100 years of weddings: etiquette then vs. now

From the dawn of time, brides have stressed over wedding planning. Who pays for what? In what order does everything happen? A century ago, Emily Post’s etiquette rules precisely outlined everyone’s duties and how things should happen before, during, and after the wedding. We thought it would be interesting to compare some of today’s rules with those from 100 years ago to see what stuck.

{photo: Barnes & Noble}


Making the Guest List

Then: Four people made guest lists that were later compiled into the master guest list:  the bride, the groom, the bride mother (or family), and the groom’s mother (or family). That’s a lot of guests!

Now: The bride and groom have final say over the guest list. After all, these days most couples bear the entire expense of their wedding. In some instances, the couple would love to host members of the extended family and their business colleagues, but budget constraints may require them to trim the list down.

Who Pays for What?

Then: The bride’s family hosted the wedding, paying for the invitations, church, decorations, the reception food and drink, and the post-wedding wardrobe for the bride. The groom paid for the marriage license, the clergyman’s fee, the rings, the bachelor dinner, a present for his bride, gifts for his groomsmen and ushers, the bride’s bouquet, and planned and organized the honeymoon.

Now: Unlike 100 years ago, most of today’s brides don’t live at home and aren’t supported by parents until their new husband assumes financial responsibility. Today’s bride works, and she and her groom typically foot the bill for the wedding and honeymoon themselves, either with their own money, with help from family and friends, or by taking out a special wedding loan.

Buying The Wedding Ring

Then: The bride went with the groom when he bought the wedding ring – the rationale was that the ring would stay on her finger for life, so she should choose what suits her.

Now: Rings are even more of a status symbol today – they are representative of the personality and tastes of the bride, and are deeply personal. Though there are some who believe a groom should surprise his fiancé with a ring he picked, most still side with Emily in thinking the bride should pick something that she loves.

Picking the Bridesmaids Dresses

Then: The bridesmaids’ outfits were chosen by the bride, who often selected them without consulting the bridesmaids as to their preferences. The bridesmaids dressed exactly alike in color, with the maid of honor exactly the same but in reverse colors. Every article worn by the bridesmaids or flower girls was paid for by the wearers.

Now: Choosing and styling the wedding party is still a deeply personal decision, and this cute custom is largely followed to this day. Most bridesmaids dress in similar or identical styles and colors, with the maid or matron of honor wearing noticeably different outfit. However, some of today’s brides opt to buck tradition and follow hot trends like having their bridesmaids wear ombre (different shades of the same color) or rainbow dresses.

Buying Bridal Underwear

Then: The bride’s family was responsible for purchasing the bride a collection of undergarments known as the “trousseau”. These undergarments were meant to be pieces the bride would only wear for her husband, and included silken underwear, nightgowns, lacey lingerie, and more.

Now: The modern bride lives on her own or with her groom-to-be well before the wedding. Last century, silky undergarments were a luxury and reserved for special occasions. With the rise of lingerie companies, most modern brides are already well-stocked in the underwear department long before the wedding. If she isn’t, her bridesmaids and friends will often give it as gifts at the bridal shower or bachelorette party.

The Rehearsal Dinner

Then: The bride always directed her wedding rehearsal, because participating was considered bad luck. Anyone in attendance could be appointed as her understudy.

Now: These days, the rehearsal dinner has transitioned from a formal walk-through before into an informal event where the two families can mix and mingle before the big day. And it’s no longer considered bad luck for the bride to participate in rehearsals – most feel much more comfortable doing so. After all, practice makes perfect, which is what many modern brides strive for!

The Cutting of the Bride’s Cake

Then: The bride always cut the cake, after which each person cut a piece for him or herself. The cake often contained a set of favors baked into one layer, and members of the bridal party learned their fortunes based on which token they found in their slice of cake. A ten-cent piece meant riches, a little gold ring was for the first to be married, a thimble or button signified the person would be an “old maid” or “lifelong bachelor”, and a wish-bone indicated “luckiest”.

Now: Cutting the cake has become symbolic – slicing that first piece together and feeding it to one another represents the first meal together as husband and wife. In fact, some guests feel cheated if they don’t see the cutting of the cake! Afterward, it’s usually cut into slices by the caterer and passed out among the guests. Since the bouquet toss and garter toss have become symbols for divining who is next to get married, it is rare that favors are baked into the wedding cake.

The Departure

Then: After the bouquet toss, the bride and groom retired to separate rooms to change. The bride would be attended by her bridesmaids and female family members. As soon as she was dressed, custom dictated the bride send for the groom’s parents so that the couple could say goodbye before leaving.

Now: Each couple does it their own way, with some insisting on staying until the last guest leaves and some departing as soon as possible after the eating and toasting is completed. Many of today’s couples prefer to stay and enjoy the reception they spent a year planning, and will often take a breather after the wedding before hopping on a plane to embark on their honeymoon. Since most modern ceremonies include both families, there is no longer a formal custom that the bride sends for the groom’s parents before leaving.

Were you surprised by some of the etiquette changes over the past century? Which rules do you wish would come back? Are there any rules today that you think should go away? Tell us in the comments!