Bridal showers have been standard operating procedure for generations. Centuries, in fact. Showering the bride with gifts before her wedding is a Dutch custom that dates back to the days of dowries. In her book “The New Book of Wedding Etiquette” (Prima Publishing, 2001), author Kim Shaw explains that the tradition began when “a girl married a poor milliner whom her parents considered unworthy.” When the disapproving parents refused to give the girl a dowry, the townspeople “rallied together and ‘showered’ the couple with gifts.” Over the years, friends of the bride and groom have turned what began as a neighborly gesture into a wedding custom as accepted— and expected— as the “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” custom.

Bridal showers or luncheons themselves have become pretty standard, too. Typically, all-female guests munch on tea sandwiches and cake, making polite conversation and oohing and aahing on cue as the bride opens towels, mixers, place settings and measuring cups. A variation is the lingerie shower, at which a bawdy bridesmaid offers up risqué gift items while the bride tries to maintain dignity in the presence of her grandmother.

Today, many bridal shower hostesses and hosts— the guys are getting into the act, too— have taken the traditional bridal event and given it a newer twist, often with a theme culled from the bride and groom’s interests or lifestyle.

When Melissa Stark, the Baltimore-born-and-bred sideline reporter for ABC’s “Monday Night Football,” became engaged to bond trader Mike Lilley, family friends seized on the couple’s love of Mexican food as a great excuse to host a co-ed Cinco de Mayo Shower. Food and décor were decidedly South of the Border, and guests were encouraged to dress with Mexican flair and bring a gift for the bar or grill. As a result, Melissa and Mike, who wed in May 2001 and live in New York City, have what it takes to make some of the best— and most stylish— margaritas and fajitas in town.

It wasn’t a shower, but Melissa Stark and her mother, Polly, turned a common bridesmaid’s lament— what to do with the bridesmaid’s dress after the wedding— into an unforgettable bridal luncheon for Melissa’s childhood friend Louise Barroll on the day before her Dec. 16, 2000, wedding to Geoff Suval. The invitation said it all: “Nach-o Average Bridesmaids’ Luncheon, Who said you would never wear that bridesmaid’s dress again?”

Guests were required to wear their most memorable former bridesmaid’s gown. “It was a scream,” recalls Melissa. “Everybody would ask ‘Whose wedding did you wear this in?’ or ‘Oh my God, this is awful.’

Another popular theme is the Around the House Shower. The idea is simple: on the invitation, each guest is assigned a room in the house, and gifts are purchased accordingly. In October 2000, Liz Fordi, with help from her brother-in-law-to-be, took the concept to a heartfelt theatrical extreme when Liz hosted a shower for her sister Risa. Love of home resonated in the invitations and decorations. Liz designed gift tags in the shape of houses and enclosed one in each invitation. Rather than assigning each guest a room, she encouraged them to use their imagination and write the room of their choice on the tag. Colorful paper houses, open at the top and filled with flowers, served as centerpieces, and corrugated cardboard cutouts in the shape of houses displayed photographs of the six homes in which the bride had lived.

The family was thrilled to welcome Dicky Bertodatti into the family, but they also realized that his December marriage to Risa would be followed with a move to the house he owned in Red Bank, N.J. To give family and friends a look at Risa’s new home, Liz asked Dicky to secretly videotape the white, clapboard colonial and its interior spaces for the occasion.

He began the video with his best impersonation of Mr. Rogers, donning a sweater and slippers and inviting everyone to the neighborhood. He changed costumes throughout— a bathrobe for the bathroom, an apron for the kitchen, and a flannel shirt for the unfinished basement. As Risa opened gifts, Liz screened appropriate segments of the home video.

Gifts included homemade preserves and canned goods for the basement pantry, cookware for the kitchen, and Christmas ornaments that would eventually be stored in the attic. “I just loved it,” recalls Susan Fordi, mother of the bride. “The video was such a nice surprise. And Dicky’s side of the family got a kick out of seeing him as such a featured player at the shower.”

