Throwing a Perfect Wedding: How to Combine British and American Traditions

Whether British or American, it's all about the bride. (Gold Circle Films)

Whether British or American, the wedding is all about the bride as seen in The Wedding Date starring Jack Davenport and Amy Adams. (Gold Circle Films)

I have spent a lot of time attending weddings on both sides of the pond. A lot – as in, I have attended over 30 weddings in the past five years – including five American/British combos. Therefore, I have spent a lot of time diving for bouquets; drinking (mostly) red wine, buying expensive dresses that I only ever wear once; donning shoes that are too uncomfortable to wear one evening, let alone again; and doing line dances with one too many fathers of the brides.

I have given speeches,  been the bridesmaid, and fallen over on the dance floor too many times to be embarrassed anymore.  I have shed tears of happiness, and been in wonderment of how anyone could possibly fit all those years of love into that one day. I have no idea how so many brides and grooms get it so right under so much pressure (some wrong, but mostly right).

One thing I’ve been particularly interested in is, given all these pressures, how do two cultures mesh themselves together to create an event that both parties, both families and both pairs of mothers are equally pleased with?

Well, let’s give it a go, shall we? I mean, you may have been planning your wedding in your head your entire life, but you may not have accounted for the fact that you were going to fall in love with an American, of all people. I am here to help. Let’s pick out the best traditions of both to create the perfect blend.

It’s a subtle balance. On the one side, too much extravagance will cause a British person to turn up their nose in disgust, and on the other, if it feels too stiff to an American, no one will have a good time.

Let’s start with the venue.

Where to hold the wedding
You can’t have a wedding without a place, and that’s typically the first decision to be made. Everything else will follow from there.  American venues, as in most things American, the bigger the better. I’ve seen everything from brides and grooms renting out an entire museum in Chicago to an entire country club in Baltimore to changing venues midway through the day in Laguna Beach.

America definitely has variety (and probably better weather), but Great Britain has something American weddings can’t get – history. Imagine being married in the same castle that a 16th Century Prince got married in or toasting in the same area where Merlin had his cave? Plus, the Americans traveling to England will have an excuse to travel around Europe. Be sure to consider your guest list though: since Americans typically don’t get as much holiday in the year as their British counterparts, it might make more sense to let the Brits do the traveling.

The bride’s dress
I won’t make recommendations on the bride’s dress to any extent because, no matter what culture you are in, that decision is a very personal thing. I will say that the Brits score points for a solid sense of style. In my experience, they seem more inclined to take risks with their dresses than their American counterparts.

Most people have watched so many American movies that they don’t even realize its American tradition to have the bride walk down the aisle last. In British tradition, the bridesmaids follow the bride to carry her train. Personally, I think it’s only right to let the bride make her grand entrance the American way, especially considering most dresses don’t have the long trains anymore.

The bridesmaid’s dress
Here, the British have it right. They pay for their bridesmaids’ dresses, and, in doing so, they are conscious of how many bridesmaids they have. You will rarely see a wedding party in England with seven or eight bridesmaids. They keep it intimate, and only to their closest friends. So, be choosy and do the same. It just simply doesn’t make sense to make your future British sister in-law pay for her bridesmaid dress. She may never forgive you.

The bar
Go the American way on this one, and have an open bar. Of course your wedding is your own, and you are free to do what you wish, but I’m telling you now, the only thing your American guests will discuss that night is how they had to pay for their own beer. No one wants that drama on the day of his/her wedding.

Let the groom grab a beer at the local pub with his friends before the wedding. In America, we may find this tradition appalling, but I think it allows the groom some time to soak in the day and relax. After all, the bride is typically surrounded by champagne before the event; let the groom do the same in his own way.

Hats
They just make a wedding seem like more of a special event. If you want your American friends to wear hats and/or fascinators, make it part of the dress code. American photographer Kara Louise, who is married to a British expat, says, “I asked my soon to be mother-in-law if she would grace our wedding by wearing a hat with feathers, something I’ve always imagine to be very English. She refused, in fear that she’d be the only one adorning a hat at an American wedding. She was right, no one wore hats.”

