I received a package. I knew the bride was getting married and I knew I was probably on the short list, but I opened the mail from her to find a small card and a large insulated tumbler. On one side it was customized with my monogram, and on the other with the question "Will You Be My Bridesmaid?" This is a thing now.
While having a wedding party is functionally entirely optional, culturally it's something very few Americans go without. According to The Knot, 94 percent of 2015 brides had a bridal party, the average size of which was five. The gathering of those people used to be done in person, or with a phone call or handwritten note. However, bridesmaid (and groomsmen) proposals are becoming increasingly popular, with how-to articles on The Knot and Buzzfeed, hundreds of examples populating Etsy and Pinterest, and thousands of tags on Instagram.
Almost any object can turn into a bridesmaid proposal. There are scratch-off cards, customized Ring Pops, wine glasses (with boobs?), and even entire, intricate gift boxes. But what may seem like yet another wedding expense is also a natural progression for modern wedding planning. In a culture where, from the moment the engagement ring is on your finger, everything is Instagrammable, what used to be one moment in the wedding planning process is turning into a Moment all its own.
"It was a tad elaborate. More elaborate than my marriage proposal," said Rosemary, who was "proposed" to by her soon-to-be sister-in-law. She and the bride don't live in the same city, so Rosemary's mom delivered the box, inside of which was a box of chocolates and a balloon that said "pop me." And inside the balloon was a note asking Rosemary to be a bridesmaid, while underneath the note was another handwritten, more personalized note. While Rosemary was following instructions, her mom was filming the moment. "I was opening it in the middle of a construction zone by chance, so I was trying not to laugh at the setting." Still, she said, it was sweet. "I like that she put the effort in."
The reasons for even having a wedding party have evolved throughout wedding history. Originally bridesmaids served as witnesses, ensuring the bride was marrying willingly, and dressed like the bride to confuse evil spirits that may be trying to curse her. But in the 20th century, "serving as a bridesmaid for your female friends became a standard social rite of passage," writes Carol McD. Wallace in All Dressed In White: The Irresistible Rise of the American Wedding, "to the extent that by 1961… Barbie was equipped with a bridesmaid's dress."
Nowadays, being in a wedding party is more about support — emotional, physical and monetary. It's buying a dress or renting a tux, planning showers and bachelor/ette parties, being involved in wedding day logistics, and fielding 2am panicked phone calls. For that work, many couples want to make an extra effort to thank their friends for what they're about to do. "I think that it's a huge honor to be asked to be a bridesmaid or a groomsman," says Kelly Maxwell Cooper, Executive Editor at The Knot. "You're going to be asking a lot of them in the coming months, so you might as well butter them up beforehand." And while gifts for the wedding party distributed on the day of the wedding have long been common (small jewelry for the girls, flasks for the boys), couples are finding value in also doing something before things get started.
Bridesmaid Proposal gifts are instant personal tokens. For many couples, it's likely at least one of the wedding party members doesn't live in the same area, making an in person conversation impractical, and an email impersonal. "In the age of text messages, something as simple and personal as a handwritten letter in the mail becomes a treasured keepsake," says Lindsay Henry of Inklings Paperie, a company that offers custom bridesmaid proposal cards. And if you don't already have your own stationery, why not buy a small set of cards that says "will you be my bridesmaid?" And why not include a little chocolate or magnet or necklace with it?
"Elements are rarely dropped, but frequently added to the set of rituals that make up a wedding celebration," writes Wallace. When I asked my friend who proposed to me just where she got the idea to send us these customized tumblrs, she said she didn't know, and assumed she had seen something on Facebook or Pinterest while researching wedding ideas.
It's easy for bridesmaid proposals to live on the internet — they're intensely photogenic. Any search pulls up a hundred "unique" ways to do it, but it's far past the point of any one bride or groom inventing it on their own. It exists now. It's something that's done. We agreed that the custom made cups were adorable, but my friend admitted that if she hadn't heard of bridesmaid proposals in the first place, she may not have sent them.
Weddings are, especially in the social media age, a battle between appearing unique and living up to ever-escalating standards. On one hand, there is a trend for everything to be personalized. "I think that couples…want a day that is going to represent them. They want a day that no one else is going to have," says Cooper. The favors, centerpieces, and decorations must represent the couple somehow, as if guests will forget who they're celebrating. "The last thing a couple wants is their wedding to be cookie cutter. They want something that's completely unique, and nowadays everyone sees your wedding."
That "uniqueness" is dictated by what couples can see from other weddings, which has been calcified by photography. What was one meant for formal portraits now captures all manner of moments — the bride putting on her gown, the first look, the first kiss, the first dance. "The photographer-driven scripting of the wedding day actually nudged nuptials into a predictable sequence of events," writes Wallace, both in terms of how the day is mapped out to what "unique" elements can be adopted. There's the reception photobooth that went from being a quirky addition to nearly ubiquitous. Bridesmaids not only get the matching dresses, but now the matching floral robes for the "getting ready" photos. The bouquet toss now pretty much has to be to "Single Ladies." And bridesmaid proposals, while not yet a requirement, are certainly on their way.
The true meaning of weddings comes from the things you can't see. The signing of a legal document, the personal promise to a god, the years of building a relationship bit by bit. You can't photograph those.
"In a way, [being asked to be a bridesmaid] represents the culmination of years and years of friendship that have led up to a single moment," says Henry, when those years of friendship and support are intangible. At its worst, these new "traditions" are yet another attempt at keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, of fulfilling the standards that the "Wedding Industrial Complex" pushes on vulnerable couples who just want to do things right. But at their best, they are sweet, and maybe a little silly, attempts to show that the couple values the important people in their life. That it's not just about them, but about everyone involved. A bridesmaid proposal is just one more Moment, an attempt at visual proof, a code for the thing beneath the surface.