Old-Fashioned Wedding Etiquette We Thankfully Don’t Do Anymore
As Meghan Markle and Prince Harry's wedding approaches, guests are probably brushing off their top hats and rehearsing which fork goes with which course, in case they accidentally hit the Queen with an oyster. But while the etiquette of a British royal wedding is traditional and often spectacularly strict — guests are not allowed to speak to the Queen unless she speaks to them, or offer to shake her hand — other aspects of wedding etiquette from the past have thankfully fallen by the wayside. For us non-royals, what you're supposed to do at a wedding can be murky territory, but it's nothing compared to bonkers old-fashioned wedding etiquette that, blessedly, is no longer a thing.
Of course, Meghan and Harry have the added etiquette challenge of being nice to the paparazzi while also keeping out curious intruders. According to Mrs. Desmond Humphreys, writing about etiquette in New York in 1910, public fervor around celebrity weddings is nothing new. One wedding on Fifth Avenue, she wrote, drew record crowds of thousands, "all seething, struggling, fighting, shrieking, under the pouring rain, and crowding the muddy street in order to see — what? A commonplace young man and woman get in and out of a motor car." Perhaps that bit of history will comfort Meghan and Harry as they wave at the crowds — but they'll probably also be grateful that they don't have to stop eating the delicious wedding cake for fear of looking "sexually improper." Here are six pieces of wedding etiquette you won't believe used to happen.
1. Nobody Can Talk To The Bride Until Her Parents Do
Florence Hartley's Lady's Book Of Etiquette from 1872 has all kinds of Victorian-era rules and regulations about the proper behavior of wedding guests, brides and grooms; bridesmaids, for instance, aren't allowed to wear orange flowers, according to Hartley, for reasons that aren't ever made clear. But one of her edicts is pretty remarkable: "After the ceremony is over," she says, "the parents of the bride speak to her first; then her near relatives, and not until then the other members of the company."
It's possible that the groom is now a "near relative," but Hartley doesn't really make that clear; it's entirely possible that, in proper etiquette, he's too busy lighting cigars with his Victorian male friends to talk to his new wife at all.
2. Engaged People Have To Pretend They're Just Friends
Cecil Hartley, who, astonishingly, appears not to be related to Florence, published The Gentleman's Book Of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness in Boston in 1873, and he doesn't seem to have a good opinion of women in any area of wedding etiquette. When it comes to paying for things, for instance, he recommends that the bride "should endeavor to understand what is going on." He also has some ideas about how engaged couples should behave in public, and they're not much fun.
"The devotions of two engaged persons," he says, "should be reserved for the tete-a-tete, and women are generally at fault when it is otherwise. They like to exhibit their conquest; they cannot dispense with attentions; they forget that the demonstration of any peculiar condition of things in society must make someone uncomfortable; the young lady is uncomfortable because she is not equally happy; the young man detests what he calls nonsense; the old think there is a time for such things." He adds, "True feeling, and a lady-like consideration for others, are a point in which the present generation essentially fails."
3. Brides Can't Eat Too Much Or They'll Look "Loose"
Want to get your relatives tutting at your 19th century wedding? Be ethusiastic about the meal in front of you after the exhausting business of getting married. While weddings in the 1800s had a lot of oddities, they were particularly peculiar about food.
Historian Claire Stewart, in As Long As We Both Shall Eat, explains, "A display of appetite by women... was considered an indication of loose sexuality, with food consumption linked to a lack of control." Obviously, this is bullsh*t, but so were many of the common mores of the 19th century.
4.You Get A Glove! And You Get A Glove! Everybody Get A Glove!
An anonymous handbook of etiquette published in London in the 1870s has a lot of gems about proper fashionable weddings and how to behave yourself at one. But it's in its judgement of past trends that it gets really interesting. According to the author, the groom "must wear white kid gloves" to the altar, as must the bride. But, it adds, that's where it stops; "the bride may send white gloves to the bridesmaids, but etiquette no longer requires that gloves should be given to all the guests."
By "all the guests" the author really does mean everybody, from groomsmen to all the relatives and acquaintances who show up to gawk at the new couple. Considering that kid gloves were not cheap, this sort of wedding favor likely got expensive really fast, hence why this tradition had been done away with by the time this book came out.
5. Super-Stringent Veil Rules
At weddings these days, the bride wears the veil (or goes without), and nobody else does. Seems easy, right? In the 19th century things weren't quite that simple. Dunbar's Complete Handbook of Etiquette, from 1834, was a classic of the time, and according to Dunbar veil etiquette was a thing.
The bride herself, Dunbar noted, had to wear either a "long veil of white tulle reaching to the feet" or one "of costliest lace." Not only that, bridesmaids had to wear them too. But there were restrictions. Veils were only for the young; "widows and ladies of middle age," the book notes, "are married in bonnets," and there's no choice about that either way.
6. Being Just Married Is A Secret
This gem comes from Clara de Chatelain's Bridal Etiquette of 1856, but it's echoed in numerous other conduct books: telling anybody you just got married is a faux pas on the same level as anyone but the bride wearing white. At the time, wedded couples generally left immediately after the wedding for their "wedding tour" or honeymoon, so the bride would change during the reception. And then, Chatelain says, they should stop talking about it altogether.
"Good taste points out that all bridal attributes should now be entirely discarded," de Chatelain intones. "We cannot imagine what gratification a young couple — really fond of each other — can derive from proclaiming to the inhabitants of the towns they pass through [...] that they have pledged their vows the same morning. If, however, this kind of notoriety be pleasing to them, by all means, et them set all the little boys in the street hurrahing in a shrill key, and all the chambermaids peeping through the windows," she snorts. She also notes that hiring "the white satin bridal chamber" at a hotel is "vulgar," so keep that one under your hat, too.