- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 24, 2006

Brides-to-be over the years have promised their bridesmaids dresses that they’ll love, that they’ll wear over and over again. But on what occasion is it appropriate to trot out pink taffeta and a train?

Bridesmaids’ gowns of late have veered away from ribbons and bows, tending toward simpler silhouettes and on-trend colors to resemble the same kinds of elegant cocktail dresses found at women’s ready-to-wear retailers.

That transition sets the stage for new lines from companies such as J.Crew and Ann Taylor, both of whom in the past year have introduced collections of dresses and separates that cater to brides and bridesmaids. Both companies say the garments are appropriate for celebrations of all sorts, including graduations, anniversaries, even a jazzy birthday party — Ann Taylor even calls its line Celebrations.

“The wedding industry in general has gotten more fashionable,” says Millie Martini Bratten, editor in chief of Brides magazine. “It’s for bridesmaids and bridal gowns, too. It used to be the clothes were ‘ceremonial.’ It used to be that everyone dressed absolutely identically. It wasn’t a fashion show; it was a tradition, and people wore customary clothes. All of that is still true, but the clothing is contemporary.”

Today’s brides and bridesmaids tend to be older, and the styles aimed at 28-year-olds are different from the glorified prom dresses that 20-year-olds might have wanted a generation ago. Though the brides generally still choose the bridesmaid dresses, they’ve grown more aware of what their friends would like to wear — and spend their money on, Miss Bratten says.

“Remember, this is a generation of people who mix casual and formal. They wear sequin tank tops with bluejeans,” she says.

There is a built-in market for these dresses. According to the Conde Nast Bridal Group, the average cost of a bridesmaid’s dress is $138, and a typical wedding party includes five bridesmaids, for a total of $690 per wedding. It’s also estimated that 23 million people will be bridesmaids or groomsmen this year, so figure half are women needing a dress.

The outfits from J.Crew and Ann Taylor take cues from what’s going on in ready-to-wear fashion, offering a range of necklines, silhouettes and formality.

“We were already providing ‘bridesmaid’ dresses that weren’t officially ‘bridesmaid’ within our regular dress line. Ann Taylor is known as a great dress resource, so we got the idea [for Celebrations] from our customers. It’s a way to give our customer the choices she wants,” says Adrienne Lazarus, president of Ann Taylor Stores.

What those customers will find is a core group of styles — a strapless dress with a fitted top and flared bottom is the best-seller — in a broad palette of colors. Black, navy, champagne and best-selling espresso brown are standards, but there also are seasonal colors, such as sage and cornflower blue.

“I think that these colors obviously make the dress more versatile. A color like coral is usually more bridesmaid,” Miss Lazarus says.

The brand also is offering print fabrics during the summer and jacquards during the fall.

“One of the things we’ve found [works] is taking silhouettes that are successful in our regular apparel line and translating them into bridesmaid dresses,” says Henna Lyons Maze, senior vice president of women’s design at J.Crew.

The biggest change from standard bridesmaid offerings from even five years ago is the fabrics, she says. “A lot of people got caught up in fancy fabrics, but that can be the killer that makes something difficult to wear again. An easier-to-wear fabric gives more places for the dress to go.”

J.Crew’s collection is heavy on silk faille, crinkle silk and cotton cady, a double-weave Italian copy that Miss Lyons Mazeau says takes color well.

“It looks expensive, but it’s not too fancy. You could wear it with flip-flops, too,” she says.

This winter, J.Crew will introduce velvet dresses.

Another trend in bridal-party fashion is outfits that are coordinated, but not matching. Bridesmaids can choose the styles that look best on them and then have them in the same fabric and color as everyone else.

Michael Smaldone, senior vice president of design for Ann Taylor Stores, says that as weddings in general have loosened up, so has the dress code.

“Silhouettes have changed so much over the years. Even if you cut off your lacy, frilly bottom from a dress from the ‘70s, the dress is still dated. Dresses are now more simple. Now you start off with a beautiful versatile silk,” he says. “The more understated the dress, the more modern it is.”

Still, brides want their bridesmaids to look special and like a team. That’s where accessories come in. A classic strapless dress becomes a bridesmaid’s dress with shoes and a shrug in the same color, Mr. Smaldone says.

Brides’ Miss Bratten also points to the very popular colored sash that’s being worn around the waist by bridesmaids across the country. “It’s a great way to tie the bridal party together,” she says.

Even though the dress shapes are more contemporary, Miss Bratten advises staying away from a dress that would be considered “trendy.” A baby-doll dress that looks cute now won’t look that way when you look at photographs years later.

“You want to keep the dress timeless. It’s OK to wear trendy accessories, though, because shoes wouldn’t be the main focus of the pictures,” she says.

Wedding stress

Finding the perfect bridal gown is the second-most-stressful part of getting married — the first being securing the location, according to a survey conducted on behalf of retailer David’s Bridal.

However, for the 501 recently engaged women who participated in a telephone poll conducted by Leflein Associates, shopping for bridesmaids dresses is hardly easy. Two-thirds say their biggest problem is finding a style that will fit and flatter each bridesmaid’s body type.

Meanwhile, 45 percent complain of a lack of styles, colors and sizes, and 37 percent dread fitting out-of-town bridesmaids.

Once brides are finished with all their fashion hassles, a handful see the humor in it all: 2.8 percent plan to wear their wedding dress to a costume party, and in Western states, that number goes up to 5 percent.

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