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The 20-Something Bridesmaid: Say yes to the bridesmaid dress

Posted by Alex Pearlman  May 6, 2012 05:00 PM

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bridesmaid dresses.jpgBy Bethany O'Meara

Perhaps the top thing that women associate with the task of being a bridesmaid -- even more so than taking part in the pre-wedding festivities or being in the wedding itself -- is the dress. It’s almost a tradition in and of itself for bridesmaids to worry about spending lots of money on an ”ugly” dress that they’ll only wear once.

Fortunately, modern brides are fairly conscious of the stigma attached to bridesmaid dresses, and given the recent trend towards cocktail party-appropriate selections from popular retailers like J. Crew and Ann Taylor, today’s bridesmaids have it better than ever before. Still, my advice for dress shopping is to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

Stop, collaborate, and listen. Before dress shopping commences, discuss your budget with the bride. Keep in mind that the going rate for bridesmaid dresses is around $100-$200, and you may need to pay extra to get it tailored. Also, make sure you’ve got the appropriate undergarments and shoes, both for when you’re playing dress-up and for The Big Day itself.

Above all, let the bride’s tastes and wedding theme guide the dress selection.

“The decision needs to be the bride’s; she doesn't need any extra pressure,” said Brita Vitello, a veteran bridesmaid and recent bride who searched for bridesmaid dresses that echoed the style and feel of her wedding dress. “Give honest opinions when asked, [but] otherwise, just wear it with a smile.”

However, if you’re legitimately uncomfortable -- physically or mentally -- in the dress, that’s worth bringing to the bride’s attention.

“I would talk to the bride individually and try to sincerely explain what's wrong,” Vitello said. “Don't cause extra drama!”

Even cookie-cutter bridesmaids need a little icing! Traditional brides who opt to have each bridesmaid wear the same dress are, luckily, mostly aware that the “clone bridesmaid” look is becoming passé.

“Every time you put two different-looking people in the same dress, there will always be noticeable differences,” said Simone Bauer, another recent bride and four-time bridesmaid.

Quite frankly, embracing each bridesmaid’s small differences will keep the wedding from looking dated 20 years down the road. Avoid becoming a cliché by retaining individual style when accessorizing and doing hair and makeup. We can’t all afford Christian Louboutins, but it’s worth investing in a nice pair of nude, metallic, and/or funky-colored shoes; they’re more hip than dyed-to-match satin heels and will go with multiple outfits. (It’s also worth noting that no one’s really going to be looking at your shoes anyways, unless the photographer takes one of those photos of everyone jumping in the air.)

Guidelines are a girl’s best friend. If you’re told to wear whatever dress you want, ask the bride for a few guidelines. Try to pick something appropriate for the time of year, time of day, and venue; you don’t want to show up in a shiny evening gown when everyone else is wearing a casual sundress, or vice versa. (On the other hand, if you’re one of 30 bridesmaids, feel free to wear pretty much whatever you want.)

“The goal is to find dresses we can wear again,” said bridesmaid-to-be Meredith Blake -- “nothing traditional, [and] no taffeta, crazy colors, or overwhelming amounts of fabric.”

color swatches.jpgLarger retailers like David’s Bridal make shopping by color easier by offering a range of figure-flattering styles available in multiple shades.

“All of the bridesmaids have very different personalities and body shapes, so it definitely helps us be more comfortable,” said Blake’s fellow bridesmaid Diana Kim.

Make peace with the idea of only wearing the dress once. It helps to go into the dress selection process assuming that you’ll never wear the dress again (though storing all such purchases in an overstuffed closet a la 27 Dresses is optional). Set your expectations low from the beginning -- Hello, Gone With the Wind-style ensemble! Nice to see you, hideous shade that can only be described as “vomit!” -- and you may be pleasantly surprised. You might even look so good that you put Pippa Middleton to shame!

If you’re struggling to find a way to wear an old bridesmaid dress, here are some options:

  • Throw a cute cardigan or jacket on top and wear it to work.
  • Wear it with statement jewelry pieces for a fancy date night, cocktail party, or a company holiday party.
  • Make it part of your Halloween or bar crawl costume.
  • If it’s a dark color, pull it out for a somber occasion.
  • If it’s stylish enough but really not your style, sell it on eBay or a specialty website like BridesmaidTrade.
  • Donate it! Take it to your local Goodwill or thrift shop, or bring it to an organization like NewlyMaid, which recycles bridesmaid dresses for a good cause. Or, if it’s a truly…uh, unique dress, consider gifting it to your local high school’s theater program.
  • Save it for children’s dress-up play, like Vitello said she plans to do for her daughter. You could even keep it for the bride’s future children -- or at least tell her that with a wink.

If you've been in a wedding, did you luck out and get an awesome bridesmaid dress? Or is it just sitting in the back of your closet collecting dust?

Check back to TNGG Boston each month as ‘The 20-Something Bridesmaid’ shares everything you’ll need to know to be the best bridesmaid you can be.

Photos by timothyhorrigan (top) and _rockinfree (bottom) (Flickr)

About Bethany -- I graduated from Northeastern not too long ago and decided to stick around Boston, but I'd like to continue traveling the world. In the meantime, I'll be checking out local bars, markets, and festivals. My expertise lies in Trader Joe's products and MBTA survival skills, among other things. Plaid catches my eye, French catches my ear, and videos of baby animals capture my heart. Twitter: @bethopolis

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This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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