It is the task even the most unflappable bride struggles to cross off their to-do list: choose bridesmaid dresses that won’t make your best friends secretly hate you.
Things used to be a lot more straightforward; bridesmaids dutifully wore a uniform – usually involving a liberal amount of taffeta and ruffles – that would look ridiculous in any other context, but was as ubiquitous at a British wedding as chicken vol-au-vents, tipsy aunties and “Sweet Caroline”. The bride who had the audacity to dress her bridesmaids in anything that resembled normal clothes, however, subjected her flock to instant ostracism.
Nowadays, thankfully, things have loosened up. The rise in popularity of dreamy Instagram-filtered images on blogs and online moodboards like Pinterest inspire brides-to-be to look beyond their local bridal boutique and scour the internet for inspiration that will set their nuptials apart from the rest. The 2013 wedding is judged, liked and shared according to how it stands out, not whether it stands by the old formalities. But these new rules bring with them new problems. In the era of self-consciously photogenic ceremonies, trends seem to emerge, dominate and become cliché quicker than you can say “cocktail in a Kilner jar”. It’s hard to keep up.
There is also the money issue. “A lot of girls expect their maids to pay for their own dresses and for that reason the days of the ‘one style suits all’ pink meringue are long gone, thankfully,” says Bryony Toogood, the fashion editor at Brides magazine.
This means that re-wear value needs to be factored in. Toogood thinks that this has led to a move towards non-matching dresses in recent seasons. Dresses might stick to a theme, colour or fabric, but the approach allows each girl the freedom to wear a dress that suits their body shape and – even more unthinkable in days of yore – the freedom to wear a dress that expresses her individual style.
Charlotte O’Shea, founder of the blog Rock My Wedding, has also noticed that brides want to take more risks and this is reflected in how their bridesmaids are dressed. “Inspiration increasingly comes from the latest catwalk trends rather than the more traditional ‘matchy matchy’ approach, and brides want their best girls to wear dresses they genuinely love rather than pieces that immediately scream ‘bridesmaid!’,” says O’Shea.
Retailers have caught on to this idiosyncratic mood. “Our buyers don’t specifically target the bridesmaid market, but trend-led occasion-wear is becoming an increasingly important part of our offer,” says Nikki Tattersall, the online retailer Asos’s head of womenswear buying.
“People want to create a unique experience that’s personal. For a lot of couples this means something less formal and traditional which will be reflected in the aesthetic of the wedding party. I also think there’s a move towards expressing the individuality of your bridesmaids.”
Perversely this means that a range of designated bridesmaid dresses, however trend-led and hipster- worthy, is a turn-off for the modern bride who prizes individuality.
Cath Taylor, the head of buying at Topshop, thinks that dictating what makes a suitable bridesmaid dress is definitely not the way to woo her customers: “They embrace trends and understand how to interpret them, their individual sense of style means they don’t need a dress to be labelled as formal or bridalwear.”
It makes sense. When many couples choose to all but remove the religious facet from their wedding, and individual wedding style is prized over conformity, why does the formality around bridesmaid fashion need to linger? Instead, bridesmaids are now dressing for what many weddings actually are – a big old knees-up with friends and family.