Forget the Rockettes look — bridesmaids are individuals, too

At the turn of this century, only an unmarried woman could be a bridesmaid. Now a best friend, male, can stand by the bride's side. A half-century ago, a bride was barely 20 when she said her vows; now she's closer to 30, ditto for her bridesmaids. And not that many years ago, every bridesmaid framed the bride in a cascading line of the very same dresses in the very same color, looking more like Rockettes in ball gowns than the sophisticated women of the world that they are today.

Well, they don't look like look-alikes anymore. Bridesmaids have never looked lovelier, because recent trends tap into their older and wiser years to let them emerge with almost as much individual expression in what they wear as the bride herself.

The bride is the one who chooses the overall theme and style of her wedding, but not without input from her bridesmaids. And today, most of them want dresses they can wear again after the wedding, and they want styles that look like evening fashions everywhere else: in other words, really beautiful dresses and, frequently, sexy ones at that.

Currently, that translates into two-piece dresses or dresses that might be in the same fabric and color, but in different silhouettes for each bridesmaid.

"The newest thing is how close the bridesmaids' dresses are to ready-to-wear evening fashion," notes Millie Martini Bratten, editor-in-chief of Brides magazine. "By that, I mean separates, a really great-looking tank top or slim top with a slim skirt and, say, a thin beaded belt. Or a strapless dress. It's evening glamour."

At the Dallas-based Watters & Watters evening wear company, company vice president Maria Prince says it was her company that started two-piece dressing for bridesmaids 13 years ago. But she agrees with Bratten that this trend has never been as popular as it is right now.

She says that when bridesmaids choose to have their own styles — say, an A-line skirt for one, a slim skirt for another, or different styled tops — the unifying look is the same fabric in exactly the same color. That's because it is ordered from the manufacturer or designer at the same time to ensure that the different styles can be cut from the same dye lot.

"We recommend eight weeks for ordering," says Prince. "But that means eight weeks from the time you order, not from the time you start looking."

The Internet has been a boon to the process: Web sites are a wonderful way for the bride and her attendants to be looking at the color and style of what the bride has in mind.

Ideally, she and her bridesmaids will confer three to four months from the wedding date, allowing bridesmaids enough time for any alterations once they get their gowns.

Prince says most bridesmaids like to get their dresses one month prior to the wedding.

Donna Morgan, who designs a special occasion line of wedding dresses says, "Feminine dressing is what's new. I have used fabrications that are younger in feel, like crushed taffeta, satin, stretch and satin shantung. And the most significant difference in the bridesmaids' dresses this season is the back interest. It's about keeping the front simple with simple necklines, then in the back, adding strappy looks, low-cut backs, drawstrings. It's really the back that's new — it adds sex appeal."

Watters & Watters likes to look at backs, too, accenting them with everything from tiny satin bows to beads, embroidery and peekaboo slits.

In two-piece dresses, there are a lot of stretch microfiber styles to key in on the slimmer silhouettes. And, yes, there are still bouffant skirts, but not the ones of yore. Now they're transparent, frequently in chiffon, and float on top of slim skirts underneath.

As for accessories, the trends also mimic those found for glamorous evenings. Small satin bracelet bags or slim beaded clutches like those from Judith Leiber not only reflect the ready-to-wear trends, but make perfect gifts to the bridesmaids from the bride.

Another smash hit with bridesmaids echoes the craze that has wrapped up the entire fashion world. Yes, pashmina shawls are even heading down aisles.

Bratten says, "Pashmina shawls or shawls made out of the same fabric or shawls all in the same color are great unifying looks." They, too, could be the gift from the bride.

Finally, when the bride goes shopping for her bridesmaids' dresses in stores, Bratten recommends that she take only one attendant. She shared a "great suggestion" she received from a Brides magazine reader: "She took the bridesmaid who was hardest to fit with her, and that way, she knew the style would work for everyone else."

Whatever style that might be, you can bet that for today's bridesmaids, it's a style she'll wear again.