050914_insider_bridesmaidsBridesmaid dresses. For generations those two words have caused cringing from any woman familiar with the over-the-top — and far too often taffeta — tradition.

What seems, by most accounts, to have begun as a superstitious way for medieval brides to confuse bad spirits with a gaggle of women dressed in matching dresses, has transformed over the centuries into the bridesmaids of today — friends who help plan the extravagant parties that lead up to the main event and dress the bride for the Big Day.

But while brides may no longer fear evil spirits, the matching-dress concept has stuck around. In many cases, bridesmaid dresses provide an esthetically pleasing backdrop to the bride in photos or go well with the flower arrangements, but for some women, they can be a special kind of torture.

Karen Mazer remembers when she was a bridesmaid, and the bride picked a dress that, Mazer says, was “not quite as modest on top as I would have preferred.” Instead of having fun and enjoying the wedding and reception, she spent a lot of the day rebuffing requests made by male guests to pick quarters up off the ground.

Esther Apt’s friend allowed her and the other bridesmaids a little more flexibility in style. But what the group won in cut, they lost in fabric when the trend-savvy bride chose a specific fabric from which she wanted each woman’s dress to be cut.

“It seemed like it would be fun,” Apt says of the chance to design her own bridesmaid dress, “but it wasn’t.” Left with a couple yards of bulky, stiff silk in a color Apt describes as “mermaid green,” she was desperate to find someone who could make her a dress.

Living in Detroit at the time, Apt learned of a local woman who many Orthodox girls went to for custom dresses. She and her mother met with the woman and flipped through a book of patterns. Just a few pages in, they realized the seamstress wasn’t only popular among the Orthodox crowd.

“Her whole album was filled with modern Orthodox girls and transvestites,” says Apt.

Having had a lot of experience in working with some outlandish fabrics, the woman managed to turn the green, metallic yards of fabric into a dress for Apt, but only so much could be done to the stiff fabric, says Apt.

“It felt like I was wearing a bag,” she adds. “It felt like a costume.”

And despite the age-old “you can wear it again” line, a costume is exactly what the dress will become, says Apt. Sitting in her mother’s closet for almost eight years now, the dress is just waiting for the right young girl to pick it out for a game of dress-up.

When Shawn Hyatt married her husband in 2007, the perfect dress turned into a perfect nightmare just days before the wedding.

Hyatt saw the dress she wanted her bridesmaids to wear — a floor-length gown with spaghetti straps and a cowl neck — in a movie well before she even started planning her wedding. Six months before she was supposed to walk down the aisle, she had her bridesmaids place their orders. Weeks later, she and her bridesmaids took the dresses to a local tailor to be sized for the women. One week before her wedding day, Hyatt accompanied her friends to the tailors to try the dresses on one final time only to discover that they had all been cut to different lengths. Two were floor-length, another came to the top of one woman’s ankles, another was knee-length and the final dress hit mid-calf.

“I was crying,” says Hyatt. Not only was her wedding party’s attire in shambles, but “they just spent $200 on dresses.” Now, they had to start from scratch with just six days until the wedding.

Luckily for Hyatt, she and her bridesmaids were able to find new dresses at Nordstrom that same day. The color was a little brighter than Hyatt had wanted, but, she says, “[the bridesmaids] ended up liking the new dresses better.”

To the relief of thousands of women across the country, Mazer, who owns Synchronicity Boutique in Pikesville, says the trend of totally matching bridesmaids is fading.

Lately, Mazer says she has seen a lot of brides pick a color and allow their bridesmaids to select from about five or so style options.

“Imagine being asked to spend $275 on an ugly dress,” says Mazer. In the case of many traditional bridesmaid dress options, she added, “it seems like the ugliest materials are put together, and they’re expensive.”

With more accommodating trends emerging, sometimes even incorporating a spectrum of color, it’s possible that someday bridesmaids really can wear that dress again.

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