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Something Old: Outdated Wedding Etiquette

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Weddings sure have changed a lot over the years. For centuries, a bride wore a simple dress and was accompanied to her new home by a dowry of livestock. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a footman delivered wedding invitations to guests’ houses. Nowadays, the bride goes swimming or mud wrestling the morning after the wedding in an attempt to trash the dress.

As weddings and their corresponding traditions have changed, so has the etiquette surrounding them. Things that were once inconceivable faux pas are now common conventions. The standards of proper wedding etiquette are continually evolving and changing with the times, and modern brides (as well as modern guests) will be relieved that some old-fashioned manners musts can often be gracefully let go.

Outdated Rule #1: Never wear white to a wedding. Or black, red, or whatever color the bridal party is wearing.
At a wedding, the focus should always be on the bride and groom and the celebration of their union. The rules surrounding guest attire sprang up because wearing certain colors grabs attention. Anna Post, etiquette expert at the Emily Post Institute and author of Emily Post’s Wedding Parties, says, “These days, the rules are a bit more loose. You can wear white, but you can’t look ‘bridal.’ For evening weddings, black is okay, but you can’t look like you’re in mourning.” If a white dress matches the style and feeling of the wedding without looking like a wedding gown, feel free to wear it, although Post suggests adding color in other areas of your ensemble, with jewelry, shoes, or a wrap. At evening weddings, a nonfunereal black cocktail dress is entirely appropriate; since the rise of the little black dress, it’s a wardrobe staple for many women. Post also suggests that it’s okay to wear a color similar to that the bridesmaids are wearing, as long as your dress is different enough in style that no one would mistake you for a member of the bridal party. Although wearing white, black, or red is no longer a social blunder, Post advises discretion. “Whenever in doubt, avoid these colors,” she says. “You don’t want to take attention away from the bride.”

Outdated Rule #2: Invite all out-of-town guests to the rehearsal dinner.
According to Post, this recent trend was never a real rule of etiquette in the first place. “The rehearsal dinner is for persons attending the wedding rehearsal,” she says. “It’s a much more intimate dinner, and budgets often don’t allow for a ‘pre-reception.’” The rehearsal dinner should include the bride and groom, the bridal party, their officiant, their parents, grandparents, or siblings, and those persons’ spouses and live-in partners. Inviting more people is entirely within the discretion of the host, but it becomes a slippery slope, especially for in-town guests, who may feel slighted if they’re not invited to the bash. Post suggests giving out-of-town guests a list of favorite restaurants in the area, making recommendations for fun activities, or arranging another type of informal get-together, whether or not the bridal couple attends. “It’s nice when the hosts open up the rehearsal dinner to all guests,” she says, “but it’s not required.”

Outdated Rule #3: The invitation’s wording should indicate who is paying for the wedding.
Wedding invitations are expected to convey so many messages, including whether the service is religious or secular and what kind of attire guests should wear, but it’s not imperative that they reveal who’s footing the bill. Although it’s still preferable that the invitation give credit to the host, Post says that it’s not mandatory. “Anyone helping to pay is a host and should be included as such,” she says, “but sometimes it’s best if the wording is obscure.” In certain circumstances, such as if there have been acrimonious disagreements about each person’s contributions and responsibilities, it can be more graceful to simply leave out the host line of the invitation wording entirely or to say, “Together with their families, Jane Smith and Robert Jones invite you to celebrate …”

Outdated Rule #4: Guests shouldn’t RSVP online.
If an informal RSVP fits the overall feel of the wedding, it’s fine to accept online responses. “It’s okay,” says Post, “but offer a traditional method as well.” An online RSVP should be a secondary method of responding, not the only method, so that older or more traditional guests don’t feel slighted.

Outdated Rule #5: Guests who are invited to the ceremony must also be invited to the reception, and vice versa.
There are a few specific instances in which it’s okay to invite certain guests to one event and not the other. For example, if you’re extremely active in your religious congregation, you may choose to invite every member to your wedding ceremony, in which case you’d extend that invitation via an announcement made by the pastor or rabbi, and extend reception invitations separately, in writing. It’s also acceptable to have a small, intimate ceremony, either at the county courthouse or at a destination wedding, and then invite many guests to a belated reception afterward (in which case the guests are not obligated to bring a gift). Both of these exceptions to the rule are acceptable, although the overwhelming majority of weddings use the same guest list for the ceremony and reception.

Even in the past fifty years, the traditions and rituals surrounding weddings have undergone enormous changes. The bride’s family was once responsible for footing the entire bill, but these days, many families contribute jointly. At one time, a woman wouldn’t dare wear a white gown at her second wedding, but society now accepts that an encore bride isn’t relegated to wearing a dowdy pantsuit. Since weddings are a reflection of the couple and their desires, many old traditions are falling by the wayside. “There’s a lot of leeway to bend old rules,” says Post, “but it’s all in how you bend them.” Breaking a rule out of thoughtlessness or laziness is quite different from deliberately deciding that a particular social norm isn’t your cup of tea.

Although Post advises, “A sense of flexibility is very important to good manners,” there are certain timeless points of wedding etiquette that are simply not up for negotiation. Even with far-flung families and friends, for example, it’s still not acceptable to invite anyone to an engagement party, wedding shower, or bachelor/bachelorette party if she’s not invited to the wedding itself. And it’s still poor form to make any mention of gifts on a wedding invitation. Most of all, Post says, there’s one element of good wedding manners that will never go out of style: the timely, handwritten thank-you note.

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