We come now to those lush autumn weekends: weekends filled with dappled sunlight on crimson leaves, golden harvest moons and romantic fall weddings with bridesmaids wearing the gaudiest get-ups this side of a drag bar.

"All sanity and reason must leave a woman when she gets a diamond ring on her finger," says Renee Samuels, 23, a public relations professional in Baltimore.

Samuels has been a bridesmaid three times and, like all veterans of the experience, has emerged poorer and wiser. What starts out as a great symbol of friendship--"Would you do me the honor of being in my wedding?"--rapidly descends into an expensive, dyed-to-match taffeta nightmare. Given the increasing popularity of autumn weddings, this is a good time for some bridesmaids' tales to gently, but firmly, educate future brides.

Samuels, one of eight bridesmaids in her aunt's wedding last month, had thought she'd be wearing a soft rose-colored cocktail dress. She ended up in a shiny pink concoction of unnatural fibers, looking like a giant stick of bubble gum. "It was so pink," says Samuels. "I looked at myself and thought, 'I'm back in nursery school.' "

But there was more: pink and white fake-flower bouquets, pink gloves, pink shoes--none dyed to match exactly. This fetching ensemble set her back $400. She refused to stick pink flowers in her curls, which irritated the bride.

"The bride's goal is to make her look the best and make you look the worst," Samuels says. "I think it's completely subconscious."

The bride is the star and her attendants bit players in the modern-day extravaganza we call weddings, but creating a backdrop of pink or sea green can prove annoying and expensive. "Brides want everything to match, from the tablecloths to the dresses to the invitations," says Karen Leahy of Silver Spring, a three-time bridesmaid. "It takes a daredevil bride to say, 'Okay, you can have different-colored dresses. I don't care.' "

Leahy, a 22-year-old billing supervisor at an advertising firm, was thrilled to be her best friend's maid of honor in May--until the costs mounted. The dress was $195, alterations $45, shoes $40, a bra for the backless dress $35. Two shower gifts cost $50, the wedding gift $100. The ceremony and reception were in Philadelphia, meaning six trips back and forth and a $115 hotel room the night of the wedding. Co-hosting the showers cost $100, and her share for the bachelorette party was $75. Total: more than $700.

"Don't add it up because it scares me," says Leahy. "It really teaches you that you have to be careful when someone asks you to be in their wedding because it is so expensive. You have to limit yourself to your closest friends."

The typical bridesmaid spends $500 for the honor of serving. Attendants pay for their dresses, accessories, travel and lodging. Should they be expected to give expensive gifts, too?

"You put so much money into just being in their wedding," says Samuels. "It would make all the difference if the bride said: 'This is your gift to me.' "

It's the bridesmaid's dress that seems to cause the most headaches. Not every attendant can afford to spend $200 for any dress, much less on a gown they will never, ever wear again. Thoughtful brides try to find something their friends can use for another formal function.

Even then, good intentions can go astray. Michelle Hamilton of Washington, a 23-year-old who develops training materials for Marriott, has been in four weddings. One bride selected a handmade bridesmaid's dress that cost less than $100, says Hamilton, but "it was a black-lace baby-doll dress. What she was trying to do was have a dress that wasn't too expensive and something we could wear again, but it was horrendous and really tacky."

The problem is not exclusive to young brides. Last year, one forty-something bride asked seven friends to serve as bridesmaids. The women, all sophisticated professionals, had very definite ideas about fashion. "We wanted her to pick a dress that looked good on all of us," says one of the chosen.

First, style was a problem. Then color was a bigger problem. Under fire, the bride changed it from sea foam to lavender. Complaints continued. Finally the bride got so frazzled that she canceled the big wedding with attendants and had a small, informal ceremony instead.

"We got fired," one bridesmaid says.

Samuels proposes some solutions: "Pick the bridesmaid with the best taste, and send her to Nordstrom, J.C. Penney, whatever. Come back to the bride with three dresses and let her make the decision. Don't require the bridesmaids to have matching shoes or hairstyles. Leave some individuality, so they don't feel they're part of Barbie's wedding fantasy."

As much as bridesmaids want to look cool, they want to stay cool. A calm bride who can delegate is key, as bridesmaids assist with planning, help shop for the gowns, host a shower or tea, keep track of gifts, organize the bachelorette party and serve as reception hostesses.

Hamilton was in two weddings this spring. One bride was very organized. "She wasn't bossy, but she had clear expectations," she says. There was an information packet with duties, where to meet, how to get there, what time. "In the end, there were no questions."

The other bride was . . . well, a mess. "We were creating bridesmaids' bouquets as the limo was waiting to take us to the church. The bride wanted everyone to help her, but she was in such a panic she couldn't think. If we knew ahead of time what needed to be done, we would have made a list."

After all is said and done, most bridesmaids want to be with their closest friends on the big day, bad dress and all. "I would do it again," Hamilton says. "I just hope it's not any time soon."