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Something Old, Something New

Local wedding planner discusses stalwart wedding traditions of the past and trends that are becoming today’s customary wedding details

by Erin Pihlaja on January 31, 2013 · 1 comment


Katie O'Malley talks weddings. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

When your grandparents, and maybe even your parents, got married, planning a wedding was pretty straightforward. The bride wore a white wedding gown, the groom and his party donned tuxedos, and the bridesmaids were wrapped in identical dresses that looked as though they were constructed by a blind tailor with a fetish for pastel taffeta (or polyester if you got hitched in the disco era). The wife-to-be was paraded down the aisle of her local religious establishment (scandals ensued for those interfaith marriages), and after a well-rehearsed ceremony, husband and wife were free to join their family and friends for dinner and a slice of multi-tiered wedding cake at the local banquet hall, or possibly in the basement below the church. End of story; ’til death do you part. But times, and wedding planning, have changed.

It’s hard to define ‘traditional,’” says Katie O’Malley, owner of Katie O’ Weddings and Events. “Nowadays ‘traditional’ is almost harder to plan than a ‘unique’ wedding.” O’Malley finds that her clients come to her armed with research and educated decisions. And most of them want all of the elements of the big day to reflect their personalities. She says that some people still request the customs of wedding yesteryears, but certain trends have become so popular that for today’s brides and grooms, they are quickly becoming “new traditions.”

Some couples still wait until the ceremony to see each other on the day of the wedding, but according to O’Malley, more and more couples are opting for a “first look.” She says it’s the “trendiest thing in weddings now. Couples take photos before the ceremony. It’s more private and personal. It allows more time for photography, and because the photos are done, the couples can actually enjoy cocktail hour with their friends.”

Photo booths have also become wedding must-haves. Not quite the mini-capsules that used to be in malls and movie theaters, these are simply areas that are slightly separated from the rest of the reception where guests take self-portraits using a remote-control to release the camera’s shutter. O’Malley says that she sees less and less of posed portraiture in wedding photography, and even hired professionals are instructed to capture “candids” and “documentary-style” work.

Also falling by the wayside is the cake-cutting ceremony. O’Malley says clients regularly ask for dessert and candy stations where guests can serve themselves from a wide variety of sweets. The Champagne toast is disappearing as well. “The signature cocktail is the new thing,” says O’Malley. “I had a couple where one was a Red Sox fan and the other liked the Yankees. They served Green Monster and Bronx Bomber martinis.”

Forget throwing rice at exiting newlyweds, the safer and trendier option has become the “creative send-off.” O’Malley says the extremely popular “sparkler send-off” is where guests wave hand-held fireworks in the air as the bride and groom pass through them on their way to the reception. To take it up a notch, O’Malley says clients will request “wish lanterns,” a slightly trickier way to memorialize the moment. Post-ceremony, these paper lanterns are released into the sky, and lifted by the lit candles inside of them. Beautiful—but beware of shifting winds, O’Malley warns.

Some of O’Malley’s clients are doing away with the rehearsal dinner. In the past, the bridal party would meet the night before the wedding, to socialize and work out last-minute details. Now, since many people travel to the wedding location, couples are asking all of their guests to join them at a “welcome dinner.” To extend the night of the wedding, couples are hosting after-parties. Part of the planning sometimes includes late-night snacks to fuel the celebration. “We’ll see a late night candy or pizza bar, or sliders and fries,” O’Malley explains.

Many of the old traditions seem to be gone forever. O’Malley is thrilled that she rarely sees guests clank utensils on the side of their glassware during dinner. This used to be the cue for the bride and groom to stop what they were doing and kiss. “There is sometimes that one guest that just has to,” O’Malley shakes her head. “But thankfully not often.”

She is equally happy that disposable cameras on tables have become a thing of the past and that wedding apps for smart phones have taken their place. “The Wedding Party app and Appy Couple app are my two favorites,” she says. “These are wildly nontraditional to some people but traditional for young people who are used to technology. You can load photos and text in real time, and you share them with only the people invited. It limits over-exposure and the bride and groom get access to everything.”

While some brides may still wear the traditional wedding garter and toss their bouquet to a crowd of single ladies, O’Malley says that the garter toss has bitten the dust. It used to be the job of the Best Man to remove the garter from the leg of the bride (while all of the guests watched) and toss it to romantically unattached men in the room. Brides today tend to keep the garter on their legs during the festivities and in their scrapbooks afterwards.

Conventionalists, take heart. There are some older customs that haven’t changed. Most brides still wear a special wedding gown, although some change into a second dress at the reception, according to O’Malley. “They will get creative with footwear, with maybe a fun color, or a sparkle accent to them.” Thankfully, more flexibility has been granted to the bridesmaids’ garment choices. “The bride may pick out a color and fabric and then let them pick the style,” adds O’Malley. She doesn’t usually see radical changes in menswear, in fact, she notes that more and more men are returning to the tradition of tuxedos with bow ties.

Also unchanged: the use of wedding jewelry. Rings are still rings, says O’Malley. Occasionally, women will opt for a special engagement ring stone in lieu of a diamond, and men are experimenting with metals other than silver or gold.

You’ll still hear an exchange of vows at almost every ceremony. If they aren’t a traditional version, couples will write their own. “The coolest ceremony I’ve seen to this day,” recalls O’Malley, “was where a couple asked friends to speak at their ceremony. It was three couples, one had been married for eight months, another for 20 years, and the last for 40 years. It was funny, real, sincere and personal. So cool, and totally untraditional.”

There are some older wedding events that O’Malley would love to see become more popular. One of her favorite customs is when the bride and her father are driven to the ceremony in a vintage car or limousine. “It is so sweet,” she notes. “And just really symbolic of the dad giving away his little girl.” She also loves when brides wear a veil with a blusher. “It’s so rare to see this, it used to be very traditional. Maybe it will become a tradition again.”

Utilizing traditional elements with a modern twist usually pleases everyone in the wedding party. O’Malley is “obsessed” with Vitamin String Quartet, a group who play modern music on classical stringed instruments. They are from California, so she has hired local groups to do the same thing for her clients. “It adds an unexpected element to the ceremony,” she says. “I had a bride walk down the aisle to Fix You by Coldplay and then walk out to Cosmic Love by Florence and the Machine. It was amazing.”

The biggest change in the wedding playbook, according to O’Malley and her team, is that there are no rules for planning a wedding. “Today’s bride wants an atmosphere where her closest family and friends can get together and have a party but also relax. ‘Fun’ is the best word a client can say to me, because that’s what we do.”