Anyone who has embarked on the arduous business of planning a wedding will acknowledge that a well-chosen and efficient wedding team will go a long way towards making that special day run smoothly. Inevitably, the wedding team also encompasses the bride and groom and their parents, but the main focus is on the choice of the best man, ushers and bridesmaids.
Modern weddings have moved a long way from the rigid traditions of the Victorian era, and the new flexibility has enabled couples to ring the changes and, in some cases, dispense with the traditional wedding team altogether. But inevitably some charming traditions will be lost, so we are taking a look at Victorian attitudes to the wedding team and their duties in the lead-up to the big day and how they contrast with modern expectations.
The invaluable Routledge’s Manual of Etiquette (1860) has this to say about the selection of bridesmaids:
“The bridesmaids should include the unmarried sisters of the bride; but it is considered an anomaly for an elder sister to perform this function. The pleasing novelty for several years passed, of an addition to the number of bridesmaids varying from two to eight, and sometimes more, has added greatly to the interest of weddings, the bride being thus enabled to diffuse a portion of her own happiness among the most intimate of her younger friends.
One lady is always appointed principal bridesmaid, and has the bride in her charge; it is also her duty to take care of the other bridesmaids have the wedding favours in readiness. On the second bridesmaid devolves, with her principal, the duty of sending out the cards; and on the third bridesmaid, in conjunction with the remaining beauties of her choir, the onerous office of attending to certain ministrations and mysteries connected with the wedding cake.”
To this day the chief bridesmaid, frequently a close friend or sister of the bride, is the main sounding-board in the lead-up to the wedding and on the day itself. She must be a confidante and a trustworthy friend; it is important that she understands any idiosyncrasies of the bride.
She is often the bride’s main helper. This will include involvement in plans before the wedding and acting as her key aide on the day. She will attend wedding dress fittings, help the bride choose dresses for the bridesmaids, and liaise with other bridesmaids. In contrast to her Victorian predecessors, she will have to organise a hen night.
If there are to be other adult bridesmaids, she will be assisted by them. If the bride has chosen small children as bridesmaids, then it will fall to the chief bridesmaid to liaise with their parents. These days the main duties of bridesmaids before the wedding are to attend dress fittings and rehearsals and help the chief bridesmaid with plans for the hen night. They no longer have to look after sending out cards or looking after wedding cake rituals (see below).
The Victorians nominated a number of ‘bridesgroomen’ to attend the groom at his wedding. One was selected as the best man, the rest acted in much the same way as modern ushers:
“It behoves a bridegroom to be exceedingly particular in the selection of the friends who, as groomsmen, are to be his companions and assistants on the occasion of his wedding.
The number is limited to that of the bridesmaids: one for each. It is unnecessary to add that very much of the social pleasure of the day will depend on their proper mating. Young and unmarried they must be, handsome they should be, good-humoured they cannot fail to be, well-dressed they will of course take good care to be. Let the bridegroom diligently look over his circle of friends, and select the comeliest and the pleasantest fellows for his own train.
The principal bridegroom’s man, style his ‘best man’ has, for the day, the special charge of the bridegroom; and the last warning we would give him is, to take care that, when the bridegroom puts on his wedding waistcoat, he does not omit to put the wedding ring into the corner of the left-hand pocket.”
Today the emphasis is still on the best man’s sense of responsibility, and his forward planning and organisational abilities. It is also stressed that high levels of diplomacy and reliability are needed, as he will be closely involved in the planning of the wedding. It falls to him to ensure that the day runs smoothly and that everyone is fulfilling his or her duties. He must also take responsibility for organising a stag night and liaise with his ushers, ensuring they have the correct clothes and understand their role on the big day.
The ushers’ chief duties take place on the actual day, when they must assist the best man, and marshal the guests. Before the actual wedding day, their only duties are to ensure that they have suitable clothes for the wedding, and to help the best man plan the stag night.
The Victorians had several rituals that took place on the day before the wedding, many of which are no longer performed. These placed a greater burden of responsibilities on bridesmaids and bridesgroomsmen than we are used to – though the duties and expectations of the modern wedding team on the wedding day itself may be more onerous, especially when a large reception is planned, in contrast to the more modest wedding breakfasts of the Victorian era.
“The bride now sends white gloves, wrapped in white paper and tied with white ribbon, to each of the bridesmaids. The bridegroom does the same to each of the bridegroomsmen.”
Gloves are no longer a prerequisite of modern wedding dress, and there is no longer any obligation to provide them.
“One portion of the wedding cake is cut into small oblong pieces, and passed by the bridesmaids through the wedding ring, which is delivered into their charge for this purpose. The pieces of cake are afterwards put up in ornamental paper, generally pink or white, enamelled, and tied with bows of silvered paper.”
The wrapped wedding cake was kept as a memento of the day. At the wedding breakfast the bridesmaids cut the remainder of the cake into small pieces that were not eaten until the health of the bride was proposed.
“It is usual too for the bridegroom’s ‘best man’ to make arrangements for the church bells being rung after the ceremony: the rationale of this being to imply that it is the province of the husband to call on all the neighbours to rejoice with him on his receiving his wife, and not that of the lady's father on her going from his house.”
“The bridegroom furnishes to the bridesmaids his list for the ‘Cards’ to be sent to his friends [after the marriage]…. The cards, which are always furnished by the bridegroom, are twofold – the one having upon it to the gentleman’s and the other the lady’s name. They are placed in envelopes, those containing the lady’s card having her maiden name engraved or lithographed inside the fold. The lady generally sends cards to all whom she has been in the habit of receiving or visiting while at her father’s house.”
The purpose of the cards was to announce the marriage to the couple’s circle of acquaintance and to alert them to the fact that they could now be visited – sometimes the worlds “At home” were added, and the address was provided, indicating that a call was expected, usually about a month after the couple’s return from honeymoon.
“The bridesmaids on this evening also prepare the wedding favours, which should be put up in a box ready to be conveyed to the church on the morning of the marriage….Inside the church, the wedding favours are distributed, and gay, indeed, and animated is the scene, as each bridesmaid pins on to the coat of each bridegroomsman a wedding favour which he returns by pinning one also on her shoulder.”
In this context, the wedding favours are the Victorian equivalent of the modern buttonhole. As well as being sported by the wedding party, favours were also distributed to all the servants in attendance, who pinned them on their hats, while the coachmen used them to ornament the ears of his horses.
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