Invitations
The open bar and paying for the bridesmaids’ dresses may make the wedding more expensive than you like it, but you can take the British way here and only invite closest friends and family to dinner to save some cash. Kelly Wake, an American who married an Englishman in 2008, says, “Looking back, the one part of British tradition I envy is being able to separate the dinner and reception guests. I think it’s ridiculous how much Americans pay for weddings, when (from my understanding) the dinner invites in England are for close family and friends, and you can invite acquaintances and friends to the reception. Brilliant idea in my opinion!”

Speeches
Speeches must be left to the Brits…but leave the open mics to the Americans (not that you will be technically able to separate it out like that, but try). The British will deliver a speech that is at the same time self-deprecating, witty, poignant and edgy, and the Americans will actually have the guts to get up and improvise. Mind the Gap contributor Toni Hargis, author of Rules, Britannia: An Insider’s Guide to Life in the United Kingdom and wife to an American man, agrees it could. She says, “We opened the floor up to anyone who wanted to say something, but being British, no one did!”

Music
I don’t care how old you think your grandparents are or how sophisticated you want the event to be. After dinner, when everyone has had a few drinks, they expect to dance. So put on some upbeat dancing tunes, and just enjoy it. Watch your American Uncle Joe take off his tie and wrap it around his head, and your British brother-in-law Edward try to do the moonwalk. It’ll all be worth it.

Finally, throw out all the rules and make it your own. Tradition aside, there has never been a better wedding than the wedding that is unique to that couple.

Meagan Adele Lopez is an American expat in London working in advertising, and author of British/American love story, Three Questions: Because a Quarter Life Crisis Needs Answers. You can follow her on Twitter @meagan, or find her musings on her blog.

Have you ever had or been to an American/British wedding, tell us about it! 

See More: 
What Americans Can Learn From British-Style Weddings
10 Places Brits Love to Live in America
The 10 Most (And Least) Romantic British Places To Take Your Valentine

  • expatmum

    Great post Meagan. The last wedding I went to was in England and I’d forgotten about the lovely tradition of meeting the groom in the pub beforehand.

    • http://www.meaganadelelopez.com/ Meagan

      I forgot about that as well until my friend Kelly reminded me! I think it is a nice tradition :)

      • MontanaRed

        Who buys the rounds?

        • http://www.meaganadelelopez.com/ Meagan

          Would typically be the best man, right @expatmum:disqus ?

          • expatmum

            Who cares?

          • http://www.meaganadelelopez.com/ Meagan

            Whomever is around, I think the bartender may even buy one!

    • english in vt

      Be careful though — we got married in the parish church where I was confirmed and the vicar specifically told my American husband-to-be that he wouldn’t marry us if he had been drinking before the ceremony.

  • TMarius

    For any Britons preparing to attend such a wedding…

    Be prepared for the Americans to get in depth about their feelings.
    We don’t do the stiff-upper-lip thing very well in these situations. Understatement, quiet dignity, and low speaking volumes have no place in the American wedding. Expect to see hugs and clapping on the back a lot. Oh, and be prepared for people from both families to cry all over each other, potentially in public. Being drunk may help you cope with all of this lack of emotional repression.

    It is pretty standard for single people at weddings to engage in casual encounters, and it is commonplace for single best men to find an available girl from the other family to spend the night with. You will likely have to dance as part of that courtship ritual, so it is suggested that you practice the following traditional American mating dance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uf2mBVcYS10

    Master that dance and your success is guaranteed.

    • http://www.meaganadelelopez.com/ Meagan

      You’ve hit the nail on the head! Americans getting drunk typically means lots of tears and/or hanky panky.

