It started in 1984, my wedding-ageddon, the total collapse in whatever you might call my “look”. I was 11. I didn’t even have a look, and yet I already knew how to mess it up. I wore a drop-waisted dress because I thought an actual waist-waist was childish, but this made me look like an incompetent chambermaid.
Having some dim notion that I shouldn’t wear white, in case the bride was wearing white, I compromised on a dress of cream cotton; instantly crumpled, I looked as if someone had slept on me overnight. Plus, cream is still basically white. Obviously I didn’t own a pair of cream shoes and my mum didn’t see the necessity of such an impractical purchase, so I’m in my school shoes. And thus, a career was born of wedding-fashion faux pas. It’s only mitigated by the fact that damn near everybody does it.
So, of course, the first mistake is that you’re worrying about upstaging the bride. No white, nothing too flouncy, nothing with a dramatic silhouette, no cleavage, no mini skirts, nothing showy, nothing monochrome. These are the most pointless precautions in the world. If you are so gorgeous that all eyes are drawn naturally towards you, wearing a navy-blue wrap dress that you bought for a meeting with HR isn’t going to help.
The rest of us can relax: we’ll never upstage the bride because she’ll be the one at the front, sniffing and smiling. Plus, having got married myself not so very long ago (I was a late adopter), I can tell you on behalf of brides that we would much, much rather you came dressed up in a rhinestone-encrusted Phillip Lim jumpsuit, looking like a thousand pounds, than you threw on the chiffon mid-calf number that you’ve been wearing for so long that your asymmetrical hemline came briefly back into fashion and went back out again. Think of the pictures! Who wants to look back on this happy day in years to come and think, “Whoa! My friends were square”?
For my first proper-friend wedding, I was a bridesmaid, so can comfortably blame her. Yet it was within my power at any point to say, “Look, no. I’m 28 years old and I’m no sylph. I can’t wear this lacy, shapeless item that, even with a slipdress underneath, still looks like a kind of hyper-feminine hospital gown.” Not to mention, “My feet are a size 8, and these are a size 7. And all I’ll be thinking throughout this beautiful day will be ‘Ow’.”
Generally, though, you have no one to blame but yourself, and here a peculiarity creeps in: for the occasion itself, you know you have to look fancy; and yet it’s still just you, buying a big-ticket item for yourself. So you might drop a lot of money on a dress, but that will ever after be your Dress That You Wear To Weddings. You just can’t justify updating every year, or even every five years. It would be like buying designer loafers for a baby.
This will lead you into some hideously anachronistic outfits: spaghetti straps; splashy florals; kitten heels. I haven’t even used the phrase “kitten heels” since the 20th century, and yet they crept into an outfit in 2012. Look-recycling leads, furthermore, to the famous weather faux pas, where you’re wearing a summer dress to a winter wedding, and you think it’s going to be fine if you throw on a pashmina, but all that does is slightly warm up one shoulder, and alert the world to the fact that you own a pashmina. Heaven forfend that your One Dress should be modelled on Desperate Housewives, circa 2005, when the Right Size was the Tight Size.
And, finally, there are the decisions you make that are simply governed by wedding convention; you know not why you did it, any more than the happy couple knows why they released a dove (which just looked really stressed) or dropped a fortune on paper flowers. You know the stuff I mean: fascinators; shoes made of satin; stupid tiny bags that are really only capacious enough for a piece of paper and are, coincidentally, in the shape of envelopes; sequins or, worse, colourful beads; those dresses that look like a craft experiment from Blue Peter (“Yes! You, too, can liven up that shapeless jersey item with this appliqué made by a primary-school child”).
Maybe this is part of a beautiful, collective subconscious statement – “We care so much about this happy couple that we’re prepared to sacrifice our entire chic in their honour.” But if that’s the case, ask yourself: is it really what they want? Are you really doing what’s best for them?
Zoe can be found tweeting at @zoesqwilliams