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Bridesmaids Throughout the Years: How the Bride’s Leading Ladies Have Evolved Over Time

bridesmaids throughout the years

If you've signed on to be a bridesmaid, you probably know that it comes with more than a few big roles and responsibilities. In addition to helping the bride with all the pre-wedding details, you'll also be expected to fend off evil spirits and bandits that might snatch the bride on her wedding day.

Wait — you didn't hear about that responsibility? Don't worry, this is fortunately no longer a role of bridesmaids today. However, it was one of the many peculiar bridesmaid duties that was expected from the bride's leading ladies back in the day.

Curious at how the role of bridesmaids has changed throughout the years? Here is a fascinating look at what was once expected of the bride's cohort:

Origin of Bridesmaids

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The inclusion of bridesmaids isn't a modern concept. In fact, the origin of bridesmaids can be traced back to the time of the ancient Romans.

Although historians aren't certain of the exact origin of bridesmaids, here are a few points in history where the tradition is believed to have started:

Roman Era

In ancient Rome, brides would often travel long distances to the groom's village with their dowry in tow. This large dowry made the bride a target on the road for bandits who might steal not only the dowry but also the bride.

Bridesmaids would accompany the bride and dress like her in the hopes of confusing any would-be robbers. Thus, the idea of matching bridesmaid dresses may have started in Rome.

Another reason Roman bridesmaids wore matching dresses was to confuse evil spirits and stop them from gripping the bride on her wedding day — also a key function of the bride's veil, which was worn to befuddle the spirits from cursing the couple's marriage. Later, bridesmaids would serve as witnesses when Rome made it a rule that any marriage must have 10 witnesses to be official.

roman era bridesmaids

Chinese Feudal Era

In ancient China, women sent their dowry to the groom's village first and made the trek themselves later. Even so, there was a high probability that the bride would get stolen by bandits while she traveled or captured on the day of her wedding by rival clans.

Just like with the ancient Romans, bridesmaids would dress identically to the bride to confuse kidnappers. When a proper legal system was finally installed, the practice became a symbolic tradition rather than something seen as necessary.

Biblical Roots

Another possible explanation for the origin of bridesmaids comes from the biblical story of Jacob and his two wives, Leah and Rachel. In the Book of Genesis, both Leah and Rachel are accompanied to their wedding by their handmaidens who waited on the two ladies before the ceremony.

Early Bridesmaid Duties

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In addition to fending off kidnappers and evil spirits, early bridesmaids had other duties to perform as well. While some of these duties may sound similar, others have (fortunately) long since died out:

Prepare Decorations and Party Favors

This duty may sound familiar to modern bridesmaids. Early bridesmaids were expected to help decorate the wedding day feast and make party favors for the guests.

Victorian era bridesmaids made party favors out of white ribbons, lace and flowers. The bridesmaids would then pin these pretty decorations to the shoulders of each guest as they left the ceremony.

getting the bride ready

Follow the Bride and Groom to the Bedchamber

It may sound strange to us now, but bridesmaids were expected to accompany the newlyweds to their bedchamber. The bridesmaids would then assist the bride by undoing her dress and letting down her hair.

Others were present in the bedchamber as well, including friends, family and some members of the community. In some cultures, it was common practice for the bride to fling her stocking into the crowd of watchers — aka the beginning of the garter toss tradition. It was believed that whoever caught the bride's stocking would have good luck.

The bedding ritual was a common practice in the medieval period, especially among royals. Fortunately, this ritual began to die out starting in the early 18th century.

Walking the Groom to the Church

In some cultures, it was customary for the bridesmaids to escort the groom to the church while his groomsmen accompanied the bride to protect her from kidnappers or jealous men.

This practice began to wane in popularity after the introduction of long trains, heavy wedding fabrics and frilly clothes in the 18th century. However, evil spirits were still a concern in the Victorian era, and bridesmaids often carried bouquets of garlic and herbs to ward them off.

General Maid Duties

getting bride ready zipping dress

Early bridesmaids helped the bride prepare for her wedding day in many of the same ways they do today. However, they were also of a lower status than the bride and had many duties that were more maid-like.

Bridesmaids today would scoff at the idea of being a bride's personal servant — even though that's what it sometimes feels like. Early bridesmaids were expected to wait on the bride hand and foot, performing various personal duties such as dressing her, drawing her bath and fetching her breakfast in bed.

Throw a Bridal Shower

It's believed that the modern tradition of throwing a bridal shower was born out of the early practice of securing a bride's dowry. If the bride's father could not produce an adequate dowry for the bride, her maids would lend a hand by gathering together and showering the bride with gifts.

By doing so, the bride could marry the man of her choosing. Throwing bridal showers for the bride became common in the upper class during 1890s and later with the masses in the 1930s.

Additional Bridesmaid Requirements

Back in the day, not just anyone could be a bridesmaid. All bridesmaids had to be unmarried virgins who were younger than the bride and of lower status.