      • TMarius

        I’m not so sure they could handle a typical American wedding with an open bar. :P

        • sue

          Being a Brit living in the USA for the past 23 years. I am in the process of planning my 3rd uk/usa wedding for my daughter. Its been kind of fun blending the traditions. My youngest daughter had 2 weddings a week apart one on either side of the pond. Now was fun !

  • chrisonline

    No mention here that in America, the bride & groom always end up smearing the wedding cake in each others’ faces! Very strange and weird to Brits! I tried to avoid it . . and failed miserably!

    • Kara S

      Not always, I’ve been to plenty of weddings where this didn’t occur. But I agree that it’s extremely tacky.

      • http://www.meaganadelelopez.com/ Meagan

        Definitely agree with that! A horrible tradition

  • rallybug

    Having married a Utahn, with lots of her friends and relatives being in the faith (LDS – she’s a backslider and has been since she was about 14 and started asking questions that they couldn’t answer lol), an open bar, or indeed any type of bar, wasn’t going to happen anyway.

    I managed to get the wedding list down to around 50, mostly family and close friends on her side (only my immediate family could make the journey from the UK, plus my best man coming in from Hong Kong), and the evening do was around 200. Luckily, as we got married mid-week in September at her parent’s house, that worked out fine, as people started dropping in for the evening do at around 6, leaving .by 8pm or so as it was a school night :-)

    My best man did the whole ceremony on Skype on his phone, as my new father-in-law was still in hospital recovering from cancer surgery.

    After the ceremony, we had some nibbles, plus Tattinger or sparkly grape juice to drink – funny how some of the LDS people sneakily took some champagne if no-one was watching lol

  • JJay278

    I think the problem people have when planning a wedding is thinking that it’s all about the bride. The groom plays as big a part as the bride because a wedding is a union of two families. The ceremony is the only part that should be treated with reverence. The reception is just one big party. Therefore, plan it like you would a big party and it will be the best time guests will ever have.

  • Cerys Davies

    Can you please stop using Britain and England interchangeably
    - they are not the same thing.

    • http://www.meaganadelelopez.com/ Meagan

      You’re so right. Not the same thing at all – however, England is in Britain. Just like New York is in America. Hard to separate the two sometimes when discussing cultures!

  • english in vt

    A thing I’ve noticed about weddings I’ve been to in the USA and not in England is that at the reception people will tap on their glasses until the couple kiss. Repeatedly. One thing that made me glad to have had our wedding in England to be honest.

    • Kara S

      That must be location specific as I have never attended an American wedding where that happened. I thought it was only in the movies!

  • ewlw

    Great article! I can really relate. When I got married, I’d lived in the States for 19 years and had a very difficult time planning where and how because of having all extended family back in the UK. I married legally in the USA with just 7 people attending (immediate family and us) then had a blessing and reception in the UK. (I married an American with British parents so we BOTH had extended family there). I bought my bridesmaid’s dresses, had the bridesmaid walk after me, expected ladies to wear hats and didn’t have an open bar. I also got to wear my wedding dress twice. Despite inviting several Americans, only one person flew over for the UK celebration.

    • http://www.meaganadelelopez.com/ Meagan

      Oh wow! Sounds like it was a bit of a mixed bag but you got to pick what suited you -which is what’s important.

  • Jwb52z

    There’s one thing I feel it should be important to mention if we’re talking a wedding of American and British traditions and ideas. I don’t know if this happens in any group in the UK, but if the US spouse to be is of any of certain religious groups, there will not be any dancing at the wedding and no bar at all. The reception will be little more than a meal for the guests after the wedding along with the wedding cake being cut and then the tradition of throwing the bouquet and throwing rice, now bird seed these days BTW, while the newlyweds run to their chosen vehicle to leave on their honeymoons, if they are having one.

  • Yvette Feekes

    Very few brides pay for the bridesmaid’s dresses, but in our family it was the tradition to do so. I thought it wasn’t right to ask a friend to be in the wedding, and then make them pay for it, too. 3B016656 up, that was the tradition and as weddings became more expensive, it went by the wayside, sadly.

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