Gearing up for the wedding day: old and new wedding traditions aplenty

There are a lot of components of a wedding. We ask experts what has changed and what has remained the same in wedding protocol. Illustration by Sharon Kilday

A long, long time ago, when cellphones were only used for making calls, weddings, too, were simpler affairs. A ceremony followed by a reception. A cake. The bride’s bouquet tossed to a lucky single girl — maybe one of her bridesmaids — wearing a dress she would never be seen in again. Bags of rice at the send-off.

It all seems so quaint.

Today’s weddings bear little resemblance to those held in the pre-social media era. They’re big, over-the-top affairs, full-scale productions, with dogs as ring bearers, gender-neutral attendants, video-directed drones flying overhead and receptions that last well into the night, with food trucks dishing out beignets and breakfast tacos to counter the open bar, and after-parties after that.

“The couples are older. They have completed college and gotten their degrees and masters and they’re in their early 30s, and they’re more in control. They know what they want, and they’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says Kay Watson, who’s been a wedding consultant in the Dallas-Fort Worth area for 20 years.

 

Branded together, forever

In ancient, pre-Facebook days, the process began with securing a date for the church and reception hall (often a local country club), and finding the right dress. Watson’s brides often begin with hiring a graphic designer to develop a logo for the couple, which will appear on everything from the save-the-date cards and invitations (still snail-mailed, not emailed) to the couple’s website, and to the event itself, including illuminated initials that may appear on the dance floor. Some order personalized wedding stamps with their photo, too. “It’s branding,” says Watson.

Lottie Fowler, a wedding planner with Grit + Gold weddings, agrees. “Yes, we’re branding the couple. We’re branding who they are, where they like to shop, where they like to travel, what kind of music they like – all of those things are considered when designing an event for them. It’s ‘Me, me, me, me.’ ”

 

Tailor-made

From cigar bars to “lounge seating” – banquettes brought in to create comfortable seating areas so guests can visit while watching others dance – and backlit bars serving all-you-can-sip drinks for four hours straight, these events are tailor-made to showcase each couple’s likes and loves, right down to the honeymoon safari-themed photo booths for guests to take selfies and instantly post on Instagram, with the couple’s wedding hashtag.

But for many, a hashtag is only the beginning, because for a lucky few, there can be so much more. “Brides will tell me in consultation that they want their weddings to be in a magazine,” says Jen Rios, a wedding consultant in Fort Worth. “They tell me I’ll do whatever you want me to do to get into a magazine. A lot of brides don’t do a traditional photo album. Today, if their wedding is in a magazine or on a blog, it’s out there forever. It’s the modern-day wedding album.

 

The more, the merrier

“Back in the day,” says Fowler. “You went to the hall and the lady at the church took care of what you needed. It was small and easy and maintainable. You worked with three to five vendors. Now at any given time, there are 12 to 15 moving parts. We have custom cake companies. Floral and lighting and entertainment. You might have dance floors coming in; you might have an orchestra for the ceremony and another band for the cocktail hour. It’s five to six times the amount of people involved. It’s not simple anymore. It’s complex. It’s logistically challenging, and planners are so much more needed today because of all of the moving parts.”

Overwhelmed? Confused? We’re just getting started.

One of the stickiest issues surrounding today’s weddings, besides the no-rules, bigger-is-better philosophy, is who pays for it all. “It’s always a tricky thing,” says Fowler. “The family dynamics can shift and get complicated. I’ve hired (family) counselors before.”

 

Pay to say

Parents of the bride traditionally paid for the entire cost of the wedding and reception, plus bridesmaids’ bouquets. The bride’s bouquet, corsages for mothers and grandmothers, and boutonnieres for the men are paid for by the parents of the groom, in addition to the entire cost of the rehearsal dinner and honeymoon, she says.

Now, anything goes, Fowler says. “Sometimes the groom’s parents are paying for the wedding; I’ve seen all kinds of scenarios. You can break the rules as long as everyone’s in agreement. Generally, the rule of thumb is when someone’s paying, they get more of a verbal say in things.”

Remember the outside, barn-centric wedding aesthetic, complete with Mason jars and mismatched plates? A Southern-inspired, shabby chic free-for-all, where you might have a menu of barbecue ribs and cornbread? You can take off your vintage boots. That’s over.

 

Return to tradition

Formality, at least in some ways, has returned, harkening back to weddings past. Brides are slipping into red-soled Louboutins, coming back indoors and getting married in churches and chapels. Dinners are no longer buffets, but seated affairs. Place settings are back. China is matched, elegant, and silverware is positioned in the old school way (and if you don’t know what this is, you need to). Rich velvet table linens are replacing burlap or cotton.

“We’re seeing more etiquette followed instead of the too-relaxed weddings of the past,” says Fowler.

 

Something old, something new

That said, programs are likely to include reminders for guests to not use their cellphones, so the wedding photographer and videographer can capture the ceremony. And, people still don’t always understand that an invitation doesn’t automatically include a plus-one – nor is it considered polite to ask to bring along someone extra. “It does need to be explained,” says Watson. “I still get calls from families, ‘So-and-so wants to bring so-and-so,’ and this drives up the cost. The venue has a certain number of people it can hold, the reception is a cost per guest.”

The wedding party itself isn’t what it used to be, either. Men can be bridesmen and women can be groomswomen, and dogs can be ringbearers – but that’s old news. The new news is that even though there are food trucks and Popsicles at the reception, the fried chicken is being served on china, not in a box, and all of the wedding planners I spoke to say they see a return on the horizon to more traditional elements of a wedding, not less.

“Even the most out-of-the-box couples are doing traditional elements: sitting down for a meal, doing that first father-daughter dance, and cake cutting. Trends will come and go, but the traditional elements will still be there because it’s a wedding and the core values of a wedding will not change,” says Rios.

Large, small or something in between, today’s couples may be breaking some wedding traditions, but in the end, the goal is still the same.

“The bride still wants it to be a party,” says Watson. “Whether it’s a $10,000 wedding or a $200,000 wedding, they want it to be a party and to have good food and have fun. The bottom line is they all end up getting married at the end of the day.”

 

Ellise Pierce is a freelance writer who splits her time between Santa Fe, North Texas and Paris.

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