What Does It Mean to Be a Bridesmaid in 2021?

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It’s easy to think that being a bridesmaid inches closer and closer to mania in the modern-day, as we navigate pastel color-coordinated spreadsheets about South Beach bachelorette Airbnbs and play bridal shower party games with Aunt Nancy. Perhaps it feels that way even more as women’s education levels and retention in the workplace increase, and conversely, the idea that a wedding is life’s pinnacle decreases. (“I have a decade of working and living independently from my parents under my belt, so there are many life events—good and bad—that make me who I am,” author Hannah Kirshner previously wrote for Vogue. “I have had, and plan to continue having, exciting moments in my career and personal life. My wedding will be a big one, but it’s not the only one.)

Plus, as it turns out, being a bridesmaid has always been, well, a pain in the ass.

The murky origin story is that wedding parties started in both the Roman Empire—where legally, you needed several witnesses to a wedding—and feudal China. “A bride would have attendants to protect her from evil spirits,” Dr. Angela Thompson, who teaches sociology at Texas Christian University, told The New York Times in 2018. “By having several women who are dressed alike, the spirits, or kidnappers, wouldn’t know which person was the bride.” (“Dear god,” a friend who’s currently a maid of honor told me after hearing this story. “Give me stuffing bachelorette gift bags any day.”)

Even as kidnapping became, uh, less of an issue, being in a bridal party chafed at everyone for centuries. “It is generally admitted by thoughtful men that there must originally have been some good reason for the employment of groomsmen at wedding ceremonies which has now been totally forgotten,” a writer noted in the Dec 4, 1879 issue of The New York Times. “No one can point out any purpose which these accomplices in matrimony serve.” Meanwhile, a 1905 Pictorial Review article titled “Wedding Arrangements: Plans for the Easter Bride” bemoaned the ugly dresses often doled out to bridesmaids. “Bridesmaids’ frocks have long suffered from monotony in design, want of taste in selection, and a startling variety in execution,” the author wrote.

As traditions fall by the wayside, however, things are slowly changing. The Knot reports that, since 2015, they’ve seen a steady decline in females in the wedding party all wearing the exact same dress, from 55% in 2015 to 31% in 2020. (Some brides are bucking that trend even further, merely asking friends to stick to a color palette.) And while a dozen bridesmaids used to be common, more women are pairing down their parties. “Say bye-bye to the wedding party, or please, no more than three—with limited guest counts, our couples truly had to stick to the essentials,” wedding planner Fallon Carter told Vogue when asked about how the COVID-19 era changed weddings. “The hair and make-up hours that were saved opened up a whole new world in our timelines.”

Yet, whether we’d like to admit it or not, there’s a part of us that might be sad if bridesmaid culture, even the sillier aspects, disappeared entirely. “I genuinely miss that time of my life. It’s crazy—I did not see that coming for me personally,” says Markowitz, who is now in her late 30s. “We had all the time in the world to get together, go in on an Airbnb, and group text each other. Sure, it was annoying at times—but there are also some really great parts about it too.” So go forth and rock that mauve gown, hashtag that half-baked pun or bad last name portmanteau, and remind the group text about that overdue bachelorette party Venmo. Because one day, you’ll be wistful about all the big ones.

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