Bridesmaids Enjoy the Honor, Pause Over Costs

It's not good manners to talk expenses, but the dress, the gift, and the travel add up

In June, thousands of women will be hearing wedding bells. But a good number of them won't be saying "I do" - they'll be standing up as bridesmaids.

Approximately 2.4 million weddings take place annually in the United States, with June being the most popular month. Not all couples choose traditional ceremonies, of course, but when you consider that the average number of bridesmaids per wedding is five, there's a whole lot of aisle-walking going on.

Being chosen as a bridesmaid is an honor, and it's often an enjoyable experience. But the cost of being a bridesmaid - especially if you're asked to participate in more than one wedding a year - has gone up. Today, weddings are more likely to involve travel by most if not all of the wedding party. The bride is likely to be older (the average age has crept up to 25.6), better established in her career, and her friends more scattered than they were after college graduation.

Check the expense list: the dress, shoes, travel (sometimes for the shower, fittings, and ceremony), accommodations, shower gift, and wedding gift. Extras include dress alterations, undergarments, and accessories.

As for the dress, everyone knows the clichd scenario, it's even on a television commercial for Keds: The bride unveils a polyester eyesore and exclaims, "You can wear it again."

"Wear it again? Oh pleeeeese, let's not kid ourselves," says Laura DaSilva, who recently traveled from Boston to Santa Clara, Calif., to be in a formal wedding. "The only thing I wore again were the black shoes I got to pick out."

Sarah Stein, co-author with Lucy Talbot of "The Bridesmaid's Guerrilla Handbook" (Berkley, 1997) knows this territory well, having been a bridesmaid seven times. "People love to complain," she says. "But if you love your friend, it's worth it."

Beleaguered bridesmaids sometimes overlook the emotions associated with the bride's choice of attendants and their attire. Certainly trying to please everyone (including dear old mom) can put a bee in any bride's bustle.

For a bridesmaid to decline, however, is considered taboo.

When Ms. DaSilva's friend asked her to be in the wedding, for example, she responded honestly by saying, "I'm not sure if I can afford both the flight and what's entailed in being a bridesmaid." Her friend took offense. "It was almost as if our friendship was on the line," recalls DaSilva, who is putting herself through graduate school. Her participation in the wedding served as her gift to the couple.

"The whole basis for friendship and partnership and success is open, honest communication," says Cele Lalli, editor-in-chief for Modern Bride magazine. If it's such an emotional and financial burden, a true friend would understand, she says.

According to Ms. Lalli, brides have made a concerted effort to address bridesmaids' No.1 complaint. "The dreaded dress - that never seems to go anywhere except the closet - has changed. Dresses are much more likely to have life after the wedding," she says. Special-occasion dresses, such as a sleek, black, spaghetti-strapped dress, have gained in popularity, she says.

Lalli eschews wedding-party rules that would confine. No one says you have to have an equal number of bridesmaids and groomsmen, for example. "Nothing is written in stone," she says, reminding that traditions were established long ago and reflected the times and social status of those who established them.

Meghan Metzemaekers, who has been a bridesmaid six times and who had seven bridesmaids in her own wedding, says your outlook depends on how close you are to the bride.

"When you're a bridesmaid for your sister, it's tons of fun, you're more involved, and have more say in the dress. I've enjoyed being in weddings for girlfriends but it's different; it's a lot of money."

Susan Cross, who was recently a first-time bridesmaid, says that women should examine their motives. "I felt honored by doing it - standing up there was really meaningful," she says. "It's a shame that someone would ever feel badly about doing it. If it's done right it is so much fun. The money shouldn't matter. The reason you do it is this person is important to you."

Money-saving tips

* Bridal salons may give a discount on the bridesmaid dresses if the bride purchases her wedding gown at their store. Ask the bride to inquire about this when she shops for her gown.

* If the bride asks you to pick out your own dress, consider borrowing one.

* Ask if the bridal shop where the bridesmaid dresses are ordered offers an "early-bird special." Some shops will give you a discount if you purchase it by a certain date.

* Shoes in white silk and satin go onto clearance racks in January and February. Or recycle shoes from a previous wedding.

* Do your own hair and makeup for the wedding.

- From "The Bridesmaid's Guerrilla Handbook," by Sarah Stein and Lucy Talbot

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