What we wear to a wedding can make us feel like royalty, fabulous, or invisible.
by Kim Johnson Gross
MOB Kim Johnson Gross (center) with daughters Glenna (left) and maid-of-honor Carolyn (right) at a shower.
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My eldest daughter Glenna just called to discuss the latest in her wedding details. She ended our conversation by advising that I start the wedding diet. Three months to go and I’m still figuring out what to wear.
Like many first time mothers-of-the bride (MOB) or groom (MOG), I am discovering that this joyous life passage can be emotionally complex. Many of us remember when we were the ingénue bride, and then the ingénue mom upon the birth of our first child, who is now catapulting us into what may be soon our next incarnation—we hope—as “grandmother.” Talk about having to reassess our self-image.
Outside of cosmetic surgery and the almighty discipline of a wedding diet, what we wear can make the difference between feeling fabulous or invisible. As one Latina MOG told me, she dressed to let everyone know that “life continues and I’m still here.” She went for grown-up sexy—a fitted flamenco style dress with bare shoulders and just enough cleavage to avoid scandal.
While many young women have been dreaming of their wedding day since they heard their first fairy tale, few of us MOB/Gs have had fantasies of how to look on this auspicious occasion. And since traditional rules of etiquette have gotten fuzzy, the following guidelines are worth considering.
The bride may be the star, but you are best supporting actress. You should not be dressier than the bride, but you are a featured member of the celebration. Wear something a little extra special.
(Since some of the items displayed in this article may no longer be available, we’re linking you to a page where you’ll find similar styles. –editor)
WHAT TO WEAR
The elegance of Carole Middleton’s MOB dress suit outshone the royal dames. Her wool coat dress trimmed in satin and the matching silk shantung day dress were designed by Catherine Walker. The luxe fabrics, decorative embellishments and classic, but feminine, cut made it perfect for an afternoon urban wedding.
Left to right: Carole Middleton in Catherine Walker. Metallic jacquard skirt suit, $415, by Albert Nipon, find jacquard dresses at Neiman Marcus. David Meister illusion-neck peplum cocktail dress in navy, $595, find similar jacquard and lace dresses at Neiman Marcus.
For an an afternoon wedding that is not formal, a sheath in an elegant fabric is a classic that can easily be dressed up with MOB/MOG-worthy accessories. Left to right: St. John Milano knit dress, $795, find similar at Neiman Marcus. Pave-set rhinestone bracelet, $138, find other statement bracelets at Bloomingdale’s. Paule Ka ottoman dress, $1,125, and jacket, $975 and, reversed satin crepe dress, $845. Currently, find Paule Ka online.
Once the date, time and venue have been decided, ask your daughter if she would like to shop with you for this major mother/daughter bonding experience. If logistically that doesn’t work, do not commit to a dress without her approval. She might have a few ideas of how she would like you to appear.
It’s entirely appropriate for the MOB/G, grandmothers and stepmother to wear long dresses that are not overly ornate to an afternoon or early evening garden wedding, even when most guests will be wearing shorter dresses. Consider some sort of wrap if it’s a religious ceremony that requires modesty, or if it’s held outdoors.
Left to right: Garden print draped crepe de chine dress by Thakoon, $1,240, see similar floral print dresses at Bloomingdale’s. Collection XIIX sequin lace wrap, $58, see other lace wraps at Macy’s. Max Mara bingo stretch cotton sheath dress, $750, find similar at Neiman Marcus.
Play up your best features, but do not attempt to outshine the bride by wearing an over-the-top excessively embellished dress or anything overly revealing or seductive. Strive for elegance. Think sensual over sexy.
PEEK-A-BOO fabrics like lace are demure, yet alluring, and always feminine.
Left to right: Notte by Marchesa lace cocktail dress, $695. See the latest Marchesa designs. David Meister long sleeve dress with lace illusion, $490, and David Meister lace cocktail dress with embellished empire waist, find similar at Bloomingdale’s.
If the bride-to-be wants you to coordinate colors with her bridesmaid dresses, bring a swatch of fabric when shopping. If you prefer wearing dark colors, black is acceptable, but navy is the most requested color for MOB/Gs. Other popular colors include blush and shades of nude.
Left to right: Long navy jersey gown with beaded cap sleeves by Badgley Mischka, $890, Neiman Marcus. Badgley Mischka taffeta and lace peplum gown, $615, Saks Fifth Avenue. Badgley Mischka long sleeve sequin jersey gown, $640. Find similar gowns at Badgley Mischka and Neiman Marcus.
Traditionally, the MOB lets the MOG know what she is wearing. The MOG might then decide to wear a dress in a similar length or a complementary color, but this is entirely optional. For instance, one MOG told me she didn’t want to compete with the MOB who was a gorgeous ten years younger, so she found a dress in her favorite color. “I was not going to wear (the traditional MOG color) beige and keep my mouth shut.”
