Big weddings require only slightly less planning than a covert military operation. When my two children announced their engagements—with weddings planned within six months of each other—friends poured out of the woodwork with wedding etiquette for parents and cautionary lessons, one-upping each other at every turn.

One friend reported that the shop containing the bridal and bridesmaid gowns burned to the ground two weeks before the wedding. Another overnighted her favorite pumps the day before the event only to discover two left shoes inside the box. Then there was the father of the bride who found out an hour before the ceremony that the hanging bag he’d brought from home contained his winter coat, not his beautiful new suit.

One son told his mother, ‘Wear beige and stay out of the way.’

Several stories involved officiants announcing the wrong name for the bride or groom. Usually this was only a minor substitution—Christy in place of Chris, for example—but one wedding involved the gender-bending nuptials of Donna and Paul instead of Paula and Don. In another, the best man’s name was substituted for that of the groom to the amusement of everyone except the priest who never figured it out.

Friends offered tales of church processions derailed by preschoolers. In one case, two flower girls alternated flinging and cleaning up rose petals as they meandered up the aisle for minutes on end. In another, a ring bearer overheated in his tuxedo, hid in a corner, and stripped down to his underpants as the music began.

A final story came from the mother of a groom who solicitously asked her son for any special instructions before his wedding. “Wear beige and stay out of the way,” came his request. Brutal.

Wedding Etiquette Rules? What Rules?

Determined to avoid both disaster and unscripted comedy, I sought guidance from etiquette books. One began by stating that readers should ignore other people’s advice because “there are no hard and fast rules.” What a relief because the remainder of the book created the distinct impression that not adhering to every rule had the potential to ignite an international incident.

Etiquette guides explain who pays for what (answers: “you” and “almost everything”) and the proper order of toasts in the unlikely event that everyone at the reception wishes to offer one (surprise: there is a correct order). They also advocate hosting a Bridal Tea the day before the wedding, as if British royals might drop by.

Etiquette guides explain who pays for what (answers: ‘you’ and ‘almost everything’).

Online websites offer a treasure trove of ideas for families intent on reaching the current average of $25,000 for a wedding. For example, videographers will record the entire proceedings for the bargain price of $3,000. For an additional charge, they’ll fly a drone overhead to capture a bird’s-eye view of outdoor festivities, so all the guests can feel like they’re extras in a war movie. Photo booths, where guests are photographed wearing a variety of masks and hats teeming with other people’s cooties, are also popular.

Bouquets, Baby!

After reserving the venues, our daughter’s first task was to select her wedding dress. In a stroke of great fortune, her favorite was offered at a terrific savings and could be altered and bustled to perfection for a mere double the purchase price. If bridal shops could find a way to charge a little more for alterations, they could give away the dresses without reducing their profit margins.

Videographers will fly a drone for a bird’s-eye view of outdoor festivities, so guests can feel like extras in a war movie.

After finalizing the bridesmaids’ colors, it was time to design bouquets and corsages. Our daughter kicked off the brainstorming by suggesting a natural look including succulents and pinecones for her winter ceremony. One florist got high marks for his creativity until he went for broke and emerged triumphant from a back room carrying a Jerusalem artichoke the size of a cantaloupe. It definitely looked natural, but we sensed that a line had been crossed and we were well on our way to fresh produce and grass clippings.

In the end, we contacted a more conventional florist who designed beautiful arrangements of hydrangeas, roses, and berries. Our daughter put me in charge of the mothers’ and grandmothers’ corsages, and I managed to stretch that task into a month of tortured equivocation. I called the groom’s mother four times in one week to confirm whether her mom’s dress was silver, platinum, or gray. It’s a wonder no one had me committed.

The Dress Mess

Then it was on to the dreaded task of outfitting me, which I pursued in secret. Whatever I wore would be in hundreds of wedding photos, many shot under glaring lights with a wide-angle lens. Unless hell had frozen over, a stunning physical transformation was unlikely, so I shopped for the least objectionable way to cover it all up.

