Mother of the Bride: Attire Etiquette Q&A

For your daughter's wedding, you're going to need a gorgeous dress. Here are the mother of the bride attire etiquette dos and don'ts.
by Amy Elliott
Bride and her mother
Brooke Courtney Photography

Mom, got a headache from all this dress drama? Before you go shopping for your mother of the bride dress ease your mind with these top etiquette tips.

Q. What's the dress-buying protocol for moms?

A. It's customary for the mother of the bride to purchase her dress first. Her choice is meant to subtly dictate what the mother of the groom will wear. However, this approach can be a little old-fashioned, not to mention a little unrealistic. There's always some factor that make abiding by tradition a lost cause. Our advice: Just play it by ear, and try to be flexible. It's not a competition.

Q. When the mother of the bride buys her dress, is it her duty to then politely "inform" the groom's mother? What happens?

A. Old-school wedding etiquette says "yes." She is expected to notify the mother of the groom (presumably to prevent overdressing, clashing colors, and other fashion faux pas.) And while it's certainly good form, it's not a requirement, especially if you're worried about seeming pushy or bossy. That said, the mother of the groom might really appreciate -- and even expect -- a heads up. You can either have your daughter subtly pass the details along, or, better yet, give her a call youself. Try to sound as friendly and non-territorial as possible: "I finally found a dress that fits! Do you know what you're wearing yet?" Chances are the mother of the groom will want to know more. Of course, she might be totally disinterested, but if that happens, don't sweat it -- you've been heard.

Q. Does the mother of the bride need to touch base with the groom's stepmother about the dress, or should she contact only the mother of the groom?

A. Divorced family situations can get sticky. Don't worry about the groom's stepmother. He'll let her know what you (and his mom) are wearing. You risk offending the mother of the groom if you formally involve her ex-husband's wife in the game plan.

Q. What are the color restrictions surrounding the mother of the bride's dress?

A. Traditionally, avoiding dresses in the white, ivory, and champagne color family (that match the bride's wedding gown), black gowns (that can suggest mourning) and red gowns(or similarly "flashy" shades) is the standard. Though we've seen moms in white who look tailored and elegant. We think black is classic, chic, and formal, and know that even red can be done with gorgeous good taste. The bottom line? Before you start shopping, talk to the bride. She may be very sensitive to the color issue or completely indifferent. If she expresses reservation, think about subdued-but-stately colors in the lavender, silver, burgundy, and blue families.

Q. Does the mother of the bride's dress color have to match the bridesmaids?

A. Some will swear by the "rule" that all the dresses must coordinate. And some brides really love that matchy-matchy look. But there are countless alternatives. Maybe stay within one color spectrum -- if the bridesmaids dresses are baby blue, for instance, the mother of the bride can wear navy. But mixing and matching can be ultra-stylish, too. What's most important, however, is that everyone feels comfortable and beautiful.

Q. When it comes to choosing the Mother of the Bride's dress, how much say does the bride have?

A. Definitely consult her on color -- she may have issues with certain shades (white, black, red) or want your dress to complement the bridesmaids' get-ups. She may also have ideas about style, length, and formality. Do try to respect her wishes -- her opinion should count for a lot, and if she wants long sleeves or if she likes you best in pistachio, what's the harm in obliging? Keep her guidelines in mind while shopping, but the dress you settle on should make you happy, too.

Q. How far in advance should the Mother of the Bride purchase her dress?

A. Start dress shopping as soon as possible. If you must put it off (maybe you're trying to firm up or just dread shopping in general), aim to have made a decision at least one month before the wedding. We know you're going to get around to it eventually -- just be sure to let the groom's mom know she can forge ahead without you and keep the bride informed of your progress.

Q. Does the Mother of the Bride have to get dressed up for the wedding, even if fancy isn't her style?

A. If it's an evening wedding, you're going to have to dress up more than usual. You don't want to stick out or appear disrespectful. But this doesn't mean you have to sport sequins and satin or velvet and rhinestones. There are many frill-free formal looks out there. Stick to your guns and you'll find an outfit (pants are okay!) that's unembellished, easy, and elegant -- perfect for your casual style.

Q. Can a young-looking MOB wear a strapless ball gown -- is there such a thing as looking too young or sexy?

A. On one level we think you deserve to wear a fabulously sexy dress, but on another, we're wondering how the bride will feel. If she's supportive, go for it -- you're both going to sizzle! But if your daughter seems concerned about "Mommy" turning heads, not acting her age, and otherwise upstaging her, let her be selfish. It's her day, not yours. Besides, you're not limited to "frumpy" or overly conservative attire at all. It's quite possible to be glamorous without ruffling any feathers.

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