However, an exception to this archaic rule was the maid of honor. In Roman times, the maid of honor was chosen for her piety and obedience and was meant to set an example for the bride.

maid of honor roman times

As time went on, the maid of honor simply assisted the bride much like she does today. Before the big day, the maid of honor would help the bride get dressed and procure her bridal flower crown.

In the Victorian era, bridesmaids were expected to wear all white to match the bride. Much like today's custom, these bridesmaid dresses were designed to be simpler to avoid outshining the bride.

Modern Roles and Duties of Bridesmaids

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The role of bridesmaids has significantly evolved over the years — much for the better. Today, it's no longer an act of forced servitude but rather a service freely given out of love for the bride.

While many of today's traditions were born out of superstition, there is no need to worry about evil spirits cursing the entire bridal party. And while you might be protective of the bride, there is also no need to worry about the bride being abducted on her big day.

Still, there are some ways in which the roles and responsibilities of contemporary bridesmaids have deviated from past tradition. Here is a look at some of the modern bridesmaid trends and duties which are a far cry from earlier times:

Bridesmaids of Varying Ages

The rules for who can be a bridesmaid are long gone. Today, bridesmaids can be as old or as young as the bride wants.

Well, sort of. Younger bridesmaids between the ages of 8 and 14 are generally considered junior bridesmaids. Girls who are under the age of eight are often flower girls who scatter flowers down the aisle to herald the bride.

There is no age cap to being a bridesmaid. The oldest bridesmaid on record was Edith Gulliford, who was age 97 when she performed her duties in 2007.

In fact, there is no longer any requirement whatsoever to be a bridesmaid. Not only have men stood in as bridesmaids as the man of honor, but dogs have also been known to be part of the bride's cohort—with adorable results.

dessy navy bridesmaid dresses

Mix and Match Bridesmaid Dresses

With the worry of evil spirits cursing the bride and her attendants no longer a concern, there is also no need for the bridesmaid dresses to match. Although some brides prefer their maids to look identical, the latest trend has been to mix and match bridesmaid dresses.

For example, the bride can now choose a color and have her crew pick out dresses of varying styles. This allows the bridesmaids to pick dresses that flatter their individual figures while still looking cohesive for the wedding.

Another hot wedding trend is to have your gals wear bridesmaid separates to create a bold combo. For fashion-forward brides, this is a great way to let bridesmaids have fun with their look while instantly adding style to your wedding.

Bridesmaids Buying Their Own Dress

In early times, a bridesmaid was usually a servant who couldn't afford her own dress. It was up to the bride to outfit her bridal party in nice dresses.

Today, a bridesmaid typically pays for her own bridesmaid dress. The good news is that there are plenty of budget-friendly bridesmaid dresses that are both chic and affordable.

Don't know where to look? Check out our collection of bridesmaid dresses under $150 and browse a wide range of different colors and styles.

Planning the Bachelorette Party

One of the key duties of a modern bridesmaid is planning the bride's bachelorette party. Formerly known as a ‘hen party’ in Europe, the raucous parties we throw today wouldn't become common practice until the mid-1980s.

Although bachelorette parties today have a reputation of being wild and crazy, they can be whatever the bride prefers. Modern bachelorette parties now refer to a get-together of the bride's closest friends, whether it's a drunk night on the town or a relaxing vacation in Cabo.

bride and bridesmaid getting ready

Damage Control

You could say that modern bridesmaids have a lot more pressure to ensure that the bride's big day goes off without a hitch. In early times, bridesmaids were not expected to handle any mishaps or misfortunes that struck the bride and groom.

Today, bridesmaids are expected to do everything from running last minute errands to providing the bride with emotional support. Although it's an enormous undertaking, many bridesmaids will gladly do it out of love and friendship for the bride.

Lots of Lace

When Queen Victoria chose a white lace dress, it sparked a fashion craze among brides. But today, lace can be used not only in the bride's dress but also her bridesmaids' dresses.

Lace bridesmaid dresses are not an uncommon sight in weddings today. From lacy dresses in pastel shades to bold lace separates, this romantic fabric is no longer reserved for the bride.

Pre-Wedding Preparation

In medieval times, a wealthy bride might have her maids draw a luxurious bath before the wedding day, complete with scented oils and herbs. Of course, this bath was needed to cover up the foul smell most people couldn't escape in the Dark Ages.

Today, bridesmaids often accompany the bride to spa treatments in the form of manicures and pedicures. While the bride may be generous and pay for her bridesmaids' spa treatments, most bridesmaids will happily pay for their own just to bond with the bride before her big day.

bride and bridesmaid getting ready

Being a Bridesmaid: A Time-Honored and Cherished Tradition

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Bridesmaids have come a long way over the centuries. Once considered a lowly servant, being a bridesmaid is now a huge honor that shouldn't be taken lightly.

Thankfully, the roles and expectations of bridesmaids have changed significantly since the medieval era. Today, being a bridesmaid is more about being part of the bride and groom's special day while helping them pull off one spectacular and unforgettable party.