Did you know the origin of current-day wedding traditions, such as the exchanging of rings and the cakecutting, can be traced all the way back to ancient history? Kristy Ouwerkerk, the founder of Veilability.com.au, speaks with Georgia Jordan about the fascinating history of wedding traditions, and how they can be adapted to enhance the experience and significance of the modern wedding.
Image Credit: With Every Heartbeat
Whether held in a church or on a beach, for a few hours, or a whole day, with a guest list of 50 or 500, a wedding is structured around deeply symbolic rituals that have evolved from ancient times. “The celebration of a marriage with a wedding day event is in itself a tradition,” points out Kristy Ouwerkerk.
“For many couples, their wedding day is a chance to embrace the same traditions experienced by their parents, grandparents and engaged couples [from across the globe] going back hundreds of years. [These] traditions inject an element of magic and celebration into the practical outcome of getting married.”
Put A Ring On It
The ceremonial exchanging of rings to express a couple’s devotion to one another can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians in 3000 BC. “The circle shape of a wedding ring symbolises the eternity of marriage – a shape with no beginning and no end,” explains Ouwerkerk. “The hole in the ring’s centre represented a gateway or door to future events. These rings were placed on the fourth finger of the left hand because the ancient Egyptians believed that the vena amoris – the vein of love – ran directly from the heart to the top of this finger.”
While iron betrothal rings became popular among wealthy fifteenth-century Venetians, “our gratitude for diamond engagement rings goes [back] to Archduke Maximilian of Austria, who gifted one to the love of his life, Mary of Burgundy, in 1477”, says Ouwerkerk. “Diamonds are the hardest material on our planet and represent invincible strength,” she continues.
The purpose of the wedding ring has come a long way since ancient times, when a man would place it on his wife’s finger to entrust care of the household. Ouwerkerk explains that dual-ring ceremonies were introduced by the Greek Orthodox church in the 1300’s and were “adopted more broadly at the start of World War II, when many couples were married before the young men were sent off to war. The ring provided [the soldiers] solace, [serving] as a reminder of the bond of marriage and what was awaiting them back home.”
While today’s engagement and wedding rings still signify everlasting love and commitment, they can be made from any material (such as rose gold) and into any style (for example, overunder, cushion cut, and halo- or open-setting), depending on your preferences.
“Most Australian brides want a timeless wedding ring that [represents] what makes them unique,” says Ouwerkerk. “Your engagement ring needs to be something you’ll love as much 20 years from now as the day he popped the question.”
All Dressed In White
You’ve likely heard that brides wear white as a symbol of purity and innocence, but this is a misconception. “The tradition of wearing a white wedding dress is very young,” says Ouwerkerk. Until 1840, when Queen Victoria defied tradition and wore a white lace wedding gown that became a massive hit, brides simply wore their best dress.
However, this tradition seems to be decreasing in popularity, with 27 per cent of 18–24-year-old brides planning to wear something colourful on their wedding day.
“As millennial brides take inspiration from Instagram and the red carpet, we are seeing a trend towards off-beat, on-trend styles, says Ouwerkerk. “The wedding aisle [has become] a runway showcase for the bride’s unique personality and style.”
Today’s brides are increasingly wearing couture, floral designs and even pantsuits, “while delicate pastels like blush and sea-breeze blue [are] popular with brides looking for a more subtle twist away from tradition”, says Ouwerkerk. A white or ivory gown can be personalised with “highlights such as thigh-high splits, feathers, oversized embellishments and asymmetrical hemlines.”
Lifting The Veil
The origin of the bridal veil is far from romantic. A bride in ancient Rome would be covered from head-to-toe with a red sheet to make evil spirits think she was on fire, in the hopes they would leave the wedding in peace.
Ouwerkerk explains the veil was also used “to disguise the bride from her husband, who wasn’t supposed to see his new wife until they were officially betrothed. The unveiling of the bride by the groom symbolised that ownership had changed hands from her father to her husband.”
“Even more bizarre is that trains and veils served an additional purpose – to weigh brides down so that they couldn’t run away!”
Nowadays, the flowing wedding veil is considered a romantic accessory that can instantly give a white dress that ‘bridal’ look. “Tradition is to wear a blusher-style veil down the aisle,” says Ouwerkerk, “which is then lifted by either your father before he leaves your side, or by your groom [for your kiss]…”
If you like the idea of a veil but want something more contemporary, you can find detachable styles that can be removed for a more casual look for the reception. “If you don’t like the idea of wearing a blusher, you can certainly walk down the aisle with your veil worn back and away from your face,” says Ouwerkerk.
“An increasingly common trend is to wear a veil substitute that complements the gown and overall style. Body veils that integrate with the actual wedding dress [can] have a soft, wispy and romantic quality.” For something more dramatic, Ouwerkerk suggests a cape that covers the shoulders – a style “made popular by the redcarpet style of celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow”.
For another stylish alternative, Ouwerkerk recommends wearing a bejewelled hairpiece, delicate flower crown, or bolero with feathers or faux-fur.
Tokens Of Luck
Inspired by an old English rhyme, a bride traditionally wears something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue on her wedding day. “With so many interpretations and options for each of the four elements, you can easily keep this traditional element without too much extra planning or expense,” says Ouwerkerk. “[You could] even save money!”
