Choosing your bridesmaids! Easy, right? Um, not so much. For some brides, it’s a simple decision, but for many, the whole bridal party selection process can be a huge source of stress. It’s supposed to be fun, but you only have to watch an episode of Say Yes to the Dress: Bridesmaids to see evidence of how easily tensions can creep their way in. And that’s when you also throw in who’s going to be maid of honour and what you’re going to dress them in. For me, your bridal party are a HUGE part of the day (in fact, it’s the only part of my hypothetical wedding that I’ve ever really thought about – forget the dream dress or decor, if George Clooney proposed tomorrow, I just know who I’d want standing up with me). They’re your special witnesses, the people you’ve chosen to go through your life-changing experience with a front row seat. It’s an affirmation of friendship or family bonds, and a chance to make new memories. Those are all good things. So how do you get past the tricky bits in choosing your bridal party? Here are my top tips and advice for picking an all star supporting cast.
First, and most important, unless you’re 100% sure, take your time. Don’t allow yourself to be rushed into a decision, and don’t let people pressure you. If friends ask, simply say you’re reviewing the budget before you make any decisions and DEFINITELY don’t ask anyone on an obligation whim, just because you feel put on the spot. Remember, there are no takebacks. Firing someone as your bridesmaid is plain hurtful, so you want to really be sure before you make any offers. (Note of sense – take your time doesn’t mean leaving it till the last minute – you have to give your girls a chance to make plans.)
Once you’ve given yourself some breathing room, there are a few key elements that will factor into your decision…
Budget: Ever noticed how American bridal parties seem so much bigger in size? Well, that’s partly down to the fact that across the pond they pay for their own dresses. In South Africa, as in the UK, we tend to pay for dresses (and sometimes travel or accommodation) for our bridesmaids, although nothing is ever a hard and fast rule. So depending on what you want your girls to wear, that can have a sizeable impact on the wedding day budget. Not forgetting that you’ll also need to pay for bouquets, accessories, gifts and possibly hair and/or makeup multiplied by the number of ladies in the party. So it really does make sense to look at the budget before you make any decisions. Of course, if you’re happy to choose relaxed sundresses and baby’s breath bouquets over ballgowns and peonies, even budget brides can have all the friends they want included, but it is something to think about. (And in case you’re wondering how many is too many? Twelve plus is definitely too many. Just ask your photographer.)
Friends vs Family: I have quite a few friends with two or more sisters and in some ways, I envy them. They had a ready made bridal party, and no friends were ever offended by not being asked. Assuming you get on well, it’s one way to make the decision simple. But what if you and your sister aren’t close? I think it’s perfectly acceptable to have friends only if this is the case, but if you’re inviting one sister into the mix, it should be all of them to avoid hurt feelings (remember, these people will always be in your life!). Equally, if you have a great relationship with your future sister in law or another family member on either your side or the groom’s, that can be another fantastic choice, but don’t do it out of obligation.
Length of friendship: It’s not a perfect indicator, but as a general rule, I’d advise picking long-time friends over newer ones. Remember how I said I’d know exactly who to ask from my own friends? Well, that list would have looked a little different in my twenties, and there’s no question that over time some friendships grow roots while others need to be let go of, or just scaled back. Time isn’t a guarantee, but it’s a pretty good indicator. I know one bride who had a close group of friends from school but decided to ask a new work friend so she didn’t have too many bridesmaids – a friend she’s now no longer in contact with, while the school friends are still as close as ever. It makes for some awkward questions when her kids look at the photo album!
Politics: In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m not a fan of obligation being a deciding factor, but I recognise that there are all kinds of family and friendship politics that can make this a minefield. Do what’s in your heart. When it comes to reciprocity etiquette – if someone asked you to be her bridesmaid, you aren’t obligated to ask her back. There may be some hurt feelings to deal with (see below for how to break the news) but if you barely speak these days, there’s nothing wrong with choosing someone else. As for family drama… you need to weigh up whether the consequences of not asking outweigh the consequences of having a particular personality in the mix. Another aspect is existing groups – sometimes these can make it easier (say, by asking your circle of university friends) because it’s a ready made ‘pack’ with working dynamics, but you don’t HAVE to ask one friend just because you’ve asked another. Especially if it’s clear that you’re closer to one of them. (See the How To on telling them below…)
Practicality: Bridesmaids ‘duties’ are many (see our breakdown here) although this also varies from one bride to the next. Do you expect your girls to spend night after night folding paper cranes with you? Plan a huge, expensive Vegas hen weekend? Be at every dress fitting? Or simply be available to share the excitement over the phone, offer support and advice, and show up on the day looking pretty? If it’s the last option, then no worries, but if you have higher expectations, you’ll want to take logistical aspects like location and lifestyle into account, including their budgets and issues like pregnancy, small children, etc. You don’t have to discount your less practical or available friends, but be sure that everyone has a clear idea of what’s expected of them, and give them each the job that fits. And it definitely helps to have at least one bridesmaid who will be enthusiastic about helping (that’s your maid of honour, right there).
Alternatives: Don’t be afraid to throw tradition out of the window. Perhaps you don’t want to have any bridesmaids at all? Do it. (One of my friends did this, but she invited a few close friends to help her dress on the morning, which worked perfectly for her.) Maybe you have a close guy friend? Nothing stopping you from declaring him a bridesman. Or maybe you’d like two maids of honour instead of just the one? No problem. Or why not just have flower girls, instead of adult bridesmaids a la Kate Moss? Do whatever is right for you.
Add all of the above together, and hopefully it’ll start to make sense, but if you’re still stumped, take a moment to be honest with yourself. When you imagine getting married, which faces do you picture up there with you? I’ll bet there’s one or two that immediately come to mind. So stop there. Keep it simple. If you’re questioning asking someone, you probably shouldn’t.
So, let’s say you’ve made your decision. You’ve maybe even come up with a fun way to ask the girls (or guys) you’ve chosen (see our own DIY roundup here). Here comes the hard part…
How to NOT ask someone to be your bridesmaid
Some years ago, one of my friends got married and her husband limited her BM dress budget to four. She had four close school friends, and two had already got married and picked the rest of the group as their bridesmaids, so they were the obvious choice. She approached myself and another close university friend and told us her reasons for not asking us, and that she loved us, and wanted us to be part of her day. And that was that – no upset. In fact, if I look back, I know I had much more fun as a guest, as it meant that we spent the night with our bigger varsity group instead of ‘on duty’ (and I would totally still ask her to be one of my BMs!). Remember – being a guest is an honour in itself, and many of your friends will be happy to enjoy the day with you in this capacity, or perhaps with a special duty like doing a reading or handing out programmes. What really hurts friendship is doubt and rejection – feeling that you’ve invested more in the relationship than the other person. Make it clear that this isn’t the case, and most friends and family members will be understanding.