Purpose still the same, but showers sure have changed

Back when Reni Schriek’s mother got married, the bridal shower was a potluck get-together with her girlfriends.

“They were all 20 years old, and that’s all they could afford,” said Schriek, who consults with brides through her business, TruSo, in Del Mar.

But times have changed. Once a mere formality filled with homemade cake, punch and gifts for women getting married, a shower now sometimes takes on nearly as much significance as the big event it precedes.

“A long time ago, the maid-of-honor was throwing the shower, and now it’s all the bridesmaids, so that’s why it’s getting so out of control,” said Schriek. “Plus, people are getting married later, and the older you are the more money you have.”

Some of these elaborate celebrations now take place in hotels, teahouses or restaurants, but many hosts still prefer the intimacy of a private home.

According to a popular legend recounted in the circa-1924 “New Book of Etiquette” by Lillian Eichler, the first shower was held for a young Dutch woman. She wanted to marry a miller who was popular and generous, but poor. Her father was displeased with the match and decided to withhold his daughter’s dowry if she insisted on marrying the miller. The townspeople knew the couple was in love and wanted them to be happy, so they decided to pitch in and give small gifts that would replace the dowry. In the 1890s, when the practice of giving dowries was no longer the fashion, the custom of showering betrothed couples with gifts took hold.

The purpose of every shower is the same — a party where friends and relatives gather to socialize, eat and help the bride embark on her new life. But one size doesn’t exactly fit all.

These days, a shower might be anything from a proper tea party to an indulgent spa weekend to a naughty lingerie party.

For couples, a “stock the bar” shower is a popular recent theme, Schriek said. Guys get to pick up manly gifts like bottles of booze, and girls often select things like linen cocktail napkins and sets of barware.

A multitude of Web sites such as www.ultimateshower.com, www.4showers.com and www.blushingbride.com offer plenty of ideas for party themes, games, menus and favors for people planning their own shower.

Others opt to leave the stress of creating a fabulous shower to a professional. Caterer Andrew Spurgin starts planning a party by first taking his clients through a personality questionnaire to get a feel for who they are.

“I have come up with a clinical process of trying to get to the bottom of it,” he said. “The oddest things come out when you have people start answering questions. They might say I love butterflies, Prague and brioche.”

If the bride seems to be more traditional, he might suggest a menu that includes currant scones with clotted cream and jam. A more adventuresome type might be satisfied with a savory scone flavored with goat cheese, fresh rosemary and lemon zest.

Desserts might be anything from one single cake to lots of miniature desserts.

Many shower planners are inspired by a certain theme and choose the decor and food to create an atmosphere. If you are in the midst of planning a bridal shower, here’s how to give an elegant tea party with a subtle Asian motif:

• Choose plates with a subtle design, such as a Chinese character or small pagoda. Pale aqua place mats with glass-beaded trim, crisp white linen napkins wrapped with a lotus-blossom napkin ring complete the look and add a hint of whimsy.

• The look of a tiered wedding cake can be mimicked with a tower of cupcakes piled on three graduated silver cake stands. Chocolate-dipped strawberries, poppy-seed madeleines with lavender cream, sour cherry scones filled with jam and double cream, and wedges of shortbread with lemon curd and fresh raspberries complete the desserts.

• For a finger-food party, 9-inch plates, rather than standard dinner plates, are easier for guests to handle as they move around the room playing games and mingling.