IT'S EVERY BRIDESMAID'S PREDICAMENT: what to do with that expensive dress worn only once—often for good reason. "They're usually some impossible hue with dyed shoes to match," says Rebecca Whitlinger, herself a five-time bridesmaid. Still, when she realized that her $180 gown (which she first wore to her college roommate's 1988 wedding) had become a hanging moth magnet in her closet, Whitlinger, 36, began putting it to good, if unique, use. On a whim in 1990, dressed in the garish off-the-shoulder gown with gold-sequined bodice and gold lame skirt, she posed in front of a demolished movie house. Her best friend, Patricia Bilock Iannotta, 36, a corporate sales manager, snapped a photograph. "Sometimes I don't understand Becky's requests," says Iannotta, "but she is so creative."

Perhaps even a little eccentric. "If I can't wear my bridesmaid's dress anywhere," Whitlinger, executive director of the Burger King Cancer Caring Center in Pittsburgh, reasoned, "I'll wear it everywhere." And so she has, posing in her bridal best in front of the White House, the Eiffel Tower and in a hot-air balloon high above her hometown of Pittsburgh. The dress even doubled as activewear when Whitlinger wore it skiing, white-water rafting and at a Florida alligator farm, where a gaggle of gators swam within a foot of her rowboat. (She thinks they were bedazzled by all those sequins.)

Word of Whitlinger's inventive fashion statements quickly spread, and in 1991 she and Iannotta, her trusty sidekick on most of these jaunts, were named Funniest Pittsburghers by the now defunct Pittsburgh Press. Whitlinger's old roommate, however, was not amused, either by the exotic photo ops or the afterlife of the glittery gowns she herself had designed. "They are hideous and very '80s," says the embarrassed bride-that-was (who requests anonymity). When Whitlinger went public with the dress, adds Anonymous, whose friendship with Whitlinger has cooled, "she hurt my mother's feelings." Whitlinger says she has since straightened things out with the mother of the bride.

But don't bridesmaids have feelings too? "Bridesmaids have been the stepchild in the [bridal] business," says Gene Kohn, CEO of Kleinfeld, the Brooklyn-based bridal specialty store. But that's changing, says Kohn, thanks to designer Jim Hjelm's silhouette bridesmaids' dresses, which can also be worn as formal evening wear.

Still Whitlinger, who will be a bridesmaid revisited for the sixth time in May and has never been married ("I'm not in a hurry," she says), isn't buying the new styles. She continues to team up with Iannotta in her '88-model outfit and even keeps a spare version—which she picked up for $25 after another bridesmaid at the '88 nuptials donated it to charity—in the trunk of her 1992 Toyota, ready to wear wherever inspiration strikes.

Next, for her cancer-center fundraiser on June 11 at Victoria Hall, a popular Pittsburgh nuptial site, Whitlinger plans to ask other ex-bridesmaids to don their dresses once again for a wedding there. (She hopes to find a bride and groom willing to play along.) Meanwhile Whitlinger has found a seasonal use for her shiny gold outfit. "It looks splendid," she says, draped around the base of her Christmas tree.

MICHAEL A. LIPTON
ELLEN MAZO in Pittsburgh

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  • Ellen Mazo.