The word ‘wedding’ conjures a fixed image for people, based on hundreds of years of tradition. A diamond ring. A white dress. A cringey disco.
But some of those ‘must-have’ wedding traditions aren’t even that traditional. (White dresses only got popular in 1840!) And they probably aren’t you, either.
Here’s the thing: your day should feel like your day. With the time, money, and effort you put into your wedding, you should have a day you love, that reflects you and your partner – not snobby etiquette writers from 1803.
It can be hard to feel you can push back on wedding traditions – especially when everyone from your in-laws to your dog walker keeps telling you you need to do this or you’ll regret not doing that.
But you don’t have to have anything at your wedding that you don’t love. Really.
Your wedding will still be a wedding if you have a photobooth instead of a receiving line or a board game tournament instead of a dance floor.
As long as you’re married at the end of it, you’ve done it right.
And you’re not going to be wrecking thousands of years of tradition if you serve pizza from a food truck instead of putting on the ‘traditional’ chicken-or-beef sit-down dinner. A traditional wedding breakfast was – literally – a breakfast, served when the family got back from church. Then the newly weds would slip off to enjoy married life and everyone else would get on with their day.
If you’re not planning on ditching your friends at noon anyway, then what does it matter for tradition if you eat pizza, or fish and chips, or an afternoon tea, or anything else you want?
So, if anyone gives you grief over going against tradition, you tell them…
Diamond engagement rings only became popular because they were easier than lawsuits
In the Victorian era, it was considered improper for an unmarried man and woman to be alone together. (Victorians, like so many obnoxious film school students who’ve watched When Harry Met Sally a few too many times, didn’t believe people of different genders could be friends.) But, once a couple became engaged, they were allowed to spend time together unchaperoned, to ‘get to know’ one another.
Unfortunately, along with homophobia and muttonchops, gender inequality was rampant in the Victorian era; if an engagement was called off, it was assumed the woman was ‘ruined goods’. She couldn’t marry anyone else – the scandal! – so she lost her prospects and her social standing.
And the gentleman was expected to compensate her for that. In fact, he could be taken to court if he refused – after all, he was in breach of contract.
Then the diamond industry came along.
Jewelers started advertising ‘diamonds are forever’. Extremely expensive diamond rings were pushed as a status symbol against the (notably cheaper) plain bands, hair rings, or nothing that had been the traditional gift, and diamond rings became a trend.
They might have stayed a trend and been left behind in the 1900s with other things the Victorians loved, like seances and child labour, except that they were the perfect prenup.
Given the high cost, a cad could let the woman whose life he was destroying keep the ring, and she could afford to live out her shameful life, shunted from society. It’s not the stuff fairy tales are made of, is it? (I mean, unless you’re looking at proper Brothers Grimm fairy tales…)
The truth is diamonds aren’t some ancient tradition. They’re an over-priced gimmick. Diamond sellers agreed on a price, to create an over-inflated sense of worth for something that shouldn’t cost more than opals, sapphires, or rubies. But, because we’ve agreed they do cost more… Well, let’s just say you should check for the words ‘conflict-free’ on the listing.
What to do instead:
If you like the idea of an engagement ring but not a diamond, there are hundreds of gorgeous, colourful, and conflict-free gemstones to fit your style. Check out our list of 48 colourful, alternative engagement rings and 42 engagement rings similar to diamonds in everything but the price tag.
The bachelor party send-off started because you’d literally never see your friend again
Have you ever wondered why people often treat bachelor and bachelorette parties like it’s the last time they’ll see their friend again, giving them mementos, talking through funny memories, and celebrating their ‘last night’?
That’s because, when they originated in the Victorian era, you really wouldn’t see them again.
It would be inappropriate for a married man to socialise with raucous single bachelors. So, before his wedding, a gentleman would take all his single friends to dinner to say goodbye.
If you’re planning on keeping in touch after your wedding (or even – gasp! – having them there!), don’t feel pressured to have a stag or hen do a certain way for the sake of tradition.
What to do instead:
If you don’t like the idea of a stag or hen do, don’t have one. Or if you want an excuse to get your friends together and give people a chance to meet before your wedding, throw a party for everyone, rather than you and your partner having separate celebrations.
Have a party you actually enjoy (even if it means planning it yourself). Check out our ideas for a classy stag do here.
We only have wedding parties to confuse malicious demons
Picking your wedding party can feel political – do you have to ask Steve to be your best man because he asked you? Should you invite your sister-in-law to be a bridesmaid? And your niece? And your cousins?!
But it feels downright ridiculous when you realise the whole tradition started as a superstition; other young women around the bride’s age – sisters and cousins – would dress in similar clothes, with veils covering their faces, so any spirits or demons that meant to do the bride harm on her wedding day would get confused.
And the groom’s side was worse. His best man was meant to step in and marry the bride if the groom died on the way to the altar. (Why veils for grooms never caught on is beyond me.)
What you should do instead:
If you’re not the sort to sacrifice your mates to the cast of Insidious anyway: relax.
You can ask five different mates to all be your best men. Or you can have none. There’s no wrong way to have a wedding party.
Check out our Problem Pal column for advice on how to pick your wedding party without anyone feeling left out.
Wearing white is a new tradition…
The traditional big, white dress is often the first thing people think of when they think of weddings – and the thing they’ll insist you’ll most regret not getting if you say it’s not for you. (Spoiler: you won’t!)
A woman in a puffy white dress and veil might be what we think of when we think ‘bride’ now – but it started as a trend, not a tradition.
When Queen Victoria wore a white wedding dress – a symbol of her wealth and status, since it was such an impractical choice, and something normal working folk couldn’t justify spending money on – it sparked a trend of flaunting wealth and status.
Until then, most people didn’t even buy a new outfit for their wedding day, just putting on their Sunday best. But a white dress, which would show dirt and stain easily, couldn’t be worn that often. Wearing one was announcing you were the nineteenth century equivalent of a Kardashian, with money to waste.
What to do instead:
If you love the idea of a big white dress, get one. If it’s not for you, find an outfit you love and feel confident in. You’ll be seeing all your mates, you’ll be getting your photo taken – it’s important that you know you’re killing it in your outfit.
…and so’s eating cake!
Did you know the tiered wedding cake, covered in white icing, was actually inspired by Queen Victoria’s wedding dress?!
All that sugar and butter was another flaunting of status and wealth, and it took off in the same way.
What to do instead:
Don’t feel you have to get a huge wedding cake just because. If you want one, go for it! If you want one but not that much, get a smaller cake to display and cut into, and ask your caterers to serve a cheaper, standard sheet cake to your guests instead.
Or, if you don’t like cake, why not put out rounds of cheese, cupcakes, or a candy buffet? No one’s going to be upset that they didn’t get a specific type of free food from you. Put out your favourite dessert, or skip it and put that budget into the part of the day you care about most. After all – it’s your day, and you don’t need to tell your royal subjects how rich you are.
Make new wedding traditions
Your day should be your day, reflecting your style, humour, and interests – not what a bunch of Victorians thought was proper.
Consider this your express permission to keep the wedding traditions you like, bin the ones you don’t, and have a day that feels unmistakably like you.
And, if you’re having a hard time pushing back when people pressure you into a wedding that doesn’t feel like you, check out our advice on planning a stress-free wedding.
- Stuff Mom Never Told You, Why Do Women Wear Diamond Engagement Rings?
- Adam Ruins Everything, Adam Ruins Weddings
- Victorian Wedding – The Reception
Photo by Brent Keane.