Today’s Weddings: Traditions & Trends
By Kellie Goodman Shaffer
It was a beautiful spring day. The young bride appeared from her town car to the roar of a crowd of thousands, and millions more watching on television. Her sister and bridesmaids adjusted her train before ascending the dozens of steps into Westminster Abbey. Her dark locks cascaded down her back, and her bright eyes peeked out behind a fingertip veil, crowned with a tiara of diamonds. Inside, she took her father’s arm and began the procession down the long, elegant aisle to the altar, where her prince was waiting.
This was Kate Middleton’s wedding day, the most anticipated wedding since Prince Charles and Lady Diana, with all the world watching. But this is how every bride should feel on her wedding day, even sans international television coverage. And of course, every bride hopes to live like a fairytale princess: happily ever after. Members of the world’s royal families know there are certain expectations when they take the plunge. William and Kate adhered to many traditions, from his military uniform to their horse-drawn carriage ride through the streets of London, to their first kiss on the Buckingham Palace balcony. It was a wedding worthy of Cinderella, and every other princess that Disney could possibly dream of. But these millennial royals also bucked tradition in some ways, including taking a post-wedding drive, unaccompanied, in a (royal) blue sports car before changing into slightly less formal attire for an evening of revelry. They found a way to marry the old with the new, the traditional with the modern.
I remember as a little girl paging through my parents’ wedding album. The black and white photos revealed a traditional church service: bridesmaids in matching dresses and white gloves, men in dinner jackets and bow ties. The reception in the church hall featured a multi-tiered wedding cake, mints, and almonds on the tables. This scene was played out all over the country at the time, with one wedding looking very much like the next, as tradition reigned supreme.
Just one generation later, a generation of women that grew up with the benefits of Title IX, who watched women take their places on the Supreme Court, and even run for President of the United States; a generation of women who witnessed more women in the workplace – all workplaces, from surgical units to outer space: this generation is simply not satisfied with the weddings of their mothers and grandmothers. Today’s brides have a world of choices to make for their wedding day, and many couples are trading in some traditions for trends. From destination weddings in exotic places, to church ceremonies and resort receptions, to festivities in backyards and barns, more than anything else brides want their weddings to be memorable, and most importantly, unique.
Jamie McKee, of the Village Green Events in Martinsburg, knows that today’s brides are exposed to much more of the world than previous generations, including ideas from the internet. “They’re seeing pictures on Pinterest, Facebook and Instagram,” said McKee, “Maybe even photos from a wedding in California, something they wouldn’t have had access to before.” And brides are older than in generations past. The US Census Bureau reports that the average age of brides in Pennsylvania is 27 years old. For men, it’s 29.7. In contrast, in the year 1960, the census revealed more than 72% of the population of the US over the age of 18 was married. And the wedding industry has adjusted.
Longtime wedding photographer Kevin Leonardis agrees that today’s couples are often more mature than the brides and grooms he worked with when he started his business decades ago. They bring more life experience to their wedding festivities, which they are often paying for on their own. “We don’t get the 21-year-olds right out of school as much anymore,” says Leonardis. “People live together, have homes together, a life together, and they often seem closer to each other than some younger couples I’ve seen – and there is more love in the air. They are more mature and they know what they want – that’s a big difference from what it used to be.” Leonardis, who has built a new wedding venue called Whispering Hollow Estate in Alum Bank, Pennsylvania says that when he started photographing weddings in the 1990’s, he dealt with the bride’s mother 90% of the time. Today, the percentages are flipped, and the bride and groom are the point persons for their own affairs.
“These brides are investing in a celebration of their relationship.”
Kevin said, “Putting on a wedding for family, friends, relatives, and they want it to be something they remember. The more mature couples have worked, and traveled, they’ve eaten at nice restaurants, been in nice atmospheres and they know what they enjoy.” In the 1954 movie musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, young maidens read of wedding traditions from a book about Roman mythology’s Sabine women, after being kidnapped by a family of handsome back woodsmen intending to make them their wives. They sing and dream of a June wedding, the standard for the time… “For they say when you marry in June, you will always be a bride.” Lynn Brown of Stoney Point, an Altoona-based event venue, has watched the wedding industry evolve with today’s couples, noting that not June, but rather fall has become the most popular season for weddings, and that themed ceremonies and receptions are becoming more and more popular.
