Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Bridesmaid's Guide: The Origins

"I'm engaged!"

These are two of the most powerful and emotionally charged words you'll ever hear come out of a friend's mouth. For you, these words are fraught with excitement, anticipation ...

"I want you to be a bridesmaid!"
... and dread.

We all know what it means to be someone's bridesmaid. Many of us have done it before, others have just heard the stories. Tales of matching dresses in horrific colors with uncomfortable shoes dyed to match. Bad hairdos and expensive bridal showers. Humiliating moments of being paraded down a long aisle like some child's poorly dressed dolls. Other people's relatives staring, pointing, sometimes groping. A florid-faced uncle urging you to jump higher to catch the bouquet so you don't end up a spinster. Oh, what joy! So, you reply with:
"What an honor! I'd love to be your bridesmaid!"

Contrary to most people's beliefs, the bridesmaid's place in the wedding ceremony is much more important than just marching down the aisle and serving as decorative filler in photos. Bridesmaids serve an extremely useful and critical function in the wedding ceremony and the engagement period leading up to it.

As far back as the ancient Greeks, the bridesmaids' place in the wedding ceremony was celebrated for the joy and happiness they contributed to the event. In the days of antiquity, most women were married by the time they turned sixteen; the first bridesmaids were a group of older married women (old biddies of at least 24 or 25) who escorted the young, inexperienced bride to the ceremony as well as throughout the marriage process. Since just about everything served some symbolic purpose to the Greeks, it was believed that if fertile, happily married women escorted the young bride, their good fortune would extend to her. This entourage was also believed to stave off evil spirits until the marriage was completed.

In Anglo-Saxon times, it was considered "unmaidenly" for a bride to enter into marriage willingly and it was common practice for prospective brides to be "captured" by their future husbands. Hence, it was necessary (if only for maintaining appearances) for a bride to gather her friends to protect her from this possibility. These early bridesmaids helped fend off inappropriate suitors or, if the bride preferred, aided the groom's efforts in whatever way possible, while still maintaining the facade of unwillingness. Conversely, the best man was a friend of the groom who helped him capture the object of his affections. As it was possible in those days of reaping and sowing that the young woman might have a brother the size of a linebacker, it was necessary for a marriage-minded man to choose the "best man" for the job. So the earliest "best men" were often quite strapping (not exactly bad news for the bridesmaids).

Celebrity Trivia: When Elizabeth Taylor walked down the aisle a seventh time in 1991 to wed contractor Larry Fortensky, she called upon New Age guru Marianne Williamson to serve as a bridesmaid.


Nowadays, with so many men opting for an a la carte lifestyle rather than the commitment of a prix fixe meal, fewer brides need assistance fleeing from a determined suitor. Because the function of the bridesmaid has changed so dramatically over the centuries, it is necessary to redefine her duties as they pertain to the realities of today's society. If you're lucky, you'll sulk have to fend off hulking young men in the name of virtue at the reception, but your new official task is to perform a range of services and functions that will assist the bride through the modern marriage process. You are a member of her crisis management team, her advisory council, and her social committee. She will cry on your shoulder, call upon and disregard your good taste when making decisions about color schemes and flower arrangements, and expect you to dance with her sweaty-palmed second cousin. But you love her and you have to say yes.

As a bride prepares to commit herself to sharing the rest of her life with one man, she calls upon her closest loved ones to assist her. Whereas the bride has a choice when asked the question that will lead her to the altar, the friend or relative asked to participate in the ceremony as a maid of honor or bridesmaid cannot say no. (If you fancy yourself a rebel, go directly to "Just Say No.") It is considered an honor to be offered a supporting role in the big event, yet it is the rare bride who realizes how much she is actually asking of her friend or relative.
The bridesmaid is an emotional ballast, a troubleshooter, and a hostess. The wedding celebration is a momentous occasion; participating in the ceremony and related festivities entails a significant investment, both financially and emotionally. Ideally, the resulting memories will justify the necessary expenditure and the often accompanying stress. While spending money on travel, the bridesmaid dress, matching shoes and accessories, and gifts is usually unavoidable, knowing in advance exactly what is expected of you during your term as a bridesmaid will help to reduce this stress. It's also not a bad idea to find out as soon as possible who the other recruits are—before you agree to dress like them, coordinate schedules with them, and march with them.

Superstitions/Traditions: Bridesmaids and ushers dress alike (preferably similar to the bride and groom) because it is supposed to confuse any evil spirits who are intent on harming the bride and groom. The tradition also evolved because wedding processions in Europe used to run from the Bride's home, through the village. Dressing alike insured that if the wedding party ran into a jilted ex, he wouldn't know on whom to put "the whammy."

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