Now that wedding photos inevitably make their way onto Facebook and Instagram, bridesmaids and groomsmen continue to be honored and recognized long after the wedding is over. Even people who weren’t invited to the ceremony will observe the group—who’s in it, but also who’s not. A few brides told me they’d chosen to include so many friends to avoid any negative signals they might send by excluding them. By asking someone to be a bridesmaid, they felt they were making a clear investment in the future of the relationship. If they left close friends off the list, they worried that they might send the opposite message: In a few years, I’m not sure you’ll be around.
For most of the 20th century, the average American woman got married at age 20, 21, or 22. Today the median age of first marriage is 27. As my colleague Gillian White wrote in The New York Times, “American women who eventually marry are now left with nearly a decade of single adulthood to forge their own paths professionally, romantically and socially.” And men are getting married later, too. That means young people have more time to establish deeper friendships—and from all the different phases and corners of life: high school, college, work, church, square dancing. The result is “a younger generation that is far more conscious of the need to develop and maintain friendships,” says Stephanie Coontz, a marriage historian at Evergreen State College. Ergo, more bridesmaids.
But there’s also a stigma attached to a large number of bridesmaids, as I heard from multiple brides. Mary Beth Knight, who got married last year, says she’s happy with her decision to include 10 bridesmaids in her wedding—but leading up to the big day, she was worried. “A lot of times, people would ask, ‘Can you really be that close with that many people?’” she told me. The question prompted frantic Googling sessions in which Knight would scan the internet in search of the “appropriate” number. “It made me start thinking, I’m only having 165 guests, but 10 bridesmaids. Does that make me look crazy?” Other brides were less concerned with the stigma than with the expense for their friends of being a bridesmaid. Between travel costs, dresses, and hair and makeup, bridesmaids shell out an average of $1,200 per wedding, according to a recent study by WeddingWire—and groomsmen may actually pay even more. (One reason British couples have fewer attendants, Watkins writes, is that the bride and groom typically foot the bill.)
Still, in a study Shuler did of more than 500 bridesmaids, she found that the vast majority were happy to have had the experience. Over and over, she said, respondents would tell her how much they valued the opportunity to bond and create memories with a sister, a cousin, or a best friend on one of the most important days of her life. The American bridesmaid tradition is an “unabashed celebration of friendship,” says Keene. As a 38-year-old mother of two, she says that onlookers may frown on her decision to skip town for a weekend to party in Palm Springs with her high-school girlfriends. But if it’s for a bachelorette party—if she’s a bridesmaid—she’s got the ultimate excuse. “We are living in the age of isolation, of treating online interactions like real ones,” she says. “If large wedding parties are a way to counter that, I’m in.”