Judith Martin, who writes etiquette advice under the nym Miss Manners (she is right about almost everything, and is funny while she does it), discusses the conundrum of formal wear: what is formal, what is not? A hundred or so years ago, she tells us, “people wore evening clothes in the evening. It didn’t take a lot of agonizing to figure that one out — evening, evening clothes; daytime, day clothes – so no instructions were necessary.”
And of course back then all the women were wearing long dresses all the time, both for day and evening. The men, on the other hand, were wearing tails at night, and lounge suits – aka modern business suits – were very casual attire on a par with wearing a tracksuit today.
(As an aside, it’s interesting that men’s clothes, for the last two hundred years or so, have been following a basic cycle of a new casual outfit being invented, and then that outfit rising up through the ranks of formality, while the ones at the height of formality get ousted into extinction. Current example: jeans. A garment that started as strictly casual is now getting adopted more and more into business settings. Meanwhile tails are so close to extinction only royal weddings seem to warrant them anymore.)
Whenever people back then had evening social occasions, this was what they did. Similarly, ‘formal’ invitations were just the way that people invited each other to parties back then.
In fact, the entire wedding reception itself was not very different from the usual parties – albeit perhaps extra special parties – that people used to have. The brides and grooms used to just be attired in their nicest clothes, and it wasn’t unusual for the party to be held in the family home.
These days, the old-school way of doing things has been romanticised through the lens of nostalgia, with people perhaps forgetting that the old forms don’t necessarily have anything to do with our 21st century lives. For instance, the long bridal dress has sustained, while everyone else at the wedding stopped wearing long dresses decades ago.
So what would a wedding look like these days if it just resembled other big, special parties we have?
Personally, I’ve never hosted a party where 100 people attended. I do sometimes have small dinner parties though, though the vast majority of social occasions for Marc and I look more like this:
Actually, in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia (though not in US, I’m given to understand), 21st birthdays are special occasions where a dedicated, and often pretty large, party is held. There will usually be friends as well as family, and there will generally be some speeches involved. Overall, pretty comparable to what you might want in a wedding reception really. Let’s take a look at how a typical 21st party in NZ goes down:
– Often held at the parents home (in Auckland, most local undergrads still live with their parents), though sometimes a venue, such as a bar, was rented out.
– Everyone attired along similar lines to how we would dress to go to pub, ie, slightly dressed-up casual.
– Food would be buffet-style, and sometimes professionally catered, sometimes not.
– Drinks aplenty!
– Occasionally a professional DJ is hired.
(There’s also the part where the birthday boy ritually downs a yardie with his best man assisting, but we’ll put that aside.)
Standard Weddings today are inauthentic. First, they are financially inauthentic, because as I have said before, how in the world are people paying for these weddings? They are also inauthentic to the type of lives we lead, and the types of parties we have – only a minority of people give actual balls, involving a large number of guests eating a formal sit-down meal of several courses, and people dancing while wearing ball gowns. They’re also internal inconsistent, with the bride dressed much more formally than any of the other women there.
All of this bugs me.
Say it with me now: We need a new paradigm!