What Americans Can Learn From British-Style Weddings

British-style nuptials, like Kat Slater and Alfie Moon's on 'EastEnders,' are boisterous, unpretentious affairs. (Photo: BBC)

British-style nuptials, like Kat Slater and Alfie Moon’s on ‘EastEnders,’ are boisterous, unpretentious affairs. (Photo: BBC)

Nuptials. Whichever side of the Atlantic you perform them on, they’re an excuse to dress up and throw a big, boozy party. But British weddings have a certain something—let’s go with “frugal flamboyance”—that Americans just can’t seem to replicate.

If the subject of a speech isn’t somewhat offended, it was a bad speech.
Toasts (as Americans are fond of calling them) at British weddings aren’t an excuse to gush about the happy couple like they are in the U.S. Oh no. We have a very low threshold for soppiness so we’ve usually overdosed by the time we get to the reception, where all anyone wants do is drink, gorge on mediocre nibbles and bitch about other guests’ unsightly displays of back fat. But more than anything, we want to hear from the best man. It’s his job to tell rude jokes and recount the many, many times the groom has made a complete tit of himself. Done well, it’s the joyous centerpiece of a British wedding. Ideally, the speeches by the bride’s father and anyone else who’s signed up to address the crowd won’t be quite as brutal. But neither will they descend into all-out gelatinous sop.

It’s fine—sensible, even—to have evening-only guests and a cash bar.
Cutting corners at weddings is something we Brits do very well. Call it stinginess if you must; I call it budgeting. Anyway, it’s standard practice for us to cheap out by having a two-tier guest list and making everyone pay for their own alcohol—though we’ll usually provide some wine with dinner. Knowing these cost-slashing measures are socially acceptable helps take the financial pressure off cash-strapped couples. In the U.S., not providing a free bar is a bit of a faux pas. And you would never invite guests for half the event (the humanity!). Though, I’m guessing if all Yanks drank like Brits, this would quickly kill America’s all guests, all day, open bar rule.

A wedding should last for one day only. Even better, half a day.
Apparently, my biggest gift to the happy couple (as stated on every invitation I’ve ever received) is my presence at their Big Day. Fine. No problem. Happy to do it. Brits don’t bother with rehearsal dinners and rarely add subsidiary events that allow the occasion to spill over into the surrounding days. So even if I have to travel and stay overnight, it’ll be over swiftly and I can scoot off home. In the U.S., however, couples are likely to demand my company for a whole weekend, lest the celebration not reflect the enormity of the love that exists between these two people. Yes, it probably means that I get to eat and drink at their expense for 48 plus hours. But then I’m also paying for multiple outfits, babysitters and extra nights in hotels. I’ll take a short, under-funded British wedding any day.

A wedding is acceptable hat-wearing territory.
If I’m getting dressed up like a dog’s dinner, I might as well put on a hat. A hunk of gaudy head furniture at a British wedding shows that guests realize this is an important, posh occasion, like Ascot. Only instead of horses, minor royals and drunk women who work in PR, your partners in partying are hyperactive pre-schoolers, lugubrious teens and grandparents who’ve over done the sherry. Anyway, my point is, people don’t really wear anything on their heads at American weddings, and I think they’ve missed a (hat)trick.

What do you love about British weddings? Tell us below:

See more:
What to Expect If You’re in an American Wedding
How to Date in America
How to Gift in America
10 Things That Brits Don’t Realize Are Offensive to Americans

Ruth Margolis

Ruth Margolis

Ruth is a British freelance journalist who recently swapped east London for Brooklyn. She writes about TV for Radio Times and is working on her first novel.
View all posts by Ruth Margolis.
  • mmukinny

    I’m the first to comment, and I can already predict a riot over this topic.. Gutsy

  • Meghan

    I wish Americans would dress up more for wedding like the Brits do! Down here in the south they are FAR too casual, I can’t stand when guys wear jeans to a wedding, it’s absolutely awful!

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Toni Hargis

      Gah – I would be really offended if someone turned up to my wedding in jeans, unless I had made it very clear that it was to be as casual as possible. You can still be casual and not wear jeans though.

    • MontanaRed

      See my handle there? Yes, I’m in the American West, where blue jeans (the newest pair one owns) and cowboy boots (again, not the every day pair) are often worn ANYWHERE, no matter the occasion. By men only, however, who may very well add a jacket and tie to their ensemble for a more dressed-up look. Blue jeans and boots can be seen at very expensive, exclusive restaurants in large western cities. I’ve enjoyed this aspect of the dress code since we moved from the midwest decades ago.

      Women tend to dress appropriately for the event, taking into account whether it’s an outdoor, casual wedding and reception, or a formal, sit-down dinner reception.