Left to right: One sleeve asymmetrical gown, $298, see other red gowns at Macy’s. Lace-embroidered gown, $548, see other blue lace gowns at Tadashi Shoji. Stepmothers and grandmothers should be made aware of what the MOB/G and bridal party are wearing, so they can choose something that is harmonious for family pictures. Mothers and guests usually stay away from wearing white, gold, and silver, colors that might upstage the bride. Metallics are suitable if they are subtle. Kay Unger lace mermaid gown, $700. Find other lace gowns by Tadashi Shoji.
WHERE TO SHOP
It can be challenging to find a flattering dress, and since originality may be key (you don’t want to find a guest wearing the same one) many mothers opt for custom-made. If you go this route, find a dressmaker with good references and see samples of her work. (See NYCitywoman’s The Best Dressmakers in New York City) Bring lots of photos of dresses you like to guide the discussion. You might like the shape of one dress, but want sleeves added, or the cut of a suit, but in a more ornate fabric. Also clarify who is responsible for selecting the fabric. Mood Fabrics is a great resource for luxurious designer fabrics. Be sure you factor in the time and number of fittings allotted when negotiating a price.
Above: Ensembles from Jackie Rogers, made-to-order, price upon request.
Women tend to spend more on clothes for special occasions, but I recently attended a wedding where the glamorous MOB wore a stylish tea dress she bought for under $100 on hautelook.com (now Nordstrom Rack). Of course, the best “investment” is to buy something you will enjoy wearing again.
Some MOB/MOG prefer wearing pants to even the dressiest of occasions. A wide pant leg is appropriate when worked in a delicate fabric that moves gracefully.
Left to right: Navy silk self-portrait top by Nanette Lepore, $298. See Eileen Fisher for a silk wrap. Black silk georgette wide leg pants by Eileen Fisher, $258, find similar at Nordstrom’s. Silver metallic sequin top, St. John, $1,295, find similar at Saks Fifth Avenue.
If you have the time and confidence, scour thrift shops and consignment shops for affordable accessories, especially evening bags. Boutiques that specialize in vintage clothing are also great sources for unique, quality clothing. (See NYCitywoman’s New York City Thrift Shop Chic)
When selecting shoes, look for comfort and style, especially if you anticipate spending a lot of time on your feet. Some brides and their mothers wear stilettos for the ceremony and change into dance shoes for the reception. Left to right: Badgley Mischka d’Orsay pumps, $215, find similar at Bloomingdale’s. Kate Spade New York Norella flats, $246. Or see Kate Spade for similar. If you choose to wear a bag at the reception, rather than lock it up in the bridal suite, keep it small. The large reflective pyramid-shaped beads add festive punch to this handbag, Lulu Square Stone Clutch. Sorry, now unavailable. See Bloomingdale’s for evening clutches.
Unless you are constant in your weight, put alterations off as long as possible. You may lose inches on a wedding diet, or conversely find yourself gaining them in pre-wedding celebrations. Be sure to wear appropriate shoes and undergarments when you have your dress tailored.
If you plan to hire a professional to do your hair and make-up the day of the wedding, plan for a trial run. And if you want to cut your hair dramatically, do so at least six months before the ceremony so you can regrow it if you’re not satisfied. Also bring photos of your dress and the hair styles you’re considering to your salon stylist.
False eyelashes can enhance photos and with practice you can learn to apply your own. I just did a pre-wedding try at Benefit Cosmetics, which also has an online make-up school designed for neophytes. At left, Helen Mirren with fabulous pink hair and false eyelashes—read a description of her makeup technique on Amanda Bell’s blog.
Spray tans are popular for brides, moms and the bridal party to smooth out skin tone, as are mani/pedis, all of which should be done the day before the wedding weekend starts.
Once you have every last detail in place, have a dress rehearsal and get your picture taken. It’s easier to scrutinize yourself in a photograph than a mirror.
Writing this article got me focused. I had bought a long one-shoulder “on trend” dress for my daughter’s formal wedding, and now realize there’s a good chance that several of the more svelte guests will be wearing a similar style. So my daughter and I will shop together for the dress that fulfills both our dreams for this special day. I only wish it was as easy for me to share the wedding diet with her!
Updated on Feb. 7, 2022
Kim Johnson Gross is the author of What to Wear for the Rest of Your Life and co-creator of the Chic Simple book series. She was Fashion Editor at Town & Country, Style Director at Avenue, Fashion Director at Esquire, and columnist for InStyle and More magazines. Visit Kim’s Fabulous Firsts After Fifty.