Mary Kenny: The 'modern' wedding is an antique
Traditional, elaborate, ritualised nuptials are back in fashion
Jasmine works in a supermarket where she has the responsible job of checking that the items are always correctly priced. She is in her 30s and has been living with her boyfriend for a few years now, and to her great delight, in May of this year, they'll be getting married.
Her fiancé has been married before, but that, it seems, is of no great account. They will have a lady vicar bestow a blessing in a picturesque country church. There will be six bridesmaids, and the frocks for the six are a major focus of concern: her six pals are constantly in touch with one another over the details of their costumes (plus their pre-wedding hair, make-up, and so on, and so on.)
I didn't ask Jasmine if her bridegroom had sought her father's permission for her hand in wedlock, since it seems a little excessive in reviving traditional customs; but that is the latest trend now in England, according to the wedding planning website theknot.com. Seventy-seven per cent of modern men apparently now ask permission of their girlfriend's father before popping the question. Daisy Amodio of The Proposers, an engagement planning service, says not only are more chaps asking the woman's father, but some are asking the mother for her agreement too.
What? Are women chattels to be transferred from one patriarchal household to another? We are not altogether surprised that James Matthews asked Michael Middleton for permission to propose to Pippa Middleton - high society likes to uphold old-style courtly ways. But over three-quarters of regular guys?
And the wedding planners approve of this fandango. Harry Benson, director of the Marriage Foundation, says that it shows "seriousness" and "commitment" and a recognition that a wedding is about bringing families together. What's striking about contemporary wedding practice is how very traditional, how quaintly old-fashioned, it seems to have become. Wedding etiquette guides in the 1940s and '50s assumed that many a bride would be married in a nice tailored costume and that would be it; in the 1960s and '70s came the hippy bride with flowers in her hair and an informal meal afterwards in a pub. But gradually, over recent decades, the full, formal, hugely expensive, elaborately planned and highly ritualised wedding has crept back.
Same-sex marriage has very probably added to the pressure to have a major production, since gay men - I'm not generalising here or anything - often love going over the top in a riot of pink gossamer. (Althorp House, Princess Diana's old home in Northamptonshire, is particularly popular with gay weddings, with a magnificent staircase down which a bridal couple may sweep, and after the ceremony, a visitor may go and have a little weep at Diana's island grave.)
But not all rigid rules of yesteryear have been revived. The etiquette books of the early 1900s tell us that orange blossom must never be on display for a widow (or divorcée), since this flower alludes to virginity. The best man must be a bachelor, and the bride's family must pay for all wedding expenses, save for the bridegroom's gifts to the bridesmaids, the wedding ring, and the bridal carriage.
And a widow or widower must not remarry within the allotted mourning period (a year and a day). In Islamic traditions, this is to ensure that the widow is not pregnant. In Christian societies, people didn't marry in Lent.
The bride must never be "congratulated", she must be wished happiness. It's the groom who is congratulated for the privilege of marrying the lady.
'Miss Manners', the living, breathing, American bible of etiquette, has been ruling on correct procedure at weddings (and other rites of passage) for some decades, and she tends to mix and blend the traditional with the spontaneous: people can adjust, add and subtract to the procedures as they see fit, but she thinks it's useful to know what the traditions have been.
The four stages of a church wedding are: Processional, Altar, Recessional, Receiving line. Everyone should be seated before the bride arrives. The bride may be "given away" (another hangover from woman-as-chattel status, but people still think it's sweet to do it) either by father or stepfather, or, if she likes, her mother.
The hen party and the stag party are newer innovations which existed in more decorous form in the past. These used to be in the form of the "bride's luncheon" and the bridegroom's "bachelor dinner", in the run up to the wedding ceremony itself. In this age of re-marriages and re-pairing, we can be quite flexible about whether remarried parents or step-parents sit next to one another - it simply depends on whether they get along.
Miss Manners remains quite a stickler for the marriage proposal which launches the whole palaver. The recommended procedure is to "arrange the lady on a sofa, kneel in front of her… say 'I can't live without you - will you marry me?'" Do not say "I think we can make a go of it", "my mother says she's tired of you being my fiancée", or "my tax consultant thinks it's a good move".
And you know what? There are plenty of guys who have reverted to this kneel-before-the-intended process. It may be utterly antiquated, but when it comes to wedding vows, the utterly antiquated seems to be right back in fashion, just as Jasmine's plans illuminate.