When Helen*, 32, was first asked to be a maid of honour, she was delighted. Her best friend’s long-term boyfriend had recently proposed, and she had been quietly confident that she would make the bridal party. The bridesmaid invitation box that she received a few weeks after the proposal seemed like a touching gesture, but the extravagance of the goodies crammed inside turned out to be a sign of things to come.
"My friend wanted to go all out," Helen says. "It wasn’t enough to have just one hen do. She wanted a night out in her hometown, a daytime hen that her mum could come to, a week abroad for the bridesmaids, a weekend in the country for her wider circle of friends, and a spa day so she could relax a couple of days before the wedding. As the maid of honour I was expected to attend everything and even sub the other attendees when booking. The costs I put on my credit card ended up being astronomical."
"I was cancelling holidays and drinking tap water on nights out," says Helen. "It felt like I was putting my own life on hold so that my friend could have the wedding that she wanted. By the time the big day rolled around, all I could think of was how long it was going to take me to pay back all the money I’d ended up spending."
Helen is far from the only bridesmaid feeling the pinch as a result of a bride-to-be's over-the-top demands. In 2018, seasoned wedding attendee Georgina Childs made headlines after she appeared on This Morning claiming to have been forced to move back in with her parents after spending £13,000 attending 14 weddings and 13 hen dos in four years. One particularly pricey pre-wedding party cost her over £600.
Yet Georgina’s spending is hardly exceptional. Research shows that bridesmaids often pay dearly for the privilege of walking their friend down the aisle; in 2017, the average spend was a staggering £659, according to a study from American Express. And though the pandemic has put many weddings and plans on hold, the easing of restrictions means we are back in wedding season, which comes with a cost.
"The most I’ve spent on bridesmaid duties was probably about £850," 27-year-old Gia* from Cardiff tells me. "I think that brides sometimes forget that while their wedding is the biggest, most exciting thing that’s happening to them, it’s just one of many things that other people have going on in their life – they might have budgeted for a wedding but their bridal party have been totally unaware that suddenly they’ve got to factor in all these extra costs."
While bridesmaids might once have footed the bill for their dress and shoes, the pressure to have the perfect wedding now extends far beyond the big day itself. After all, if your hen do doesn’t have its own hashtag then did it really happen? A pint and a boogie at the local pub for your bachelorette just doesn’t cut it anymore, with a Pinterest-fuelled competitiveness pervading the build-up to the big day. A quick search for the hottest bridal party trends shows that matching swimsuits in blinding white are popular for beachside bachelorettes, while bathrobes emblazoned with 'Bride Squad' are now a go-to get-up for the morning of the wedding. When added to the £391 that the average British wedding guest already forks out on expenses including hotels, gifts and transport, these little extras can tip a pricey occasion over into unaffordable.
"When planning a wedding, the bride should most certainly take into account the financial feasibility of each of her bridesmaids as she is planning out the expenses," advises etiquette expert and former wedding coordinator Elaine Swann. "The bride should communicate financial commitments in advance, giving bridesmaids the opportunity to accept or decline."
Communication certainly seems like a fair and straightforward way of ensuring that bridesmaids know the potential costs they should be prepared to pay. But for some, pushing back against these expectations can be problematic.
"I was asked to be a bridesmaid by a close friend from university and I was thrilled, but staying the night at the wedding venue would have been really expensive and I hadn’t anticipated it," explains Rachel*, 29. "As a recent graduate I was looking at ways I could cut my costs and I asked the bride if I could stay at one of the local, more affordable B&Bs. She was outraged and told me at length how I was letting her down. In the end, I agreed I would stay on site and suck up the cost."
Yet Rachel ended up even more out of pocket when she was dropped from bridesmaid duties after further fallings-out.
"Our friendship came to an end after a dramatic showdown that started with an argument about the cost of the hen do menu," she recalled. "After a 20-minute phone call peppered with harsh words, we never spoke again. By this point, I had already invested in the wedding, both in terms of time and because I'd paid a large amount of money towards the hen do, contributing significantly to the bride's place too."
As the cost of attending a wedding continues to creep up, stories like Rachel's will only become more common. Can there ever be a tactful way of telling a bride that their demands are putting too much of a dent in your wallet?
"The best way to approach this is to be completely honest and forthcoming," says Elaine. "It will be painful and the bride will be frustrated, but I have found that good friendships are able to weather this sort of storm. You could opt out of being a bridesmaid but offer to assist with the wedding in some other way, such as serving as a hostess or doing a special reading at the ceremony."
Extravagant weddings seem to be the new normal and it's easy to see why. With #weddinginspo saturating social media, many of us have soaring expectations of the lengths to which our friends should go to make sure that we get the picture-perfect wedding and hen do that we dream of. But perhaps the people that we choose to accompany us on that heart-stopping walk down the aisle matter more than that Marbella weekend you’ve been eyeing up for a last single-ladies hurrah. Your bridesmaids will be some of the most important people in your life, the people who want to be beside you for a day that you’ll remember forever. That’s worth more than some penis straws and the price of a stripper.