“We’ve had everything from a Disney theme to Winter Wonderland,” said Brown. “We’ve had rustic, that’s huge. Thank God I’m a rustic location. But it will change and evolve. That’s the world of weddings. I’ve had a bride in a tea-length dress and cowboy boots with the groom in vests with camo. Leather and lace, enchanted forest, even Bohemian and English teacups.” Famed 19th-century author, Jane Austin often wrote about her frustration knowing that in her male-dominated world, where land and inheritance was passed from fathers to sons or the closest male relative, a woman’s greatest accomplishment was being able to secure a good husband. And a good husband was considered one who was financially sound and in good standing in society. As for men, Austen wrote: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
That wife would be someone of good breeding and social standing, who could oversee the running of the household staff and the hosting of dinner parties. If she was adept at piano or embroidery, even more so than well-read, her stock could rise. And in Austin’s time, a mother’s goal was to make her daughters a good match to secure their future in society. We’ve come a long way, baby.
Weddings are a wonderful day, but they are no longer the only day a woman has to celebrate in her lifetime. Modern brides are more than wives; they strive for professional accomplishments, travel, community leadership, and so much more than our ancestors could have ever imagined. But her wedding is still a supremely special celebration of her decision to share her life with someone, and the groom’s to share his life with her.
So perhaps some of those long-observed wedding traditions have simply outlived their relevance. For example, the tying of shoes to the couple’s getaway car is believed to symbolize the passing of power over the bride from her father to her husband. Some money-dances have been done away with, as they once represented the dowry that fathers paid to their daughters’ husbands. And few, if any, brides are still carried over the threshold by their husbands, like the kicking-and-screaming kidnapped Sabine Women of Roman days.
“Women are more independent than they’ve ever been,” said McKee.
“They’re working, established in their careers, and financially can make their own decisions.” And those decisions often include making their wedding a reflection of a couple’s unique interests and lifestyle, whether that be a special place they’ve visited, a hobby, or even a pet. Today’s events are a far cry from the traditional, cookie-cutter weddings of generations past.
Celebrations come in all shapes and sizes, from elegant cathedral wedding ceremonies to sweet and simple chapel services, to rustic outdoor venues from backyards to barns. Exotic ocean-side ceremonies, historic resorts, or unique venues designed specifically for weddings…the possibilities are endless.
“The biggest thing is that a lot of brides and grooms are looking for one location for both the wedding and the reception,” says Leonardis, who designed Whispering Hollow Estates from the perspective of a wedding photographer, taking into consideration the color and texture of every brick and stone. “It’s also a different feeling they’re looking for, not so much a fire hall or a country club with no windows – they like the idea of being outside.”
The Village Green and Stoney Point have found many of their customers appreciate the one-stop-shop venue as well. “We can do everything from the rehearsal dinner to the ceremony to the reception,” said McKee. “We have an old farmhouse that’s been renovated, where the bride and her bridesmaids will stay, and then we’ll host the wedding and reception, with the bride and groom spending the night here as well. So the trend of getting the trolley to go from point-A to point-B is not as popular as it used to be.” “People want a seamless wedding,” said Brown. “Step out of the wedding and into the reception all at one place. It becomes more of a family event when young kids and older adults like grandparents and great aunts aren’t waiting for hours and getting tired between the wedding and the reception. Everyone is more included.”
The wedding industry has evolved with the customers it serves, noting that customized packages and all-inclusive pricing are appreciated by many couples. And these planning professionals know that they need to be flexible to provide their clients with the best possible event. At Whispering Hollow, for example, Leonardis has gone out of his way to create an experience for the bride’s entourage; but he takes the groom and his ushers into consideration as well. “Six guys sitting around a hotel room for hours before a wedding is an atmosphere that’s not much fun,” he explains. “So we have skeet shooting, a pool table; they play football in the yard to keep their mind off of the stress and to enjoy themselves.” Enjoying themselves is the key. When the reception begins, it’s hard to know what will happen, with couples entering their receptions to walk-up music like a slugger in a Major League baseball game. Interactive DJ’s coax wallflowers onto the dance floor with special games and performances by the bridal party; while multi-tiered wedding cakes have given way to gourmet popcorn, fancy cupcakes or help-yourself candy displays
“Venues need to be able to think outside of the box,” notes McKee. “They tell us what they want and we’re creating a package specific to them.” Women today take on every persona imaginable: professional to princess, to gun-toting goddess. But when they walk down the aisle, or along the beach, or through the backyard, they’re making their wedding the perfectly unique celebration of love.”