I Do … & I Don’t: A Feminist’s Guide to Being a Bride – The Origins of Bridal Traditions

Sarah Carter Photography

November 10, 2021

Our real bride columnist Rachel got married in September this year. We’re following her journey of planning a feminist meets rock n roll wedding, culminating in us sharing the big day in our last issue of the year! This month she’s been thinking about wedding

I thought I had a handle on the major bridal traditions and the gripes many of us have with them. Lots of you reading this may have already decided to scratch out the word ‘obey’ from your vows, for example. A lot of modern brides also wrinkle their noses at the idea of ‘being given away’ and what that actually used to mean (that the literal ownership of the bride was changing hands from father to husband). Many have even come to believe that the first dance is tired and unnecessary. Not me, though – it’s my one chance to feel like I’m on Strictly Come Dancing. But I get it. It’s not for everyone.

It turns out I had no idea about the murky origins of so many staple wedding moments. For instance, did you know that the garter removal — that moment where the groom takes off the bride’s garter with his teeth, in front of his nephews, his grandma Joyce and his new father-in-law (I’ve seen it happen from many a stage as a wedding singer and it is never anything other than excruciating, please don’t do it) is the very distant descendant of a medieval tradition that would happen at the end of the wedding feast? Right before bedtime, someone would shout, ‘GET HER!’ and the congregation would launch upon the virgin bride, ripping off pieces of her dress to help unclothe her before the naked part of the nuptials. The bigger the chunk of dress you took home, the better the luck apparently. It’s worth nothing that this gang-undressing is also considered by many to be the great, great, great grandparent of catching the bouquet, as it’s in the same family of ‘taking home a piece of the bride for luck’.

Or did you know that, traditionally, the groom stands on the right during the ceremony because, in weapon-wielding, Gretna Green-eloping, Jane Austen-type times, the right arm was considered the sword arm of most men, so if a man found himself challenged by another suitor at the altar, he could protect his bride with his left hand, while fighting off the other bloke with his right? I mean, unless it’s Bridgerton and the Duke is shirtless, shining with sweat and fighting the cute brother, I’m afraid I’m out.

When planning a wedding that incorporates a healthy slice of feminism, unless you’re willing to get creative and alter (pun intended) the meaning of these moments, you’re pretty much out of luck. I haven’t even mentioned the meanings behind wearing a veil, throwing confetti or any of the innumerable cultural, religious traditions found all over the world that some might find themselves questioning as they start to plan their day and their marriage.

It’s important to remember that it’s not our fault that so much of the romantic symbolism we swoon over today came from some hideous, patriarchal fart of an idea to do with ownership of women, fighting or getting the bride naked as quickly and publicly as possible. What I think is most important is acknowledging where these traditions come from and deciding how to adapt them to work for you. You could even explicitly state how you’re doing so during your day. ‘Hey, everyone!’ the groom might shout during the cake cutting (traditionally a demonstration of the bride’s subservience to her new husband, as she fed him the first mouthful before she fed herself) ‘My wife doesn’t exist to serve me. I’m a big boy! I’ll feed myself! Cake for everyone!’

Personally, I am lucky enough to have an amazing relationship with my dad, and he will be walking down the aisle beside me. As my fiancé and I are having a humanist ceremony, we’ve decided to include some words about this in the ceremony: that it’s not about ownership; that it’s a demonstration of support for my choice and our families joining together. ‘Who gives this woman away?’ … ‘Absolutely no one. Thanks for asking. Let’s move on.’

My dad and I want to share that moment and keep it forever as a memory. So, we’re doing it. We’re just doing it our way. And you can too. Learn where it all came from and choose how you want to proceed. It’s up to every couple to pick what they want to include in their wedding, and I don’t think anyone should pipe up about any of it… except when it comes to the garter toss. Seriously, folks, it’s an ordeal no one wants to see. Trust me.


Rachel is a writer, singer and singing teacher. She has performed in vintage and swing wedding bands since 2015. Rachel lives with her fiancé in South West London, where she is currently writing her debut novel. You can find her on Instagram @rachelbdarwin

This article originally appeared in issue 39 of Rock n Roll Bride magazine. You can purchase the latest copy here, or why not subscribe to never miss an issue?