Bridesmaid survival guide
For modern weddings, the role of a 'maid has expanded beyond simply planning the hen party and helping the bride with her dress. Here, Claire O’Mahony asks the experts what today's chosen ones can expect from the experience…
Being asked to be a bridesmaid can provoke some conflicted emotions. While there’s joy at what is truly a token of your friend’s love and esteem for you, thoughts can then rapidly turn to the practicalities of the role.
Horror stories of bridezillas writing contracts for their bridesmaids whereby they must promise not to put on weight or drink more than a certain amount of alcohol at the wedding, and friendships ending over unreasonable behaviour on both sides also contribute to the fear that it could all go horribly wrong. However, you can navigate potential minefields from the beginning by laying ground rules and making some decisions early on.
Do I have to say yes?
The expert opinion on this is that while you don’t have to accept an invitation to be a bridesmaid, your excuse for declining had better be good. “Every bride wants everything to run smoothly and they don’t want hitches, so they sit down with the dream list of what they want, what they can afford and who they want to invite,” says Jillian Bolger, the editor of The Vow magazine. “Bridesmaids are top of that list so I think unless you have a very legitimate excuse like pregnancy or a sick relative, you should accept. I think it’s an honour to be asked and to be given a star role in someone’s big day and sickness, death or distance should be the only reasons you can’t make it work.”
Orla Brosnan, founder and director of Etiquette School of Ireland, believes that there are ways around it, if taking on the role is not for you. “You might be really busy in work, had a baby or other factors that make you not suitable. You mightn’t be able to afford it and there’s a lot of expense on bridesmaids in terms of cost of dress, jewellery etc,” she says. “But there are other ways of helping the bride, either before the wedding or on the day itself.”
I’m worried she’ll put me in a meringue
Stories about hideous bridesmaid dresses are endemic, and if it’s a case that your friend would like to see you don a taffeta concoction for her Big Day, urge her to look at the bigger picture — literally. “Brides will say I don’t want my bridesmaid to look too good and I will tell them that you’re the bride, you’re the one in the wedding dress, you’re the star of the show here and it doesn’t matter what they’re wearing,” says wedding and event planner Tara Fay. “If you had a beautiful picture, would you put it in an unattractive frame? By putting it in a beautiful frame, you’re only enhancing what’s inside it, so by having bridesmaids that complement your wedding dress and having hair and make-up that complements yours, you’re only making yourself look better.”
She adds: “It’s incumbent on brides to take on board that if the bridesmaid isn’t comfortable in what they’re wearing, they’re going to look uncomfortable in the photos and the bride will look at those forever and think ‘Why did I have her?’”
“It’s being about treading carefully and explaining gently that you’d prefer to look at other options and there is a diplomatic way to handle it,” says Jillian Bolger. “Of course the bride gets final veto on the decision about the dress but it’s good to let the bridesmaids decide. Give them a colour palette or style, such as everyone wearing strapless, and within that you can work with it, so that someone could wear a shrug if they’re not comfortable being exposed. I think a bride needs to offer flexibility.”
I'm not sure what the expectations are
No two weddings are the same, but the key role of any bridesmaid is to be a pillar of support and emotional rock for the bride on the day, and in the months and weeks leading up to the ceremony. From attending dress fittings, to spending weekends looking at hair jewels, giving advice on guest seating, invitations and food, and planning the hen party to the actual duties on the day itself — including helping the bride go to the toilet and having emergency plasters in your clutch bag — it can seem as though a bridesmaid’s work is never done. And the only person who can advise you on what your role is to be is the bride.
Wedding and event planner Tara Fay advises that brides need to be very clear in explaining what they expect from their bridesmaids. “Some people just want the bridesmaid to turn up and be there on the day; sometimes it’s a more subliminal message of what they want, but they don’t actually tell their bridesmaids and then that’s where the problems start, and sometimes they’re really specific,” she says. “Brides need to communicate what they want the bridesmaids to do. Do you want them to organise your hen night? Do you want to know about it or not? And if they are organising then you have to let them do it and you can’t keep asking about it. Do you expect them to fly halfway around the world to your dress fittings with you or to lose 2st?”
