Tracking Wedding Customs and Traditions

by Hollee Actman Becker
Libby Benedict

Sure, weddings are steeped in tradition. But did you ever stop to wonder why there are so many customs surrounding the way the bride dresses on her big day? From wearing a veil to tossing the garter, here's the inside skinny.

The Veil

The wedding veil has evolved over the centuries, and has signified youth, virginity, and modesty. Roman brides were married in swathes of brilliant yellow, while Viking queens wore metal skullcaps. Many Japanese brides still wear the traditional tsuno-kakushi -- a white hood that supposedly hides the horns of jealousy.

The Headpiece

Headpieces are chosen separately from veiling. Though the earliest brides said their "I dos" crowned with floral and herbal wreaths -- which continue to be popular, particularly for outdoor and beach ceremonies -- there are many other options for the bride today. Eastern Orthodox brides know to look forward to a crowning ceremony when they marry, during which both the bride and groom have ornate crowns placed on their heads; the crowns are blessed and exchanged three times, and when they are removed the couple is officially married. Similarly, the Finnish bride wears a gold crown, which she places on the head of a bridesmaid -- while blindfolded -- during a reception dance. It is said the lucky maid will be the next to marry, much in keeping with the tradition of American brides tossing the bouquet.

Something Old, New, Borrowed, Blue

The tradition of the bride wearing something old (for continuity), new (optimism for the future), borrowed (happiness), and blue (fidelity, good fortune, and love) on her wedding day stems from an Old English rhyme. The "something borrowed" comes from the superstition that happiness rubs off, so the bride borrowed something from a happily married woman. "Something blue" comes from the notion that the shade denotes fidelity, purity and love.

Many brides consider their dress to be their something new, but here are a few options for the other three requirements. Something Old: A family heirloom such as your grandmother's wedding band or string of pearls; a lace handkerchief; an old hat pin secured on the inside of your gown. Something Borrowed: A family member's or friend's headpiece or veil; a piece of your mother's jewelry. Something Blue: Your garter; blue toenail polish; lingerie.

There's also a fifth, though often dropped, line of the rhyme: "A penny in your shoe" (or, in England, a sixpence). Each is said to help ensure a lifetime of fortune. Additional customs relating to luck include: sewing a small pouch filled with a piece of bread, a sliver of wood, a bit of cloth, or a dollar bill into the hem of a bride's petticoat to protect against future shortages of food, shelter, clothing, or money. Sewing a small horseshoe into the dress's waistband heralds good luck. Brides in Greece also believe a lump of sugar tucked into one of their wedding gloves will bring sweetness to their married life.

The Garter

Throwing the garter is derived from an old English custom called "flinging the stocking." Guests would invade the bridal chamber and steal the bride's stockings, then take turns flinging them. Whoever threw the one that landed on the groom's nose, would be the next to marry. By the 14th century, possession of the garter had become highly esteemed and the bride would often be rushed at the altar by hordes of guests competing for the prize. These days, the groom removes the garter -- generally worn at the sexier mid-thigh level -- from her leg (as innocently as possible, we're sure) and tosses it to his bachelor pals.

The Gloves

During the 18th and 19th centuries, gloves were the traditional wedding favor for all guests. Until 1960, they were considered de rigueur, even during the day, for all well-mannered ladies. While today formal etiquette still recommends that a bride wear gloves as a symbol of grace, many opt to do so simply to heighten the image they're presenting, or pass on this tradition entirely. The effect, when worn with a wedding dress, is classically elegant.

The Train

Originating in the Middle Ages, train length indicated rank in court. The longer the train, the greater was her stature with the king and queen.

The Ring

The circular shape of a wedding ring symbolizes eternal love. Gold represents enduring beauty, purity, and strength, all appropriate marriage sentiments. Why wear the ring on the third finger of the left hand? The ancient Egyptians believed that the vein in that finger ran directly to the heart. As for that big rock of an engagement ring, brides have the Archduke Maximillian of Austria and Mary of Burgundy to thank for that: In 1477 he offered his beloved a diamond as a betrothal gift -- the first recorded diamond engagement ring.

Identically Dressed Attendants

Keeping evil spirits away from the couple on their wedding day is a recurring theme in wedding tradition. If your attendants complain about having to wear the exact same thing (although these days, of course, they don't have to match!), tell them this: Bridesmaids used to wear the exact same outfit as the bride so that evil spirits would be confused as to just who was the actual couple.

Not Seeing Each Other Pre-Ceremony

In the early days of arranged marriages, the bride and groom often never saw each other at all before the wedding. Even when couples were acquainted before they married, it was still considered bad luck for the groom to glimpse the bride pre-ceremony, as she would not be pure and new. Neither was the bride supposed to see herself -- it was believed that if she saw her reflection she would leave some of herself behind in the mirror. (Brides today probably wouldn't take too well to not being able to preen before the wedding!) These days, many couples still uphold the not-seeing-each-other tradition. Others throw caution to the wind and spend time alone together pre-ceremony to calm their nerves or enjoy the excitement.

Up Next