Historical and Cultural Roots of Bridesmaids and Groomsmen

By Caroline Handel

About a third of the way into the 2008 romantic comedy 27 Dresses, Jane (a brunette, supposedly mousy Katherine Heigl) stands in the absurdly nice New York apartment that she somehow affords on an assistant’s salary with Kevin (James Marsden), a wedding reporter and—thirteen-year-old spoiler alert—her eventual love interest. Kevin is ostensibly there to gather background for a story on the upcoming nuptials of Jane’s younger, blonder sister Tess (Malin Ackerman), and George (Ed Burns), Jane’s boss and unrequited love. While talking, Kevin spies an open closet stuffed to the gills with ugly bridesmaids’ dresses—dresses that, contrary to what multiple brides have assured her, will never be worn in public again. Jane, you see, has been a bridesmaid in a whopping 27 weddings, hence the movie’s title.

This being a rom com, a montage ensues, with Jane trying on one terrible dress after another for Kevin to wryly comment on, followed by a flash of Jane in the dress at the actual weddings, usually altering her appearance to avoid pulling focus from the bride. The sequence accomplishes a few things at once. It establishes that Jane, previously shown to be Type A and uptight, is able to let her guard down with Kevin. It also illustrates that Jane understands, on a deep level, the ultimate purpose of the bridesmaid’s dress: to fulfill the dreams of the bride, whatever they may be. After they’re done playing dress-up, Kevin asks her why she keeps agreeing when asked to be a bridesmaid—why put so much effort into trying to make other people happy? “Someday,” Jane replies wistfully, “God knows when but someday, it’ll be my day. And all those people will be there for me.” Again, this being a rom com, the film ends just that way, with 27 brides lining up for Jane in the ugly dresses they made her wear.

A Brief History of the Bridal Uniform:

There is some debate surrounding the tradition of uniformity in bridesmaid’s dresses. Some believe that the concept dates back to the days of Ancient Rome—supposedly, a bride’s female servants would dress up just like her, acting as decoys to prevent robbers and marauders from absconding with the betrothed or her dowry.  

The idea that bridesmaid dresses should match has ancient roots and has pervaded the culture, but the conjecture has come under scrutiny in recent years.  Dr. Liz Gloyn, a Classics Lecturer at the University of London, attributes the fallacy to a misunderstanding of Confareatio: a form of marriage in Ancient Rome reserved for Patrician families that required ten witnesses to be considered legally valid.  Speaking to The Independentin 2016, Gloyn argued that while the custom did indeed require ten witnesses, all of them would have been male, and there’s nothing to suggest they needed to be dressed the same. According to Gloyn, while Roman brides were expected to be accompanied by bridal attendants from their father’s house to their husband’s, they were definitely not dressed similarly—brides would dress in a special outfit, including an accessory that has echoed through the centuries of sartorial wedding tradition–the bridal veil.

Much of the sartorial customs of western weddings were established during the reign of Queen Victoria, whose lavish ceremony set a standard for traditional nuptials that still stands today. It was Victoria who first associated the color white with bridal dresses. To biographer Julia Baird, Victoria’s decision to wear a white dress to her wedding had nothing to do with purity or chastity—the queen was more practical than that. “Victoria had chosen to wear white mostly because it was the perfect color to highlight the delicate lace [of her gown],” Baird wrote. While the Queen’s personal taste trended towards more muted and subtle choices, she understood that her wedding was to stand both as a celebration of her and Prince Albert’s love and a show of royal power and influence. She reserved the color white for herself and her bridal party, all twelve of whom were given matching dresses, jewelry, and hairstyles.

According to Lou Taylor, Professor of Dress and Textile History at the University of Brighton, Victoria uniformly outfitted her bridesmaids—the eldest daughters of high-ranking families—as a way to assert their subservience to the authority of the monarchy. While talking to The Independent, Taylor detailed her take on Victoria’s decision to dress her bridal party the same way, explaining, “it is my belief that by regulating the bridesmaids formally into exactly the same garments, there was no room for any of them to try and outdo each other, let alone the bride, through the use of grander fabric [or] grander jewelry.”

