21 Mar 2024

Best Bridesmaids

A bride may have one or six bridesmaids at her choice. No particular number being fixed, it is often determined by the number of sisters, or of intimate friends, she may have. The bridesmaids should be dressed in white, and all alike, and may wear orange-flower bouquets; they should avoid dressing like brides, which is out of place.”
Beeton’s Manners of Polite Society, 1876

The Victorian idea of suitable bridesmaids was straightforward and prescriptive. White dresses and orange-flower bouquets were the order of the day and there was no room for argument.

Today, we have elaborated and liberalised the whole wedding ritual, and we are free to select and deploy bridesmaids as we see fit. At best, they will enhance the day, provide assistance, emotional support and encouragement to a nervous bride, and will act as willing ambassadors during the post-wedding celebrations, circulating, making introductions and ensuring that all the guests are looked after. They should also take responsibility for organising the hen night.

However, if the bride is temperamental and self-involved, with unshakeable notions about how her own ‘big day’ should be organised, bridesmaids may find themselves in the firing line. The most obvious risk is that they will be shoehorned into a themed look, squeezed into unsuitable and unflattering dresses, and made to wear uncomfortable shoes. They may spend the day feeling self-conscious and out of sorts and may even become suspicious that their own shortcomings are only serving to make the bride look much more attractive.

If you are organising your wedding, bear the following considerations in mind:

Bridesmaids’ Dresses

Sophisticated and elegant, bridesmaids should complement the bride but in no way draw attention away from her. Brides should choose bridesmaids’ outfits that will flatter all figures: a sensible option is to dress the bridesmaids in various styles made in identical material. Creativity can be combined with tradition to create an individual, memorable look.

Of course, the choice of dress should reflect the style of the wedding: long evening gowns are customary for traditional elegance, but shorter styles are also a practical option. Dresses can be adjusted, and the hem shortened, after the wedding if the bridesmaid wishes to wear it again. The choice of colour should fit in with the bride’s dress and flowers: bear in mind that certain colours are more likely to suit all skin tones and hair colours: purple, teal, dove grey, soft white.

Buying bridesmaids’ dresses from a specialist shop can be an extremely expensive outlay, although it is an excellent way of getting ideas and inspiration. If you plan long enough ahead, you can commission dresses from a good dressmaker, though bear in mind that each bridesmaid would have to be available for several fittings and allow six months from start to finish. If you take along pictures from magazines, or even a dress that a member of the bridal party already owns and would like copied, a competent dressmaker should be able to take care of the entire procedure.

Beautiful and affordable dresses can also be found on the high street. Traditionally, the bride’s family would pay but this is no longer to be expected. An adult bridesmaid may wish to pay for her own outfit, especially if she is not being railroaded into buying a dress she does not want and feels that she will be able to wear it on other occasions.


Bouquets should be understated and simple, perhaps hand-tied singles or small bouquets. A basic version of the bride’s bouquet is a safe option, or the bouquet can coordinate with the bride’s dress and bouquet.


Bridesmaids spend much of the day on their feet, so comfort is an important consideration. Shoes can be dyed to match dresses. If bridesmaids are different heights, heels can be varied to create a balanced group, but this should be done rationally – it is quite unfair to ask a petite bridesmaid to spend the day in cripplingly high heels, just because she looks incongruous next to a 6-foot Amazon in the group photographs.


Within reason, it is conventional for the bridesmaids’ hair to coordinate with the bride’s. So, if she is wearing an ‘up-do’, long-haired bridesmaids should follow suit. Matching hair clips, flowers or slides can also help to create a uniform look.

Baby Bridesmaids

If little girls already own a party dress or bridesmaid’s dress that matches the outfits of the bridal party, it is perfectly acceptable for them to wear this. A ballerina-length skirt with a high waist will suit small girls, ankle or mid-calf length can be a good choice for girls aged five and above. Fabrics should complement the bride’s dress – silk, satin, organza and chiffon are the most popular choices. Natural fabrics can be dyed after the event and turned into party dresses.

Ballet shoes or pumps with rubber shoes prevent slipping on wet days. Elastic across the top or ribbons around the ankles will prevent shoes from falling off.

Either the bride, her family or the parents of the bridesmaid may pay the bill. Sometimes the cost is shared: where a dressmaker is used, the parents might pay for the fabric and the bride for the making up.

Getting children to carry flowers and remember to keep hold of them can be tricky, so a pomander with a ribbon around it, attached to the wrist, is a safe choice for girls. Alternatively, a small basket containing flowers or petals that reflect the bride’s bouquet or church flowers can look good. Flowers can also be worn in the hair or fixed to a slide or Alice band – slides and flowers tend to slip out of clean hair so wash the child’s hair the day before.

Managing Expectations

Brides should focus on the emotional support that bridesmaids can supply and relish the opportunity to share a joyous experience with their closest friends. Becoming over-fixated on the overall appearance of the bridal party, and over-preoccupied with how the bridesmaids will appear in photographs will certainly taint the experience. If you are a bride that is prone to being a bit of a control freak, it might be more sensible to concentrate on the inanimate aspects of the day, such as the flowers, table arrangements, setting, music etc, which are tractable, rather than trying to impose your own very specific aspirations on a disparate, and quite possibly non-cooperative, group of friends.

That said, it is important to remember that agreeing to become a bridesmaid is, first and foremost, an act of friendship. Inevitably, you will be forfeiting a sense of agency and will be consenting to, within reason, go along with your friend’s wishes, because you want to make her happy. Remember that, ultimately the wedding is about her, not you. Even if you loathe the dress you’ve been allocated and feel frumpy and out of sorts, try not to be grumpy.  If you’re taking obvious pleasure in your friend’s big day and doing your utmost to ensure that it goes well, nobody is going to care about the dress…

Click here for Debrett's Wedding Handbook


MPA House
66 Baker Street
Weybridge KT13 8AL
United Kingdom
Get In Touch
Subscription Enquiries
+44 (0)330 3339699
General Enquiries
+44 (0)20 3950 5240
Join our weekly newsletter
Subscription Form
MPA House
66 Baker Street
Weybridge KT13 8AL
United Kingdom
Designed by Anna Ocipinska. Developed by BuiltByGo. © 2022 Debrett’s. All Rights Reserved
My cart
Your cart is empty.

Looks like you haven't made a choice yet.