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Author Interview: Ditching the Rules to Wedding Season
Like it or lump it, summer means WEDDING SEASON, especially this summer 2022, after a two-years-long, pandemic hiatus. But why do so many “lump it?” In this interview, we ask authors of The New Wedding Book: A Guide to Ditching All the Rules (Dundurn Press) Michelle Bilodeau and Karen Cleveland their insights on wedding traditions (good and bad), how to manage everyone’s expectations, and some of their fave wedding stories from the book.
All Lit Up: I think every soon-to-be-married person understands immediately what you mean by “A Guide to Ditching All the Rules” in the subtitle of your book. Why do you think there’s such a continued adherence to the “rules” of weddings by so many people, even as other “rules” of dating, employment, etc have fallen (rightly so!) by the wayside?
Michelle Bilodeau + Karen Cleveland: You’re right, we’ve let go of so many old ways of thinking about big, important things yet weddings feel stuck. The old reasons for marrying aren’t really operative anymore. Historically, marriage served as a contract — women were vulnerable financially, they needed cultural and legal protection. Marriage gave them that. In return, the husband got domesticity and children. Knowing that almost half of all marriages end in divorce (yes, still accurate), we can comfortably cohabitate in sin, and we don’t need a spouse to provide legal and financial protection, why do we do it? Moreover, why do we bother with the pomp and circumstance around weddings?
Here’s our hot take: Because, deep down, we believe in love. We believe in the promise of a forever love. There’s something appealing about participating in the ritual of a wedding. No other institution in the world gets the same respect as marriage. Marriage is at the core of financial planning, taxation, immigration, health care, and social currency. The roots of weddings run deep across cultures and we still hold them sacred. Perhaps that’s why we funnel so much energy toward the wedding and not the marriage. We fetishize weddings in pop culture, look at the obsession with celebrity weddings.
Maybe it is because so little else is sacred nowadays that we hold a candle for marriage. Everything can seem so hopeless. So much about the world is messed up. We want to celebrate hope and bring people together for something positive, for crying out loud. Weddings are a balm for all that. A happy couple deliriously in love is hope personified. We cling to the ritual of a wedding and unfortunately many of the worn-out cliches that are inseparable from weddings because it feels good to be an optimist.
ALU: For a long time, the common wisdom was that weddings were “recession proof.” But as we’ve learned recently, they’re not necessarily pandemic proof! How did the COVID-19 pandemic allow for a loosening of wedding expectations in a way we haven’t really seen before?
MB + KC: The most revealing moment for us came when we were speaking with the owners of Loversland, an independent Toronto boutique that sells beautiful, responsibly-made wedding dresses (amongst other gorgeous things). If overpriced poorly-made polyester gowns are at one end of the spectrum, Loversland is at the complete opposite end.
They shared that when COVID restrictions eased, there was an influx of customers who came to find a wedding outfit, and they were SO RELIEVED that they could eke out with a micro wedding. They felt freed from the pressure to have a big wedding, one that they never really wanted to have in the first place, but were told (explicitly by family or implicitly by society) that they should want that big wedding. They were relieved to not have to do this and the pandemic gave them an ‘out’.
What’s been really interesting to observe is now that we have 2.5+ years of weddings that are smaller, we can look to them as a great inspiration to inform the next few years. COVID has shown the world that weddings don’t have to be extravagant, huge or over the top to be romantic, meaningful, and beautiful.
ALU: Who does the “wedding industrial complex” and Western wedding traditions leave out – thinking of BIPOC, non-binary people, and same-sex couples – and how? What can every engaged couple learn from weddings outside of the Western, white, cis, hetero mould?
Couples can learn about different wedding traditions by looking into their own backgrounds to see if anything resonates with them either at an individual level or as a couple. Because, as we talk about in the book, even the idea of a white Western wedding is not that old. It basically harkens back only about 100 years, and is mostly a post-WWII construct. Many cultures have meaningful traditions that can add something outside of the white Western wedding ideal, and something that has value, to the couple’s ceremony or event. Or they can completely make it up as they go. We’re all for ditching these staid rules. So, couples should take inspiration from wherever they want. It really is their day.
ALU: You started writing this book in 2014, in response to some of the squicky, anti-feminist things you noticed while planning your own weddings – but what “tradition” do you think is the squickiest?
KC: The notion that a bride is given away and the groom is not is proof positive how entangled gender is with weddings. It doesn’t matter if a bride is given away by her dad, both parents, Santa, whoever. There’s a lot to unpack there in the symbolism of her being given away and I think if anyone is considering including that in their wedding, they should understand what it is all about and then decide (my apologies to dear old dads and parents of the bride in advance here, but to me, this is the squickiest of the squicky).
MB: For me, it’s anything garter belt-related. That tradition stems from the Medieval idea of what’s called ‘fingering the stocking’ (see, gross already!). Basically, someone would be tasked with going into the bridal chambers to look at the bride’s stockings to ensure that the marriage had been consummated. How utterly demeaning and so f***ing patriarchal. From this, came the idea of the groom getting down on his knees and using his teeth (in front of the bride’s family??) to take off the garter belt, which he then throws to all the single men in the room. No, thank you.
ALU: Something that’s clear in The New Wedding Book is the sense of confessional celebration: the stories from couples that show doing their weddings their way really allowed them to uniquely celebrate their love. Karen and Michelle, what were your favourite stories from the book?
KC: I’m torn but if pressed, I can narrow it down to two: My heart belongs to Cody and Turner, a gay couple from Utah who married on a remote ranch on top of a mountain in Colorado with NO PLASTIC, and it looked stunning and fun in equal measure. Like, so beautiful.
I also love Tonisha and Jan, a couple in Berlin (by way of Jamaica and Czech) whose wedding I really wish I was invited to because it sounded like an absolute blast. They used food to mash up their cultures (Jerk Goulash! Rum! Becherovka!). The bride wore a hot gold cocktail dress and ended up DJ’ing later in the night.
MB: I am here for love, absolutely. I love both of Karen’s examples. But I also love fashion. I really loved that someone we interviewed, without being engaged yet, found a kick-ass white jumpsuit that they wanted to get married in, so they bought it and held onto it until the day came. And she felt absolutely incredible in her outfit. Why can’t we have fun and wear whatever we want on our wedding day? I say we absolutely can!
ALU: What’s your advice for a bride or groom who is having trouble communicating to overzealous family or friends that they want their “big day” to be more of a “low-key, medium day”?
MB + KC: This one can be tough, for sure. In the book, we advocate for open communication. Being up front with your loved ones about your plans might be the best way to get them to see things your way, and get them used to the idea that your wedding may not be what they’re used to (for good reason!). Be understanding (you can say something like, ‘we get this might not be how you would like things’), and be firm (‘this is what we want, we’re not changing our minds’). If you can compromise on some things, great. But again, only if you want to. You also may need to negotiate a bit with your family. And this takes sharp communication skills. Ask questions about why having a receiving line, for example, is so important to them and help them see that not having one will not impact the joyous occasion that is you and your love getting hitched.
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Michelle Bilodeau is a writer and editor. Her work has appeared in CBC Life, Refinery29, Fashion, the Kit, Flare, and Canadian Living. She is also a green beauty expert on The Social. Michelle lives in Toronto.
Karen Cleveland has contributed to the New York Times, Weddingbells, Today’s Bride, Fashion, the Kit, Huffington Post, the Toronto Star, and the National Post. She lives in Toronto, as well.
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Many thanks to Michelle and Karen for answering our questions! Prepare yourself for wedding season 2022 by reading The New Wedding Book (or gift it to a frazzled, betrothed friend) – available now.