Representing continuity and appreciation for the past, this token is usually an antique piece. “[You could] wear an old fur wrap, borrow some antique jewellery from your grandmother or incorporate some lace from your mother’s wedding dress into your own,” suggests Ouwerkerk. “Or, [you could] track down some antique photo frames to display at your reception, with photos of loved ones that are no longer with you or who couldn’t attend your big day.”
Symbolising optimism for the future, this token is usually a gift from the groom or a family member, such as wedding day jewellery. “[Alternatively, you could] have champagne flutes monogrammed with your initials and use them at your reception to toast to your future as husband and wife,” says Ouwerkerk. “For an ultra-modern alternative, [matching] tattoos could fit this bill too!”
As a symbol of borrowed happiness, wearing something that belongs to a loved one at your wedding is a great way to share the magic of the day with those close to you. “Think gorgeous accessories like your best friend’s clutch, mum’s veil or sister’s earrings,” says Ouwerkerk.
This token of love and fidelity can be incorporated into any bridal ensemble, regardless of colour palette. “We [at Veilability.com.au] love the idea of monogramming your initials into the lining of your wedding dress, or keeping a pastel blue hanky onhand for teary moments,” says Ouwerkerk. “[Alternatively, you could] go all out and pair your wedding gown with royal blue Louboutin pumps.”
Let Them Eat Cake
The elaborate wedding cakes of today have come a long way from the loaf of bread that the Ancient Romans would break over a bride’s head for fertility’s sake. Tiered cakes first emerged from a wedding game that was popularised in medieval England, in which the bride and groom would attempt to kiss over a towering cake without knocking it over. If successful, it was believed their marriage would flourish.
Legend says that a French pastry chef witnessed this game and was inspired to cover the mountainous cakes in thick icing to support the weight of the layers, which the bride and groom would need to team up to cut through. “Today, we celebrate [the cake-cutting] simply for the love of tradition,” says Ouwerkerk. “It is the first task you execute together as newlyweds, as well as being a great photo opportunity.”
Modern wedding cakes are far more creative than the traditional fruit cake or common mud cake. Ouwerkerk says flavours are often chosen in relation to the theme or location of the wedding, “like a lemon and thyme cake for a provincial garden wedding, passionfruit and lime for a tropical beach wedding, or warm bourbon-laced toffee and date cake for a rustic winter wedding.”
“Visual showpieces, like macaron towers, continue to be popular, and very practical,” says Ouwerkerk. “Florals couldn’t be more fashionable… both large statement [cakes with] bright, bold floral patterns, as well as more organic-looking floral arrangements, such as climbing flowers and foliage.”
Ouwerkerk says that in the years to come, “metallics, pretty pinks and delicate lace will feature strongly, and interestingly, [we’ll see a] return to tradition with old-school royal icing and piped detailing…”
Rather than saving the top tier of the wedding cake for their first child’s christening, as has been done in the past, modern-day couples usually save a few slices to be enjoyed on their first wedding anniversary instead.
“[It’s] also common for your baker to make extra cakes in the same flavour as your wedding cake – just without all the gorgeous detailing – for your caterer or venue to serve to guests as dessert,” says Ouwerkerk. “This will save you big dollars and mean you can create an even more gorgeous design for the ceremonial cake.”
According to Ouwerkerk, “we are seeing a shift away from incorporating wedding traditions for tradition’s sake only. Couples are [beginning to] revamp old rituals, with greater emphasis on guest enjoyment, and creating memorable, personal experiences”.
New And Improved
Traditionally, it was considered bad luck for the engaged couple to see each other the night before the wedding. In the modern-day adaption, the couple meets before the wedding ceremony, with the ‘first-look’ moment captured by the photographer.
“This serves an added purpose of allowing the couple to get the bulk of their wedding photos [taken] before the official celebrations, so wedding guests aren’t kept waiting for hours between the ceremony and reception,” says Ouwerkerk.
Increasingly, modern weddings offer a personalised experience. “With so many amazing ceremony and reception options available today, couples can hold their wedding at hidden-gem locations and unique venues,” says Ouwerkerk. “Or [they can] transform traditional venues into an experience that truly encapsulates their personalities and style.” According to Ouwerkerk, technology has also come to play a significant role in today’s weddings, with digital platforms like Veilability. com.au enabling couples to conveniently plan their weddings without the hassle of filing papers and keeping notebooks.
Best to Toss
Beware of the cake-smashing trend; this relatively recent, self-explanatory phenomenon results in hilarious photos, but you’ll be spending the rest of your reception picking icing from your hair!
Another tradition that might be best to skip is the bouquet toss, which could potentially embarrass your single friends. “We [at Veilability.com.au] love the idea of celebrating the longevity of marriage by presenting your bouquet to a special couple at the wedding who have been together for the longest, [such as] your grandparents or parents,” says Ouwerkerk.
Importantly, Ouwerkerk advises that you “[shouldn’t feel pressured] to include every wedding tradition into your day [with] the crammed schedule that goes with [it]. Instead, choose three or four of the most meaningful traditions for you, and enjoy the precious moments in-between.”