A dress described as ‘open back’ means you’ll be humiliated, but at least your face won’t be in the photos.

Bridal magazines warned that “dressing a mother of the bride can actually be more difficult than dressing the bride.” One guide called my signature style—frumpy—a “scandal.” People in federal penitentiaries have been shown more mercy.

I browsed online and began receiving packages by the dozen, fretting over each option. I invited my sister to tell me that none of the outfits made my behind look big, even though we both knew better.

It’s easy to fall prey to deceptive marketers of formalwear, but I’ve learned to decode their unscrupulous hype. For example, “open back” means you’ll be humiliated, but at least your face won’t be in the photos. “Fit and flare silhouette” requires you to be liquefied and poured into the dress. The words “cut-out bodice” signal openings from which body parts may pop out without warning. A “cowl neckline” is designed for the rare woman with only one chin and smooth skin on her neck. And we all know what “Model is 5’10 and wears a size 4” means. We Rubenesque moms should look for descriptors like relaxed fit, long jacket, high neck, and below the knee. These words are our friends.

Underneath and On Top Of It All

After settling on a dress, I searched for magical undergarments that would create the illusion that my gym membership had not expired. Modern-day girdles called Spanx are engineered like those full-body polyurethane swimsuits that take Olympians hours to get into, cost $500, and shave nanoseconds off their lap times. For a slightly smaller price tag, Spanx will reduce the drag of your sparkly frock against whatever bulges beneath. Allow plenty of time to writhe and grunt your way into this undergarment, however, possibly starting the day before the ceremony, to raise the crotch above knee level.

Wedding hair only comes in two sizes: large and jumbo.

Last on my agenda was a practice run at the hair salon. After a good cut, my stylist asked, “How big is too big?” because wedding hair only comes in two sizes: large and jumbo. I insisted that the entire assembly had to fit inside my van so that I wouldn’t have to drive with my head out the window like a giant poodle.

The only remaining question was the quantity of hairspray. “Lacquered solid” were my instructions. The wedding was an all-day and night affair so my hair had to look as good at 11:00 p.m. as it did at 11:00 a.m. Most of an aerosol can later, my head was noticeably heavier but rated to withstand a Category II hurricane. A stiff breeze during the outdoor photo shoot would take out the entire wedding party before my hair moved. Perfect.

At Last: The Big Day

Preparations complete, it was on to the big day. I suited up in my compression undergarment and glittery sheath with long jacket designed to obscure the maximum square footage of my frame. A year later, I’m still picking glitter out of my van, but it was worth every penny.

Our daughter’s ceremony went off without a hitch. The flowers arrived on time, including the pink corsage I selected for the groom’s grandmother who wore a beautiful gown of either silver, platinum, or gray, depending on whether or not you’ve lost your mind. The youngest attendants kept their clothes on, I wore a right and left shoe, and no one was forced to wear beige and stand in a corner. The only wrinkle was a missing cake at the reception. We later learned the driver delivered the other confections but “forgot” our chocolate marble cheesecake inside his van, which, we suspect, also contained a fork.

A ring bearer overheated in his tuxedo, hid in a corner, and stripped down to his underpants as the music began.

Our son’s wedding six months later was a similar success. At the church, I greeted the bride’s mother and gave her a warm hug. She is about 20 years my junior with good hair and a flawless complexion. She wore a little sequined number that showed off her perfect figure including un-blubbery upper arms. Damn.

I leaned in to tell her she looked gorgeous. “Oh, thank you,” she demurred, “I’m wearing double Spanx.” Why didn’t I think of that?

Further Reading

Mother of the Groom: Everything You Need to Know to Enjoy the Best Wedding Ever

Notes from the Mother of the Bride (M.O.B.): Planning Tips and Advice from a Wedding-Day Veteran

The Knot Ultimate Wedding Planner & Organizer [binder edition]: Worksheets, Checklists, Etiquette, Calendars, and Answers to Frequently Asked Questions