The custom of matching bridesmaid’s dresses has given way somewhat as styles and trends have shifted. Today, it’s far more customary for bridesmaids to have their dresses altered, and to wear varying cuts, styles, and colors. According to Lela Rose, a ready-to-wear and bridal designer, modern brides will often select one detail to unify the bridal party, and then let the bridesmaids choose the dresses that look best for them based on that mandate. Speaking to The New York Times in 2013, Ms. Rose described how the custom of forcing one’s bridesmaids to adopt a completely uniform look can make a bride’s taste seem stiff and dated. “Some girls look great in anything, but not everyone does,” Ms. Rose said. “Bridesmaids are part of your pictures, so why wouldn’t you want them to look great?”

While standards for bridesmaid uniformity have loosened since Queen Victoria’s ceremony, the hierarchical structure of bridesmaid dresses has remained. Angela Craig, who by 2013 had served as a bridesmaid in nine separate weddings, also spoke to The Times, describing the gamut of styles and levels of bridal flexibility she’d experienced. In the end, the level of accommodation a bridesmaid is afforded in style and taste is the bride’s prerogative. “It really depends on the bride,” Ms. Craig explained. “You’re there to support your friend and to be prepared for whatever she needs. You just hope it’s not a frumpy dress.” After all, the bride is the Queen, if only for a day. You never upstage the queen.  

“Often a Bridesmaid, Never a Bride”

27 Dresses focused on the hierarchical structure of weddings in terms of what bridesmaids are made to wear. Leslye Headland’s 2011 dark comedy Bachelorette delves deeper into the cultural condescension associated with the role, highlighting the hierarchical structure of what a bride’s attendants are expected to feel and do. The movie revolves around three mean girls and best friends: Blond and icy Reagan (Kirsten Dunst), witty but drifting Gena (Lizzy Caplan), and sweet, exceedingly dumb Katie (Isla Fischer). The trio, who have lovingly/loathingly referred to themselves as “the b-faces” since high school, are reunited as bridesmaids for the wedding of Becky (Rebel Wilson), a plus-sized friend they’ve mostly kept around because she made them feel thin and superior.

Reagan, the maid-of-honor, group leader, and the film’s protagonist, vibrates at all times with a ferocious intensity, rage palpable just beneath the surface of her toned exterior. We get a taste of her brittleness and need for control from the film’s first scene, where she and Becky are ordering lunch—she opts for a Cobb salad without most of the ingredients, while Becky indulges in a burger and fries. As the waiter walks away, Becky announces her news—her boyfriend has proposed. Becky holds up the sparkling diamond on her finger, and Reagan’s eyes fasten to it like a shark locking onto the scent of blood in the water.

It is abundantly clear that the idea of Becky—sweet, timid, plus-sized Becky—getting to the altar before her had never crossed alpha-girl Reagan’s mind, and cuts her to the core. On the night before the wedding, following a cruel prank that sends Becky running from the room, the bridesmaids throw caution to the wind and inhale a steady stream of cocaine and champagne. In the drugged-out company of her oldest friends, Reagan momentarily lowers her defenses and voices the seed of her seething despair: “I did everything right. I went to college. I exercise. I eat like a normal person. I’ve got a boyfriend in med school. And nothing is happening to me.”

The feeling she expresses here—that marriage is the pinnacle of success and happiness, and without it, you have nothing—reflects the real social phenomenon of amatonormativity. According to Elizabeth Brake, a Professor of Philosophy at Rice University, the term can be defined as: “the assumption that a central, exclusive, amorous relationship is normal for humans, in that it is a universally shared goal, and that such a relationship is normative, in the sense that it should be aimed at in preference to other relationship types.” Amatonormativity positions marriage as the ideal final outcome that everyone should be working towards.  This notion of marriage as the essential key to a fulfilling life—aided by a wedding-industrial complex that has reaped enormous profits from casting perfect (expensive) ceremonies and receptions as the keys to a successful marriage—perpetuates the harmful idea that attaining bride status is the ultimate prize of life, and failing to do so the ultimate punishment.

Whether willful or resigned, being single can have wide-ranging affects socially, legally, and financially. Amatonormativity is deeply entrenched in our culture; most administrative sectors of adult life are geared to reward marriage. While the pressure to wed is not exclusively reserved for women, it is certainly more intense, and starts much earlier—from young ages, women are conditioned to associate happily-ever-after with a handsome prince and a fancy wedding. Unmarried men in the cultural imagination are bachelors, whereas women who never marry are thought of as lonely, pitiable spinsters.