    • gn

      I can safely say I’ve never seen anyone wear jeans to a wedding. It would be interesting to know the circumstances. Was there some kind of theme to the wedding that would justify jeans? Could the guests not afford any other clothes? Were the people present from a culture where jeans are widely considered to be appropriate wedding wear?

    • declan casey

      I’ve never known anyone to wear jeans to a wedding, and I’m from the US.

  • Kristi Merritt Novac

    I am American and my wedding was an incredibly low-key affair. We only had 26 guests, most of whom were family. My husband’s parents were aghast at the simplicity and informaility of our nuptuals, but we had a great time and it completely reflected who we are as people and as a couple!

  • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Toni Hargis

    I must admit, I love the best man’s speech. I have been to a few where it went very close to “the mark” though. I also love the fact that at most weddings, you’re not left to fend for yourself while the bride and groom (and wedding party) disappear for official photos. First time I attended an American’s wedding I thought that was incredibly rude. It took well over an hour, they were locked away in another part of the venue and no one knew what the heck was going on.
    As a bridesmaid I appreciate the lack of fuss. Last time I was a bridesmaid (here in the US) although the wedding was at 3pm, I had to be at the church for hair and make-up, photos and goodness knows what else at 9.30am. A very long day.

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Toni Hargis

      And yes, I realise that their are some Americans who don’t do this, before anyone states the obvious.

  • Chelsea

    As an American who had been forced to attend many weddings… I have to say, as usual, the Brits are doing it right. Over here, it becomes this huge spectacle that takes so much stress and money!! It’s a gigantic event that no one particularly enjoys (I know I know, there are exceptions) and finds everyone exhausted and irritable by the end of the day/weekend. I hate them. The more casual, fun, and short – the better. (Just my opinion, of course. My sister might kill me.)

  • English Rose

    I get the same feeling at US weddings that I would if I watched someone burning piles of $100 bills… for some strange reason, I don’t find it fun. Brit weddings tend to be about family gathering around the happy couple (probably considerably happier as they haven’t bankrupted themselves) and eating, drinking, and being merry. My wedding cost two hundred pounds and my mum-in-law and I did the wedding cake. We had it in the church hall and everyone thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Strict budgeting means everyone notices and congratulates you when you come up with creative decorating ideas!

  • Megan

    I am all for British weddings. Lets make the switch America! Far more economical and less taking ourselves so seriously. When can we start!

    • Ashley Sheets

      As an American living in the UK, let me tell you sister-American weddings are just as fab as English ones, and usually cheaper for the guest since you are almost never expected to pay for your own booze (as is often the case in the UK). Not to mention there are faaaaar more Brits getting so drunk that they puke everywhere the day/night of the wedding (not just the random drunk uncle or groomsmen). I’m just saying, the grass is always greener and all that :)

  • hezzann

    I’m American, and I HATE American weddings. You could buy a house for what is being paid out. It’s practically a dowry! What is so wrong about buying some booze and food for a reasonable price and just throwing a party that you happen to get married at? Dressed up of course, because that part I don’t mind.

  • LMJ

    Except for the hats, I’ve seen all of these at my friends’ weddings, and even my own. Hard liquor is expensive – most open bars are only wine and beer, or a Catholic wedding reception…

    • LMJ

      Actually, I take that back about the hats. That’s a bit more generational, though.

  • Angie Poole

    As a kid in the Los Angeles area, I went to many weddings that had nothing but cake, punch, nut mixes and those wedding mint things at the reception. That’s just how things were. I think I may have been to one wedding total with an open bar, and I’ve been in four weddings as a bridesmaid. I think short, sweet and small is the way to go. Rehearsal dinners have always been a way to show appreciation for those who are taking time (and especially those who traveled to be in) the wedding.

    I do hope to have a wedding some day, and if anybody suggests an open bar and full meal, I’ll kindly inform them that they can pay for it themselves, since I don’t consider that a good use of my money.

  • gn

    One thing the US can learn from Britain: wearing evening dress / tuxedos / dinner jackets at weddings is just wrong! :)

  • Chris

    I attended my cousin’s wedding in 2010 in Northampton and LOVED the way it was handled. The ceremony and dinner were invite ONLY, then the party afterwards with a buffet. I so wanted to do that for my wedding, but I knew people wouldn’t understand.

    I will say though that the signing of the register was a little disappointing. The couple left the alter and went out of sight for almost 10 minutes leaving the guests to just sit there. In the U.S. we have to sign paperwork too, but we don’t make our guests wait while we do so. We do it after the ceremony before heading off to pictures or the reception. Obviously, the register is more important in Britain since the photographer went too, but it seems like leaving in the middle of the ceremony to do it is strange. At least to this American.

  • dp

    The lack of hats is probably because many weddings are held in churches, and it’s considered extremely rude here to wear hats in church.