When it comes to weddings, the South stays true to tradition while combining modern-day trends.
By Lisa Marie Hart
From backyards shaded with grand oak tree groves to stately ballrooms, certain aspects or hints of the way mom and dad tied the knot often serve as starting points for a couple’s own plans; many instinctively look back in time before adding personal touches that symbolize their future. Brides in other parts of the country may not realize that a few of the South’s own traditions—such as monograms, Mason jars, signature cocktails and the bespoke groom’s cake—sparked today’s hottest trends.
Today, many brides aim to keep the traditions intact while still keeping the details and the venue fresh and current.
All in the Planning
In the minds of a couple in the South—and quite often in the minds of their family and friends—the planning process is paramount and takes on a life of its own. They dream of a day that is meaningful, infused with nods to their roots and incorporating those who mean the most to them—elements which require time, thought and skillful execution. Meanwhile, their nearest and dearest buzz with excitement. They want to collaborate on the planning and shower them with affection, luncheons and other events; all the celebrations leading up to the big day can take at least a year to plan, which is all part of the tradition—and the fun.
In the South, where etiquette reigns, the engagement party denotes the official announcement of the couple’s intentions (much like when young ladies are presented as debutantes). Some traditionalists even feel it’s improper to congratulate the couple before they have formally made the announcement. The engagement party might be a modest at-home affair with cake and punch, or take on a grander scale. Regardless of size, the engagement party or wedding will always feel warm and intimate. “Because Southerners are such natural hosts, couples tend to have a higher level of comfort hosting a large group,” says Sarah Pease, David’s Bridal Style Council member and owner of Brilliant Event Planning in New York City. The more-the-merrier attitude toward weddings is grounded in the South.
Brides in the rest of the country tend to lean toward a more casual approach, with less time required for planning. “Most East Coast and Midwest brides book their wedding date at least a year out,” says Laurie Davies of Five Star Weddings and Events in Orange County, Calif., while planners agree that many West Coast brides allow a shorter six- to nine-month planning window.
Though many couples now pull from the same “melting pot of traditions,” as Jennifer Taylor of Taylor’d Events by Jennifer in Woodinville, Wash., calls it, professional planners admit that certain regional conventions often hold true. For example, West Coast weddings are often more laid-back while East Coast couples tend to be more formal, with bigger guest lists. “Our most fundamental wedding traditions reflect the climate, cuisine and culture of each region,” Davies says. By incorporating traditional and unique styles and tastes, each region designs its own way to honor a couple’s special day.
Where to Wed
Weather often dictates the setting for the big day, whether it’s indoor, outdoor or a little of both. Many brides in Southern locales appreciate an alfresco event that features the glorious setting of their upbringing, whether that means a fresh breeze over an oceanfront ceremony or an evening celebration under the stars and a canopy of Spanish moss-draped trees. “Many of the brides who choose Sea Island have been guests since they were little girls,” Sea Island Associate Director of Catering Elizabeth Killgallon says. “They grew up dreaming of their wedding and of guests falling in love with this magical place, just like they have. The weekend-long affair starts with a welcome party, moves into a beach bash on the wedding day and includes a late night after-party, followed by a farewell brunch the next morning.”
The South carries the torch of tradition when it comes to saying, “I do.” Many couples have a passion for going to the chapel, just as their parents and grandparents did.
Wherever they choose to wed, Southern belle brides have a role for almost everyone in the family and extended family, a practice that has made its way across the country, as planners have seen a growing national trend of a family member or friend serving as the officiant.
Due to climate in the North, “you’re naturally going to see a lot of indoor ceremonies and big ballroom receptions,” says Jeannie Savage of Southern California-based event planning company Details Details. Meanwhile, many West Coast girls share a kinship with Southern brides in wanting to be close to nature. “Every bride is looking to be outside, whether it’s an oceanfront venue, right on the beach or in her own backyard, no matter what time of year.”
Tastes to Remember
A well-crafted wedding menu is perhaps the most distinct regional tradition still intact. For a true taste of tradition, head south, where comfort dishes and soul food reign. Couples have little urge to stray from the delicious staples they grew up with, and these foods run the full gamut: from Tex-Mex to Cajun and Creole to barbecue. The wedding day becomes another chance to indulge in everything from buttermilk fried chicken to grilled peaches, Savage says.
