A custom-made wedding: The meaning behind the tradition

Minnesota History Center’s ‘Happily Ever After’ lifts the veil off wedding rituals

by Erin Adler

On a recent sunny Saturday afternoon, friends Cara Heneberry, Brittany Stephens and Katie Griffith examined wedding gowns, gazed at photos of smiling couples and chatted about their own future nuptials.

But the women weren’t at a bridal show. And, at 25, none of them have concrete plans to wed anytime soon.

Instead, the University alumnae vicariously explored the world of weddings past at the Minnesota Historical Society’s “Happily Ever After” exhibit.

A wedding wonderland

The exhibit displays dresses, photos, video footage and other wedding accessories of Minnesota couples since the 1800s.

In the center hang wedding gowns from various eras and the stories of the women who wore them. A calf-length beaded dress with a high neck hails from the ’20s, while a red, handwoven Laotian outfit will be worn when its owner finds the man she wants to marry.

The back wall highlights wedding photographic and clothing trends from the late 19th to the 21st century, with the last image showing two gay men at a 2003 commitment ceremony.

The exhibit exposes some endearing American wedding traditions, often with a tone of practicality hidden beneath the surface. Kissing after the pronouncement of matrimony dates both from the Roman custom of kissing as a way to unite souls and from the early Christian practice of sealing contracts with a kiss.

Former exhibits developer Loris Gregory, however, found those myths and rituals the most interesting.

“The original idea for the exhibit came out of the History Center’s extensive collection of accoutrements,” she said. “But I wanted to put a different slant on the exhibit. It seemed that it was really the folklore traditions and superstitions that tied weddings together over time.”

The beliefs behind the practices ñ the noise from tin cans tied to a car to scare off evil spirits, for instance ñ range from outdated and superstitious. But couples curiously continue to practice them, Gregory said.

In contrast to our age of birth control and two-child families, many age-old rituals center on fertility or virility. The honeymoon, for instance, dates from a European practice of drinking an alcoholic honey beverage for one month after a couple is wed, in hopes that a baby will be born nine months later. If the practice is successful, the child often was named after the brewer of the alcohol. Only later did the custom come to involve a trip.

Gregory hopes the exhibit sparks awareness of the history behind the traditions.

One tradition to which almost all brides adhere is wearing a veil, she said, which was originally intended to protect the bride from the gaze of other men and evil spirits. But it also symbolizes obedience to one’s husband, she said. “(The exhibit) allows people to be more conscious of why they’re doing things.”

Modern women weigh in

The exhibit is largely focused on the bride’s point of view. Behind the hope chests and the wedding music stands the subtle cliché that for a bride, her wedding day is the best day of her life.

On that Saturday, Heneberry, Stephens and Griffith said the exhibit made them consider the ways weddings and brides have changed over the years.

“Weddings in the past were probably important for women more out of survival. Women then didn’t go to college or grad school,” Griffith said. “It was a practical, financial arrangement.”

The three agreed that the importance of weddings and marriage itself in a woman’s life varies among circles of friends and hometowns.

The wedding sometimes overshadows the “hard work” of married life, Heneberry said.

“The groom is a side note for some women,” she said.

She recalled a cousin who worked part-time for more than a year so she would have time to plan her wedding.

But she said her own sense of urgency surrounding marriage has lessened since she was in her early 20s.

“Now I’m not so caught up in the fairy tale of it all,” she said.

Despite the level-headedness age seems to have brought them, they still discuss their future weddings often, Stephens said. The “Happily Ever After” exhibit was the first they visited at the museum.

The group paused to look at the placard explaining the 19th century origins of bridal showers – friends of the bride would fill a parasol with little gifts and pour them over her head.

Though Stephens agrees that tradition can be important, she said she doesn’t necessarily desire a “traditional wedding.”

“I don’t even need a white dress,” she said. “But I do want a groom.”