Being selected to be a bridesmaid is an honor, as well as an invitation into an exclusive club. While most brides abide by expected traditions—wearing white, throwing the bouquet, the first dance—the bridesmaids’ journey down the aisle can take them from a shining taffeta dress to a jumpsuit, from sitting at the singles table to hooking up with groomsmen, and from best friend to never speaking again. Few know this better than Eimear Lynch, author of The Bridesmaids: True Tales of Love, Envy, Loyalty… and Terrible Dresses. After interviewing 80 bridesmaids, and being a five-time ‘maid herself, the formerCondé Nast Traveler editor has learned all the tricks of the trade. Here she shares insight into the often exciting, sometimes dramatic, and certainly never boring life of a bridesmaid.
Brides have to wear white. They’re supposed to have their hair done, step-tap-step down the aisle, let their moms call the shots, and dance demurely until the open bar is over. The specific expectations that come with being a girl who’s getting married are so timeless and inflexible that they’re ignored only on rare occasions (some elopements, fifth marriages, city hall ceremonies).
While you could describe most brides’ big days without even being there—“amazing,” “so beautiful,” “a treat to have all my loved ones in one room”—the bridesmaids’ experiences are a grab bag of questionable life decisions, messy emotions, and, of course, some terrible dresses. Bridesmaids can wear limp chiffon or sleek silk jumpsuits. They can have drunken makeouts amid the elders on the dance floor or flirt with their future husbands (or do both). These days, they can be male or female—and they can even officiate.
Bridesmaiding is one of the rare things that most women have in common by the time they turn 30. In my book,The Bridesmaids, it’s the sole thread that ties together stories from an ex-nun, a Burning Man regular, an astrologer, and a small-town Southerner. But as you can tell from that list, the role is far from formulaic. Having spent months interviewing 80 bridesmaids—and having been a bridesmaid myself five times—I’ve learned that the bridesmaid experience ranges from lovely to infuriating to just shy of insane. And that it’s rarely boring.
Since bridesmaids are unconstrained by conventional gender roles and set-in-stone traditions, you might think that they would have much more fun than any bride ever could. The bridesmaids I interviewed certainly enjoyed themselves: A “muse” for a gay couple shimmied down the aisle to Nina Simone’s “ Feeling Good.” A drunken bridesmaid had such a ball on the dance floor that she inadvertently flashed the whole wedding. Myself and three other strapless-pink-chiffon-clad ‘maids barely flinched when the cops broke up our motel-room after party at 3 a.m. (The officers left quickly, seemingly frightened by our matching dresses, smeared smoky eyes, and half-undone updos.)
But we bridesmaids know better than anyone (well, maybe not anyone) that with freedom comes great responsibility. This can mean planning countless bridal showers, completing bride-mandated to-do lists, or enduring the realities of tossed-around phrases like “wedding year”—which signals 12 months of indentured servitude. To a “man of honor” I interviewed, bridesmaiding meant turning his bachelor pad into a tulle-filled wedding factory. One ‘maid was chided for gaining weight after a serious accident, and another ousted from the wedding party for missing the third bridal shower.
In my own year of The Bridesmaids, I saw that tours of wedding-party duty can be equally interesting whether they’re good, bad, or ugly. And I’d like to think it’s that variability/volatility/occasional craziness that makes us bridesmaids lovable—or, at the very least, relatable. While you might loathe hearing about another newlywed’s perfect white wedding, there’s a resounding “yes, please!” when it comes to the maid of honor’s dirt- and drama-filled take.
Eimear Lynch is a writer and editor who has worked at Condé Nast Traveler, Town & Country, andBloomberg Businessweek. A five-time bridesmaid, she lives in Brooklyn.