The custom of having female attendants is probably as old as marriage itself. Its actual origins are entangled in folklore. As one story goes, a bride in early England would surround herself with friends -- dressed in outfits identical to her own -- to confuse evil spirits that might want to curse her happiness. In another, bridesmaids escorted the bride to the wedding to protect her from marauders after her dowry. Bridesmaids are no longer chosen for protection, of course, but yours will still play a prominent role on your special day. That means you should select them carefully.
Nicole Mau of Rochester, New York, asked her sister, her fiance's sisters, and six of her girlfriends to be her bridesmaids for her September 2001 wedding. "I chose those people I was closest to at that point in my life -- not necessarily the ones I had known longest," she says. Traditionally, the bride selects the sister nearest to her in age as her key attendant, the maid of honor (or matron of honor if the role is fulfilled by a married woman). But a younger or older sister, another relative, or a best friend is an equally acceptable choice. Some brides even ask a male friend or relative to serve in this role; he is then called a man of honor or honor attendant. If you have more than one sister or do not wish to choose between two close friends, consider inviting both to be maids of honor and splitting the duties between them. And though not required, it makes for good family relations to invite at least one of the groom's sisters to be a bridesmaid.
The number of attendants you have will depend on both the size of your circle of friends and the tone of your wedding. A small, informal gathering may call for just a maid of honor, while a large, formal wedding could have a dozen bridesmaids. Having four to six bridesmaids is common. Often the bride's and groom's attendants are evenly paired, but that is not crucial. If the numbers are uneven, some ushers can escort a bridesmaid on each arm, or the women can walk down the aisle together or single file. You may also have junior bridesmaids -- girls between the ages of 8 and 14, who are too old to be flower girls but still too young to be bridesmaids. Their only duty is to walk in the procession.
As for the attendants' responsibilities, each bride's desires are different. You may simply want your bridesmaids to be with you at the altar, or you might have them assist with every step of the planning. In the months that lead up to the ceremony, the maid of honor typically accompanies the bride when she shops for her wedding gown and the bridesmaids' dresses, and she may take the lead in organizing the bridal shower. On the wedding day, she will supervise the members of the wedding party and help the bride change into her dress. Bridesmaids may help scout out dresses, research hotels, and co-host a shower if the maid of honor is unable to do so. On the wedding day, bridesmaids often gather guests for the couple's first dance, greet people in the receiving line, and look after elderly relatives and friends.
Be clear about which duties you expect your bridesmaids to perform when asking them to get involved. This helps avoid any snags in your wedding plans, as well as the awkwardness that could result from a bad experience.
To give your potential bridesmaids ample time to prepare, contact them shortly after you announce your engagement. Ideally, you should offer the invitation in person, but if geography prevents such a face-to-face meeting, a phone call or letter can suffice. When Jenny Davis of Chicago was planning her April 2000 wedding, one of her potential bridesmaids lived twelve hundred miles away. "Though I couldn't be there in person, I sent her a bouquet of flowers with a card asking her to be in my wedding party, and then followed up with a telephone call," says Davis. "She is my closest friend from college, so she knew she would be asked, but I still wanted to make the invitation special." E-mail invitations, even if they are carefully worded, are too informal and impersonal. But once the wedding party is assembled, e-mail is an efficient way to keep the bridesmaids up-to-date on the progress of your wedding plans. No matter how you choose to communicate, make sure all the bridesmaids have one another's contact information so they can connect if they need to.
Though you hope everyone you ask will be excited to be a bridesmaid, it's important to remember that some people may not be able to take on the responsibility and should be given the opportunity to decline politely. Make it clear that you will understand if your friend or relative cannot or would rather not play such a role in your wedding.
Be aware that financial concerns may influence a potential bridesmaid's decision. The cost -- which ordinarily includes a dress and matching shoes -- may be too expensive for some people, especially if they're coming to the wedding from out of town (attendants are usually expected to pay for their own travel and lodging). To help keep her bridesmaids' expenses down, Mau was deliberately cost-conscious when shopping for her bridesmaids' ensembles, and chose dresses that would be more likely to be worn again. "And the bridesmaids could wear whatever shoes they wanted as long as they matched the dress," she says.
If cost is an overriding factor, you may consider paying for part or all of the travel expenses or buying the bridesmaids' ensembles. Minda Zetlin, who married
in Purling, New York, in October 2000, says, "I was happy to cover some of the travel and clothing expenses for my bridesmaids, as my gift to them, because the costs may have been a hardship." If one bridesmaid needs more help than the others, no one except you and she needs to know the special arrangements.
Unless your wedding party is very large, you probably won't be able to include everyone you would like to ask. Discuss the issue immediately with any close friends or relatives who might have hurt feelings. Be honest about why you are not including them -- perhaps you've decided to ask only family members.
If you want those people to be part of the wedding, consider inviting them to serve in alternate roles, such as reading a selection of poetry or lighting a candle at the ceremony. Treat these special helpers with a little extra care: "I gave my helpers equal billing to the wedding party in the program," says Davis. "We listed each person's name, where they lived, and how they knew the bride or groom." You may also want to order each helper a corsage or boutonniere and give a small gift to show your appreciation.
It's customary, in fact, to give each of your bridesmaids a thank-you present, such as a beautiful date book or a box of spa items. Accessories that can be worn at the wedding, such as a wrap or necklace, are popular too; just make sure they're items that can be used again -- dyed-to-match shoes aren't much of a gift.
Of course, your bridesmaids will likely agree that the most meaningful and lasting gesture is being asked to fill such an important role on your wedding day.