According to Cathy O’ Shea, Wedding Executive at The Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin, bridesmaids have become more involved in the wedding planning process in recent times. “Bridesmaids now come in for consultations for the couples,” she says. “They support the couples by attending menu tastings, floral consultations and many other aspects of pre-wedding day preparations.” She suggests that bridesmaids should know the timings for the day and be familiar with the venue. “I have found that it is a great help when certain jobs are delegated to the bridesmaids, such as rounding up guests for family photos, mingling with guests, making sure the parents of the couple are being looked after and enjoying the day,” she says. “My top tip for all bridesmaids out there is to have a bag with bride essential items, for example hair clips, baby wipes, lipstick and tissues.”
The Vow’s Jillian Bolger believes that social media has made the job of being a modern bridesmaid more difficult. “If you were to roll back pre-mobile phones you’d have arrangements to meet up on a Saturday and go looking for dresses or scouting shoes and venues,” she says. “Nowadays a bride can be on Pinterest in bed at 1am and find something she likes and your WhatsApp is pinging in the middle of the night. It’s harder for bridesmaids to take a break and say, ‘We’ll talk about your wedding at the weekend’. Once you’re hired for the gig, I think there’s a 24/7 expectation there that when I send you a message about the wedding I’m expecting you to get back to me. It’s a bigger job than it was before because it’s more demanding, even if you have a low-key bride.”
I’m not sure I can afford all of this
It’s quite common that brides will pay for their bridesmaids’ dresses and hair and make-up, but it’s not a universal. Even if they do pay out for these, there are other associated costs from accessories, transport, hen parties, gifts and more. Conversations about finances can be uncomfortable but Etiquette School of Ireland’s Orla Brosnan says honesty is the best policy. “If you can’t afford the €500 dress or the €100 make-over, you absolutely say, ‘This is what I can afford to pay’. Have a chat with the other bridesmaids to come up with a budget at the very start — put money together and see what you can come up with.”
Similarly, if the hen night is turning into a money pit, with the bride suggesting a girlie getaway in Ibiza or Berlin, Jillian Bolger suggests gently guiding the bride on this. “If you want it to be a celebration of your best pals and you want it to be something special, there are loads of great things you can do in Ireland instead of jumping on a plane. Once you throw a plane into the mix, even if it’s Ryanair, it’s instantly another hundred quid,” she says. “The best thing to do is to say, ‘What would you love to do and who are you going to invite?’ and if you have to, explain that this group of people isn’t going to be able to afford that. Bridesmaids need to be vocal about this.”
Where will I find the time?
Experienced bridesmaids will agree that taking on the role can be a very time-consuming affair, and that if you are time-constrained, to alert the bride to this when you’re asked. “Make sure from the outset to explain to her that maybe if she has a list of tasks, you can take on one or two but you can’t take it on full-time and be very honest about the amount of time that you can spend with her. If she’s happy with that, that’s fine,” says Orla Brosnan.
It’s part of a bridesmaid’s job to be on this journey with her friend, and that may necessitate taking some measures to ensure that you don’t become overcome with wedding fatigue. “I think in the beginning everyone is carried away and excited and we all want to talk about the wedding — when are you going to do it, what do you think you’ll wear. As the time wears on, six months into it and that momentum is lost, maybe not for the bride but for other people involved,” says Jillian Bolger. “A demanding bride can put a strain on everyone and I think it’s important that the women decide, ‘We are going to go out on Saturday night for drinks and we’re not talking weddings’, in the same way we might say we’re not talking about kids or the new baby or the job that you’re obsessed with. I recommend time out from wedding talk for brides and their grooms as well.”
How can I be the best bridesmaid ever?
Wedding planner Tara Fay believes it’s important for bridesmaids to have patience, to listen and don’t give an opinion unless asked for it — and then give it sparingly. “I get away with saying a lot of things because I’m an impartial adviser and they’re not going to hold it against me. But for a bridesmaid to say, ‘You should consider those Spanx’ is not going to go down well.”
Jillian Bolger advises that even if the bride is having a meltdown about something, to remember that it all comes together on the day. “I’ve read every story under the sun about disastrous weddings days. For my own wedding, my priest was incommunicado for a week, the peony crop in the Netherlands was damaged so I couldn’t get the flowers I wanted for my bouquet and two weeks before my wedding, my pregnant bridesmaid didn’t fit into her dress.
“The bottom line is everything goes ahead, the wedding will happen and if there’s a blip on the master-plan the bride and groom have to remember that they’re the only ones who knew the master-plan, so once they keep the cool head, the show goes on,” she says.
“A bridesmaid has to be a calmer voice and help find a solution. Anything — apart from a dress not showing up in time or a wedding venue going bust — is surmountable and tweakable, and the bridesmaid needs to get the bride up the aisle looking and feeling calm.”