The wedding industrial complex has turned a special day into a prohibitively expensive affair. For the bride’s attendants, this can mean shelling out inordinate amounts of money just to prove their loyalty.
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“I was overwhelmed at the thought of paying and paying and paying for all these ‘little’ extras like getting my hair and makeup done by a professional and having to buy silver sandals to match the bling-y dress. It felt like a never-ending wallet grab,” Tessa* says of her experience as a maid of honor in her best friend’s wedding about seven years ago. “Not by the bride necessarily—but the industry.”
Tessa’s experience is not extraordinary but rather quite common. According to a 2017 WeddingWire study, the average cost of being a bridesmaid is $1,200. But this should be taken as a conservative figure—and not only because of inflation in the five years since the study. This amount can quickly balloon to more than $1,800 once pre- and post-wedding costs like the bridal shower, bachelorette party, and post-wedding brunch are tallied, along with other associated costs like transportation and accommodation to all wedding-related events.
Weddings have become an industry unto themselves. Slap “bridal” or “bridesmaids” in front of “dress” and the price of that same garment will give you sticker shock. Every single aspect of this “Big Life” event has been commodified—heck, you can even hire professional bridesmaids in the case, it seems, where you either have no friends or your friends are unreliable and incompetent.
I, a 40-something homosexual, have never been a bridesmaid. Despite the Gay Marriage Industry Boom that has prompted friends in my big umbrella community to get married (and plenty of us, including myself have followed our gay-marriages with gay-divorces), at this ripe age I feel thankful to have crossed over what I consider a fashionable age for serving as one. (Although never say never!) But, as I swim across the perimenopausal waters to my grave, I can’t help but wonder,
And what is this economy of friendship that has allowed us to rationalize—even accept as normal—spending thousands of dollars in the name of being a bridesmaid? Is it evidence of “profitable” friendships, or ones that put us, literally and figuratively, into debt?
It is common knowledge that weddings are expensive, no matter if it’s your wedding, or if you’re attending as a guest or an attendant in the wedding party—unless you run off to city hall. The increasing costs of being a bridesmaid is not new information. Instead, the interesting question pertains to the consequences of the costs, particularly on friendship. Because the fact is that bridesmaids are selected based on the quality of relationship to the bride—their intimacy or closeness. Close circles of friends, therefore, often end up serving as each other’s bridesmaids. And, depending on the breadth of one’s own various and/or intersecting groups of friends—what Big Friendship coauthors and cultural commentators Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman have called “friendwebs”—a person could end up serving as a bridesmaid multiple times—even dozens of times, as the once-famous news story of Julie Caldwell, who was a bridesmaid 29 times before she became a bride herself.
Data suggests that the higher the price of being a bridesmaid the greater the adverse effect on the friendship between bride and the bridesmaid—numerous bridesmaid-experience Reddit threads alone testify to this data. According to a 2021 survey published by LendingTree, 42 percent of bridesmaids and 32 percent of maids-of-honor said that “wedding-related expenses hurt their relationship with the bride.” One source of that negative impact, the survey indicates, is that the brides themselves were the primary source of pressure on bridesmaids and maids of honor to spend money on wedding expenses. “Overall,” LendingTree notes, “a third of people who have been in a wedding in the last two years say they regret the money they spent,” with maids of honor being the “most likely to regret bridal party-related expenses (44 percent).”
For Tessa, she regrets the personal debt she incurred to participate in her best friend’s special day. “Spending all my money didn’t make the wedding nicer or more special,” she observes. “It just put me in debt.”
The tension put on a friendship was a central theme running through a 2019 Refinery29 survey of 15 millennials who were bridesmaids. “There’s an interesting dynamic,” observed a 23-year-old from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who spent $1,150 as a bridesmaid in her childhood best friend’s wedding. “It’s like the bride is granting you the privilege of joining her bridal party, but at the same time, you’re paying to be included.”
A 29-year-old New Yorker, who spent $2,000 as a bridesmaid in a friend’s wedding, was more blunt: “It felt ridiculous,” she said. “Although I’m happy to be supportive, it amazes me that no one can get behind abandoning such an expensive tradition.”
Tradition is what has been capitalized upon by the multi-billion-dollar industry—one, according to the Wedding Report, which predicts 2022 to have nearly 2.5 million weddings, the most since 1984, putting the estimated cost per wedding at more than $24,000.
Yet, the economy of friendship is not just transactional, whether what is being exchanged is money or popularity (now more commonly referred to as “influence”). There can be more to a friendship than just profit—although this kind of “friendship” certainly does exist. (To consider if you’ve been in one, think of friends who just disappeared when you could no longer provide them the access or gifts that you formerly did.)
The economy of friendship that informs the bridesmaid experience is based on values—including but not limited to intimacy, love, trust, all of which grow and are nurtured through shared experiences. And big life events like a wedding are critical shared experiences and one of the earliest informative adult-friendship experiences. Weddings are not just a marriage contract between two people but a social contract between two people and their entire community. The social contract offers the promise of social cohesion and harmony—just like the endings of Shakespearean comedies, which portend happiness even though a concurrent feeling of unease lingers and is felt in the silence of the newly married women.
These shared experiences strengthen the values of the bond and they also create expectations within that friendship, which I believe deeply affect if not determine the bridesmaid experience and the future friendship between the attendant and her bride.
“If you feel close to someone and they don’t ask you, it is hurtful,” Laura* reflects on her four-time bridesmaid experience. “We put expectations on these relationships, and when you’re in your 20s and 30s it’s a lot to not be asked, especially if you feel that close to someone.”
In Laura’s bridesmaid experiences, one in which she served as a co-maid of honor, money was a factor, but not the factor in how that shared experience with the bride ultimately affected their friendship. Her respective friendships with the brides continue, except for that related to her final bridesmaid experience. In our discussion, she explained that while her friend became “a little bit like a bridezilla,” the friendship broke down because her friend became someone else after her engagement—her friend was no longer an independent woman but fell into playing the role of the submissive, dependent girlfriend. She and their group of friends, she recalls, “left pretty early [during the reception] because it wasn’t fun and she didn’t talk to any of us,” almost as if the new bride was distancing herself from her past, and her friendships, to start a new, blissfully wedded life. And that—witnessing the character of her friend change before her very eyes—contributed most to their fall out.
For Laura, the economy of friendship is emotional. “When something matters,” she says, “I spend money. … If you’re really friends with that person, you’re not thinking about the money.” She adds, “if you’re thinking about the money, it says something about the friendship—is the friendship worth it to me, financially?”
And this is the rub, the tension of all friendships, if not all relationships, platonic or otherwise.
“Friendships, all relationships, are transactional—we don’t like to admit it,” Laura observes. “I prefer friendships where the transactions are emotional, rather than economic.”
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