Similar in concept are the Around the Clock Shower and the A to Z Shower, in which guests are assigned hours of the day or letters of the alphabet. A friend and I hosted a co-ed version of the latter several years ago, pairing up guests who knew each other well on several letters and encouraging a loose, humorous interpretation of the theme. The results included barware for “B” and a handmade, monogrammed blanket for catching “Z’s.” But “H” took the prize when the bride and groom received an hors d’oeuvres cookbook, a horseshoe set, and monogrammed hard hats.

While construction headgear may not be on your bridal registry, wedding planner and etiquette expert Shaw remains a big fan of the theme shower.

“Having a theme allows the bride and groom to really hone in on what they want,” she explains. “It’s clever and allows the hostess or host to do a little more with the invitations, decorations and food.” Think big, have fun, but remember that a memorable shower is in the details, she adds. For example, Shaw recommends a Landscaping Shower for the couple who has just bought a house and can’t wait to spruce up the yard. Invitations and decorations can take on an informal garden flair. Picture a centerpiece of lush sod on a tray with photos of the bride and groom as plant markers, food served from terra cotta pots, a profusion of herbs, and gifts of garden furniture, tools, seeds and seedlings.

For their own wedding shower in the summer of ’97, Shaw and her husband, Rohan Gibbs, were treated to a shower that fit their interests perfectly. Both are avid campers (Gibbs even gave Shaw a 15-foot canoe as an engagement gift); so friends organized a Camping Shower and brought gifts of outdoor equipment and paraphernalia. It all came in handy on the couple’s camping honeymoon in the Finger Lakes of New York.

Shaw also tells of a client who was guest of honor at a Holiday Shower. The enterprising and imaginative host assigned each guest a holiday, such as Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Memorial Day. “When you are first married, you usually don’t have such things as a turkey platter for Thanksgiving or a flag and sparklers for the Fourth of July,” says Shaw. “It’s the type of gift that is out-of-the-ordinary and truly appreciated by the bride and groom.” She recalls the creative assortment of gifts ranging from champagne glasses and heart-shaped cake pans for Valentine’s Day to beach towels for Memorial Day. Thanks to the Internet, guests were able to find most of the holiday-specific items they were looking for, including buying Easter-egg dyeing kits in November.

Today, more and more people are hosting showers outside of the home at destinations that usually involve an activity. When Stacy Young Correll’s bridesmaids planned her March 2001 shower, deciding on what type of shower gifts to buy was easy. Stacy is an avid amateur chef, so having a Cooking Demonstration Shower was an appropriate choice. Bridesmaids Beth West, Noelle Dunlap, Jill DelloStritto Velasquez and Jennifer White booked an afternoon at A Cook’s Table in Federal Hill (410-539-8600). A professional chef helped the all-female crowd prepare an Asian-style meal of spring rolls, salmon, hot Asian slaw and brandy-soaked peaches for dessert. The guests enjoyed the meal while the chef gave shopping and cooking tips. Stacy opened kitchen accoutrements while guests signed a white chef’s apron as a memento for the bride.

Equally popular are Pottery Painting Showers at paint-your-own-pottery studios, where guests paint bisque ware pre-selected by the bride or the hostess. When matron of honor Kim Morrison planned a shower for bride Jennifer Siler in the fall of 2000, she and fellow bridesmaids rented the Amazing Glaze pottery studio in Mount Washington (410-532-3144) and selected eight dinner plates shaped like tropical fish, one of the bride’s favorite things. She divided up the 40-or-so guests into smaller teams. “Four or five people worked on one plate together, taking turns with the painting,” says Kim. “Guests who didn’t know each other got to meet over the painting. People really personalized the plates with slogans.” One group created an Orioles fish complete with the No. 8, a nod to Jennifer’s love of Baltimore baseball. After the painting session, the group continued the fish theme by walking to Hoang’s Oriental Seafood Grill for a sushi dinner.

As for the plates, which Kim intended as casual china, the bride and groom loved the finished fired products so much they have hung them around their Locust Point kitchen.

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