We’re pretty enamored with British wedding customs, simply because we only see British weddings when they’re televised international events.
We’re not alone. According to Nielsen data, about 29 million people tuned in to the Prince Harry and Meghan Markle wedding. To put that in perspective, that’s about 10 percent of all Americans (and, we’re guessing, about 80 percent of people who dreamed they’d one day be Disney princesses).
For most of us, the royal wedding made for slightly strange viewing. Some things seemed slightly off. It was like going into a Walmart you don’t normally go to: All the same stuff was there, but everything was in the wrong place. Why was the groom facing the wrong direction? Why were the bridesmaids children? What was up with the hats? Why was everyone British?
To find out, we spoke with a few wedding professionals.
“I’ve been a fan of the British model for weddings for a while and wish more couples here would incorporate some of the traditions,” says Sarah White, lead wedding planner at I Do List. “That would probably relieve a lot of stress.”
After learning about a few British wedding customs, we’re inclined to agree. Here are a few of the biggest differences.
1. Yes, British weddings sometimes involve big, ridiculous hats.
Let’s get this out of the way: At formal events, the Brits love their hats.
“As you might’ve noticed from the latest Royal Wedding, it’s commonplace for women attending a British wedding ceremony to wear a fascinator or an ornate hat,” says Kylie Carlson, spokesperson for the UK Academy of Wedding & Event Planning. “Generally, these are worn to accessorize their dress or guest attire. Whereas, in an American wedding, if you were to wear a hat … you’d be very out of place.”
That’s putting it lightly. Take a look at Princess Beatrice of York.
Perhaps there’s a practical reason for hats—it does rain quite often in Britain—but it’s mostly just tradition, according to Carlson. We should note that typical wedding-goers would choose more subdued headgear than Princess Beatrice; most Brits don’t look like someone stapled a first-year art school project to their heads.
2. British bachelor parties are a bit more…thematic than their American counterparts.
“In the UK, we rarely have rehearsals, there’s no rehearsal dinner, and a bridal shower is what happens if the bride gets caught in the rain. But the big difference is the bachelor/bachelorette party.”
"Stagflation" = a new word coined just yesterday to describe a super lit British bachelor party.
— Noah Rothman (@NoahCRothman) July 10, 2017
“We have an entire industry built around the pre-wedding party, known as the stag or hen weekend,” he says. “The groom or bride’s best friends all get together for a 48-hour party, which often means a trip to mainland Europe or the United States (Vegas and New York being popular choices).”
In some cases, those parties are fairly extravagant. Harman says that in 2018, one of the most popular options was Rent-a-Harry weekends, in which partiers rented a Prince Harry or Prince William look-alike for the weekend.
“That was due to the excitement of the royal wedding,” Harman says. He notes that other themed getaways have surged in popularity in recent years.
“Harry Potter hen weekends are a big hit,” he says. “Girls who grew up with the books are now of marrying age. We’re also seeing an increase in joint stag/hen weekends (sten) where both sets of friends come together for one big weekend.”
A recent hen party cake Harry Potter style! 😁 pic.twitter.com/Otb1Gsl834
— The Cake Sheff (@thecakesheff) May 10, 2018
While the themes are extravagant, the party budget isn’t excessive by American standards. The average Brit spends about £507 on their weekend. That comes out to about $680, which is pretty comparable to what we pay for our last gasps of freedom.
Then again, in the U.S., bachelor party costs have increased dramatically over the past several years. According to a survey from wedding website The Knot, bachelor party attendees spend an average of $738 for the festivities, while bachelorette party attendees spend about $472. Granted, we don’t see many American brides searching out Prince William look-alikes, but in terms of budgeting, pre-wedding parties are expensive on either side of the pond.
3. There are a few big differences in the actual ceremony.
“The wedding party is usually small,” says Apryl Roberts of Memorable Events by Apryl. “The bride usually has one maid of honor or two bridesmaids. The bride walks down the aisle before her bridesmaids; the groom keeps his back towards the congregation as the bride walks down the aisle.”
