go buy a dress for yourself, you're factoring in so many things that you know about yourself," says Collins. "Your body, your style, what you like, your budget, your comfort. But in the case of a bridesmaid dress, it very much is a uniform." Clothing, for everyone, but for women especially, is a powerful a mode of self-expression. And when you're robbed of choice, she suggests, "the garment itself becomes something hollow." To wear the same thing someone else is wearing is a clear and alarming reminder that you are not, in fact special. In a bridesmaid dress, your identity as an independent person is subsumed in taffeta. You exist exclusively in relation to the bride.
This is a certainly a repeated refrain in bridesmaid advice books, which exist in frightening numbers. "Your bridesmaid's dress is a costume in a production, not an expression of who you are," chides tough-loving maiding guide, The Bridesmaid's Manual. "A bridesmaid should remember her avowed duty it is to be supportive of the bride's notions," concurs You Can Wear It Again, a showcase of dresses "real brides have selected on behalf of their supporting cast."
Bridesmaid dresses, of course, are an expression of identity — just not the identity of the people actually required to wear them. They are an organza manifestation of the personality and taste of the happy couple, like the food, or the music, or the succulents-as-centerpieces. It can be infantilizing, says Doll, pointing out that the last time most of us were dressed as an extension of someone else's taste was when we were, well, actual children. "I don't think it's purposeful," she adds. "But it can feel like that."
Theoretically, the dramatic rise of mix-and-match bridesmaid dresses — a halter, a strapless, and a one-shoulder! Assorted shades of lavender! — should be a suitable compromise, even if it is slightly reminiscent of Destiny's Child circa "Survivor." The bride gets her vision; the bridesmaids get reasonably flattering outfits that allow for some modicum of personality, to answer the question, "is your core essence best expressed by a halter dress, or a one-shoulder gown?" Back in 2013, the New York Times celebrated the fall of the bridesmaid uniform and the rise of the "soignée" party dress. Doorey, too, says she's noticed a marked uptick of mix-and-match in the last five years. These days, she tells me, most of the weddings she sees have "some element" of customization, which allows everyone to feel "comfortable" and "beautiful" on "the big day."
It is hard to imagine this isn't true. And yet the promise of flexibility didn't make anyone I talked to happy, either. ("It's almost more frustrating," Collins tells me, "because it's the illusion of choice.") No matter how gorgeous the dress and how flattering the cut, the chances that a bridesmaid is actually going to re-wear it — contrary the heart-felt insistence of once and future brides nationwide — are minimal (With exceptions! I know!).
The problem, like Collins said, is context. As the books say, they're costumes for the "supporting cast." There can be something really lovely about this — the point of contemporary bridesmaids is quite literally to offer support, not only for the wedding, but also for the marriage itself. But afterward, the dresses, however sophisticated, carry the baggage of their past. At its core, that's the problem: Nobody wants to be the supporting character in their own life.