Period-Perfect Wedding Style Ideas

Looking to step back in time? Embrace the classics? Want to forgo modern takes and twists on wedding traditions in lieu of following etiquette rules to a T? Make history with your wedding style.
by Amy Elliott

Maybe it's a photograph you saw in a family photo album or the stories your grandmother tells about glamorous parties she once attended in big-city nightclubs. Perhaps you read a Victorian romance every summer, or maybe you're a sucker for all things Shakespearean. No matter what the reference point, many of us are hooked on some sort of historical time period, and while weddings are generally thought to be timeless, it's hard not to look to the past for inspiration. If you choose to infuse your wedding with hints of history, strive for authenticity-you don't have to turn your event into something that smacks of a theme hotel in Vegas. Rather, you can evoke the age's aura with a handful of thoughtfully measured flourishes. Here's a roundup of our six favorite eras, with subtle and smart ways to create a sense of time and place.

1. Retro Latino

Transport guests to tropical environs, to a time when Latin culture reverberated with sultry rhythms and leisurely, laid-back sophistication. Think of Cuba after the war or festive bossa nova parties on Brazilian shores. Choose a location that will lend itself to warm breezes and dusky sunsets -- a thatched pavilion, a summery white tent, or a piazza-style restaurant. Fill the space with palm trees. Set the scene with tables dressed in white linen and topped with sexy red blooms like hibiscus or anthurium. Serve mint-sprigged mojitos (classic Cuban cocktails) and other Latin-inspired fare such as tangy seviche or sea bass simmered in sofrito. Plan to take dance lessons before the wedding, to wow the crowd with spicy renditions of the mambo and the rumba. Better yet, hire a pair of pros to heat up the dance floor and teach guests how to get down. Finally, be sure to hire a high-energy band that can turn out Benny More and Perez Prado favorites with consummate flair.

For inspiration: Read Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene and watch Buena Vista Social Club (1999)

2. Victorian Invasion

When Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840, she set a new standard for weddings (a lacy white gown, a Wagnerian processional, among other conventions) and many of those conventions endure today. So in a sense, all modern weddings are "Victorian" in nature. Still, if you fancy the civility of the era and its florid, picturesque aesthetic, you'll want to party in a nostalgic setting like a renovated bed-and-breakfast in the country or an ornate turn-of-the-century mansion set on sprawling lawns and manicured gardens. Tell your floral designer that you want an "English garden" look-elaborate centerpieces combining romantic blooms such as roses, peonies, and hydrangea on antique lace tablecloths. Scour family attics or antique stores for heirloom linens, serviceware, even handkerchiefs to blend into the decor of your reception. For a look that recalls a faded Victorian postcard or valentine, have lots of children at the wedding: imagine your flower girls running around the party in white dresses with rosebuds in their hair. You might also think about having a tea reception, focusing on dainty fine china, authentic English brews, and charming bite-size treats. Lovers of literature can name tables after favorite period poets such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning or Alfred Lloyd Tennyson, perhaps including selections to be read aloud by volunteers at toasting time.

For inspiration: Read Middlemarch by George Eliot and watch costume dramas such as Mrs. Brown (1997) and Angels & Insects (1995). Read more about Victorian-era weddings.

3. Hollywood Heyday

Pretend you're hosting the ultimate Tinseltown affair, where the best studs and starlets of vintage Hollywood will be in attendance. Your muses: Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart; Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy; Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Rent an historic theater, roll out a red carpet, and light up your names on the building marquee. Show up at the gala in a smoldering vintage Cadillac. Peruse books with photographs from the era to get a sense of the Silver Screen style. Have an orchestra on hand, in white suits and white gloves, to deliver sweeping ballads and jaunty big band and boogie-woogie dance tunes. If you're partying in a neutral space, you might want to up the vintage vibe by displaying antique movie posters. It's true that the stars who got married during this era did so with little fanfare, often in a Los Angeles courthouse or a Las Vegas chapel. Still, we'd steep the room in soft, rose-colored light and fill the space with round tables draped in sumptuous, silvery fabrics.

For inspiration: Read biographies of your favorite screen legends and Hurrell's Hollywood Portraits by Mark Vieira and watch The Thin Man (1934) or Top Hat (1935).

4. Flappers & Philosophers

"I like large parties. They're so intimate," says Jordan Baker in F. Scott Fitzgerald's emblematic Jazz Age novel, The Great Gatsby. Indeed, a typical '20s-inspired soiree needs swarms of guests in a grand Art Deco hotel, perhaps with parquet floors, murals displaying attenuated figures, and glittering stained-glass windows. Plan to arrive and depart in a gleaming, candy-colored cabriolet. Work with your wedding vendors to create an ambience that suggests the era's dimly lit speakeasies and smoky nightclubs. In fact, a cocktail reception might just be your ticket to ride. Offer old-school aperitifs like Manhattans, martinis, and sidecars. Have a band that specializes in jazzy numbers of the Cole Porter variety, and make your grandparents teach you the ins and outs of fox-trotting and doing the Charleston. And, of course, for full-on authenticity, plan to party 'til dawn. On their wedding day, Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, the era's poster children, were thrown out of New York City's Biltmore Hotel due to over-raucous reception revelry. We can't think of a better excuse for immoderation.

For inspiration: Read This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald and watch The Great Gatsby (1974)

5. To Russia With Love

Travel to Eastern Europe, to mystical Imperial Russia, when a regal clan of czars ruled the roost. Embrace the era's opulence, not its politics, and start by finding a dark castle in the forest. Okay, if a castle's not an option, a secluded mansion will do nicely. We'd have the party in winter, with the air cold and smelling of smoke, the landscape covered in snow. While you snap photos after the ceremony, make arrangements for a livery service to provide sleigh rides for your guests. Inside, have fires roaring in massive stone fireplaces. Display period antiques (or replicas) on the mantels: military medallions, photographs of famous palaces in St. Petersburg, Fabergé eggs, and other gilded decorations. Outfit the room in luxurious red and gold, topping tables with fur-trimmed velvet and robust candelabras. Serve the finest vodka you can afford, and, just for fun, perform a couple of folkdances or hire a professional troupe through your local cultural society.

For inspiration: Read War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy and watch Anna Karenina (1997)

6. Renaissance Revival

The Renaissance brought about the true birth of creativity -- a time when artists were revered and men wrote their lovers prose about inextinguishable love. A Renaissance wedding becomes a buffet for the senses. The air is filled with music and poetry (have loved ones read Renaissance selections from the book The Treasury of English Poetry, and hire a mandolin player to add atmosphere). The eyes enjoy richly embroidered costumes -- adorned with gold and silver threads with intricate scenes from legends, nature, or religion -- and tables dressed in bold-colored tapestries and luxurious silks. The nose breathes in the smell of intoxicating cinnamon and clove (be sure to burn a few scented candles). But don't ignore the rawness of the Renaissance feast: guests, seated at long, regal tables and served family-style, can eat with their fingers. The menu should consist of traditional Renaissance fare: quail, goose, venison, and fish. (If you're looking to get ambitious, include roasted boar and peacock.) Serve warm mulled wine and ale in metal steins. Since the tiered wedding cake has roots in the Renaissance-guests would bring their own sweets and stack them on top of each other -- a simply iced confection dressed in fruits such as apples, pears, quince, and currants would fit the part. In keeping with tradition, try to kiss over the cake without toppling it over.

For inspiration: Read The Midwife's Apprentice by Karen Cushman, watch The Taming of the Shrew (1929), and get a history lesson on weddings in the renaissance.

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