15 of 21 of #PrinceHarry and #PrinceWilliam's Nicest Brother Moments at the #RoyalWedding – They were facing away from the aisle and toward the altar during the bride's procession down the aisle. She walked down part of the aisle on her own and was later joined by Prince Charles pic.twitter.com/gvEnzWhLa6
— Prince George (@PrinceHRHGeorge) June 5, 2018
That last tradition stands in stark contrast to American weddings, where the groom faces the bride for the entire procession. In our opinion, the British tradition is better for a pretty simple reason.
“The groom faces away from the bride until she reaches him, and everyone gets to experience their first look,” says Shakti Sotomayor of wedding registry website Blueprint Registry. “[It’s] the British tradition that we love the most.”
Usually, in American weddings, the bridal party remains standing during the ceremony. In British weddings, the bridal party sits in the first row during the ceremony. Everyone dresses up, guests included.
— SimplyStylish (@ClassySassySwag) June 18, 2018
“Weddings are a much more formal occasion [in Britain],” White says. “You won’t often see any groom opting to wear jeans to his ceremony.”
To be fair, we haven’t seen that in American weddings, either, but we’ve certainly seen a few uncles walk into the church with untucked flannel shirts. That wouldn’t fly in jolly old Britain.
American weddings often take place in the mid-afternoon, but British weddings tend to occur in the morning or at midday, which leaves plenty of time for the (relatively short) reception.
4. There’s just one problem with a typical British wedding ceremony: You’re not invited.
If you’re a typical Brit, the first wedding you attend might be your own.
“The British have a strict rule: No ring, no bring,” says White. “If a couple is not married, the invited guest’s significant other is not invited to the ceremony or reception following. However, he or she is typically a guest at the evening reception.”
We couldn’t find statistics about the “no ring, no bring” rule—it’s not exactly the type of thing that people track—but Prince Harry and Meghan Markle instituted the policy at their wedding, as did Pippa Middleton. That rule might be traditional, but it’s also quite practical.
“This is my favorite British wedding tradition,” White says, “and one that we should absolutely implement when soaring guest lists and climbing budgets are a major issue for couples.”
5. British speeches are shorter, meaner, and funnier.
Here’s the bad news: The British wedding reception usually isn’t an all-night affair. Instead, it’s basically a brief lunch.
“It usually only lasts a couple of hours,” White says. However, after breaking for a few hours after the lunch reception, close family members might meet back up for a separate evening reception.
At the lunch reception, you’ll hear the wedding toasts, but be prepared to hear a few barbs and insults directed toward the bride and groom.
“In America, it’s customary for the best man and the maid of honor to make a short speech, [and] maybe even one of the parents,” says Carlson. “However, that’s not something you’ll see in British weddings. Only men tend to make the speeches, and the main objective is to embarrass the couple.”
Our other experts backed that up; British wedding toasts are more like roasts. That’s not to say that everything is on the table; they’re still polite, and the jokes are pretty tame. The speeches also don’t take up much time.
“During the reception, there are only three speeches or toasts made, which are given by the father of the bride, groom, and the best man,” says Roberts.
Yes, the maid of honor (or chief bridesmaid, as they’re known in the UK) is off the hook.
6. There’s a separate reception later at night for close friends and family.
As we mentioned earlier, the evening reception is the real party.
“There are fewer guests invited to this reception, typically only closest friends and family members,” White says. “The couples change out of their ceremony attire and into something more comfortable, yet still formal.”
“Unmarried guests are typically invited to bring their significant others to this reception,” White continues. “However, they are still not given an open invitation for a plus-one, as they are in America. This person has to truly be a significant other—oftentimes engaged—to be invited. A dinner is served, with dancing to follow. There is also a bar at the evening reception, not at the morning reception. Lastly, the couple often gives their own toasts to each other and their guests at an evening reception.”
This is pretty similar to an American reception, but there’s one key difference: If you brought a gift, you’ll feel out of place.
“Gifts are always mailed directly to the couple and never brought to the ceremony or reception,” White says.
Why? Well, a big, gaudy array of wrapped presents doesn’t exactly make the party any better. Like we said, the British have some pretty good ideas.