In 1925, the Lambert Pharmaceutical Company (Listerine’s parent company) commodified the specter of spinsterhood by attaching it to the bridesmaid role. In a print campaign for mouthwash, their revolutionary new product, a pretty yet downtrodden young-woman gazed forlornly away from the camera.  Laid out next to her, in large text, appeared the now-fateful slogan: “Often a bridesmaid, never a bride.” This ad was immensely successful, significantly increasing Listerine’s profits while indelibly linking the position of bridesmaid with feelings of wistful longing and despair–of women selflessly helping to bring about someone else’s happy ending, while forever wishing for their own.

Bridesmaid Labor vs. Groomsman Leisure

While Bachelorette displays the extensive emotional baggage attached to bridesmaid detail, it also demonstrates exactly how much actual labor the position involves. The entire third act of the movie takes place on the morning leading up to the wedding, and follows Reagan as she solves one problem after another. While the film is satirical—many of the problems stem from her own actions—it deftly presents all the ways bridesmaids are tasked with helping the day run smoothly.

Bridesmaids have always—and still are—associated with domestic work. The servile nature stems directly from the position’s biblical origins: in the story of Jacob, wives Rachel and Leah were escorted to their wedding by domestic servants—the bride’s literal maids. Today, bridesmaids are collections of a blushing bride’s nearest and dearest, but the cultural expectation of work stands just the same. Zola, the popular wedding planning website, includes an in-depth list of logistical and emotional duties that bridesmaids are responsible for, both before the wedding and on the big day.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the breadth of duties bridesmaids are expected to take on is to examine the corresponding responsibilities—or lack thereof—of groomsmen. In her 2016 memoir, Why Not Me? Mindy Kaling described how little is expected of groomsmen in terms of meaningful contribution: “…groomsmen do absolutely nothing. And I mean nothing. Being asked to be a groomsman means you get to give an incredibly inappropriate two-minute speech and every woman there will still want to sleep with you” (Kaling, Pg. 25). While Zola has a page specifically detailing to the myriad obligations expected of bridesmaids, the site is much vaguer when it comes to groomsman duties. Aside from attending pre-wedding events when possible, they’re mostly expected to get ready with the groom on the big day—a much quicker experience on their end, as there’s no expectation for professional hair and makeup, which can take bridesmaids (not to mention the bride) hours on end.

The tradition of groomsmen is rooted more in comradery and action than subservience and labor, casting a different light on our cultural associations with the position. While both bridesmaids and groomsmen stem from biblical origins, groomsmen were not a groom’s servants or domestic workers, but his soldiers and friends. In the ancient practice of marriage-by-capture, a groom and his groomsmen—then referred to as Bride’s Knight’s—would kidnap a bride from her family. The Knights would then stand guard over the bride, battling her relative’s intent on stealing her back, or preventing her from escaping.

Obviously, the duties of groomsmen have come a long way since the days of marriage-by-capture. As such, groomsmen have come to be associated most closely with another ancient tradition that has persevered through the ages: the bachelor party. In his book Bachelor Party Confidential: A Real-Life Peek Behind the Closed-Door TraditionauthorDavid Bayer reports that the practice comes from an ancient Spartan tradition. In the original iteration, soldiers would stage elaborate feasts the night before one of their own was set to marry, complete with toasts and testaments of fraternal loyalty. Our modern interpretation of the bachelor party, however, is one based in pleasure and debauchery. Cemented in movies such as The Hangover franchise, groomsmen are basically expected to show the groom an R-rated good time. Bachelor parties generally call to mind some combination of hard partying, scantily clad women, and lowered inhibitions—providing the bachelor with “one more” night of freedom before he supposedly locks himself away in the confines of matrimony.

Lacking historical roots in domestic work, in addition to strong cultural encouragement to have fun rather than to serve, it’s no wonder that the cultural duties required of groomsmen have remained minimal in comparison to their bridal counterparts. To be a groomsman still mostly remains a promise of leisure, while to be a bridesmaid is—and may always be—a promise of labor.

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