If you invite a guest to your bridal shower, should you also invite them to your wedding? If a guest is invited to both the wedding and the bridal shower, shouldn't she buy a gift for both events? If the same guest is invited to several showers, does she take a gift to every shower?
Next to dollar dances and cash bars, showers are probably the touchiest area of wedding etiquette. It's no coincidence that all three involve guests paying costs above and beyond the usual wedding gift… and that, for every guest who thinks the tradition is great fun, there's another guest who sees signs of bridal greed.
Ideally, the bride is not at all involved in planning her own shower. These days, though, the maid-of-honor is probably a college friend who doesn't know any of the bride's high school or work friends, and the bridesmaid who is a sister, and thus knows all the high school friends, lives in another state and doesn't know the future in-laws. The bride therefore ends up providing a tentative invitation list.
When the bride provides the invitation list, invitations go only to people who were invited to the wedding. Some interpret this rule to mean that shower invitations go to every female guest who was invited to the wedding-but, if a large wedding is planned, following this advice is a good way to earn the poor bride a reputation for greediness. Be selective and invite people who are likely to want to attend. The bride's close friends, old buddies, and near relatives probably want to come. The groom's relatives may want to come. The groom's graduate advisor's wife, who has never met the groom, much less the bride, probably does not want to come.
There is one exception to the "shower invitations only for wedding guests" rule. If the bride's co-workers spontaneously decide to throw a shower for her, they may do so without worrying about whether any of them were invited to the wedding. In some workplaces, small parties for new brides are a friendly tradition, and no one expects an invitation to the wedding.
If we have an invitation list, we must have a host to issue the invitation. Showers can be hosted by anyone except the bride, the bride's mother, and sisters who are not in the wedding party. The maid-of-honor usually hosts one shower, but a maid-of-honor who lives 700 miles away and is scraping together pennies to attend the wedding should not be expected to drop everything so that she can make a special visit to host a shower.
Since showers can be hosted by anyone who feels like it, a bride can certainly have multiple showers. When the bride has a job in one state, a family in another, and a wedding planned in a third, holding multiple showers can be a practical way to give each different circle of friend a chance to celebrate. It's also fine for a bride to have, say, one shower hosted by her godmother and attended by older friends of the family, and another shower hosted by her maid-of-honor and attended by friends of their own age.
In general, guests are invited to only one shower. Members of the wedding party are invited to all showers. However, since most brides today are adults whose friends have jobs, school, or families of their own, it is very important to note that bridesmaids are not expected to actually attend five or six showers. It is not dereliction of duty for a bridesmaid to put a final exam, a job deadline, or a colicky child ahead of her best friend's third shower.
Now, the issue you've been waiting for: gifts. Practices vary regionally. In some regions, shower guests buy significant gifts from the registry, then only give a card or token gift at the wedding. More common, however, is the practice of giving a small gift at the shower and a larger gift at the wedding. Shower gifts are often built around a theme, such as "gardening," "kitchen," or "lingerie." A shower can even be designed to cost the guests nothing: one clever host held a "poetry" shower in which each guest wrote a special poem for the bride. A bridesmaid who is invited to multiple showers would give only one shower gift.
Shower gifts ordinarily require a handwritten thank-you note. Most showers are held within six weeks of the wedding; however, when travel schedules are difficult, a shower can be held earlier or later. It is even acceptable to combine a shower with the bridesmaids' luncheon or bachelorette party-a practical move if the bride's closest friends live in different states. In this case, the bride can host the event by providing food and space, but the "shower" part of the celebration should be a surprise planned by someone else. If the shower is held within a week of the wedding, few guests will be offended to receive one thank-you note for both presents.
It's important to note that not all brides have showers. Some don't want one; others have such far-flung friends that it's impossible to organize one. Brides who simply want to have fun with their attendants shouldn't wait for someone to organize a shower: it is always acceptable to host a party for your friends, as long as you don't call it a shower or expect gifts!