“We can barbecue or fry anything,” Killgallon says. For example, Sea Island often showcases fried lobster. “[Many] couples … insist that their friends and family experience the Southern institution of grits.” Sea Island also indulges the practice of featuring a signature cocktail, like a Naughty Arnold Palmer, which combines sweet tea vodka and lemonade with a splash of peach schnapps.
A new trend in Southern reception fare is updating beloved family recipes. At Sea Island, a chef recently took one bride’s grandmother’s recipe for corn muffins and combined it with the bride’s love of peaches by adding a peach relish, creating a treat for the couple and their guests to remember from that day forward.
Following dinner is another display of the bride and groom’s personalities, in the form of some sweet staples: The two-cake tradition endures in the South. Though the origins of the groom’s cake differ by the source, most historians agree that in the Victorian era, the groom’s cake was generally a fruitcake that was cut into pieces, placed into boxes and tucked under the pillows of unmarried female guests—in hopes that they would soon find a husband. Many weddings still feature a groom’s cake, having evolved into a personalized aspect of the big day now available in nearly any flavor. It’s a playful way to pay homage to the groom’s fishing or golf hobby, alma mater or favored sports team.
Another relic from the Victorian times might be found between the layers or tucked under the edge of a bride’s tiered cake. Called “cake charms” or “cake pulls,” these silver charms are pulled by the bridesmaids. Each symbolic shape represents the puller’s future and good fortune: a heart for new love or a wishbone for success, for example. Some bridesmaids wear them on their charm bracelets as a reminder of the day.
Other regions are equally attached to their traditionally local cuisines, with more hearty fare served in the Midwest and locally grown, organic and farm-to-table menus finding popularity along the coasts. The West Coast is populated with die-hard foodies, whose creative requests range from tasting courses and wine pairings to light and refreshing bite-sized fare. “Our couples love seafood,” Savage says. “Fusion menus are also a big deal.” Across the U.S., food trucks pulling up to serve late-night munchies have caused a new wedding craze in recent years, with guests gathering around a simple hamburger truck or a mobile gourmet truck that tempts guests with crepes, doughnuts, nitrogen ice cream or tacos.
Dress and Décor
“Looking at the past is very important to a Southern bride,” says Monte Durham, co-host of TLC’s “Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta.” Generations have held tight to the ideals of minding your manners and honoring your elders, which often gives way to formality, without neglecting the fun, of course.
At Sea Island, Killgallon says couples blend varying levels of formality over the course of their wedding weekend. While a Friday night Sea Island rehearsal dinner invites Tommy Bahama shirts, the big day is still formal as a rule. “You can be at the beach with your toes in the sand, but your guests are still in black-tie attire,” she says.
Other hallmarks of weddings at Sea Island include creative ways to incorporate a monogram. In a culture that teems with family pride, young girls often grow into ladies who’ve collected many items bearing their monogram throughout the years. Many enjoy the sight of the bride’s newly-adopted monogram on wedding linens, cake toppers and more. Killgallon says Sea Island brides love to add personal whimsy to the monogram tradition by intertwining the couple’s initials with their wedding date or even with the resort’s initials.
The region’s hydrangeas also have become a trademark at weddings. The flowers’ adored prominence may stem from their variety of colors, hearty nature and a blooming season that coincides with the South’s breezy spring and fall months, popular for weddings.
In other parts of the country, tradition and formality take on different forms. Though Pease observes that bohemian elegance is the go-to look in the West, Davies says her West Coast clients are divided between a Cinderella wedding and a simple but elegant event with a small group of family and friends. “California brides like draping, trendy club lighting, glamorous details and high drama with everything beaded and encrusted,” Savage says. “Even when they go for a beach-chic look, they lean toward luxury, choosing elaborate flowers.”
The unfussy Midwest brings affairs casually back down to earth, with a focus on providing a fun, memorable day, Davies says. “You see tea-length dresses, lower centerpieces and simple, DIY details that instill a comfort level over a wow-factor,” Savage says.
Unapologetically romantic and nostalgic, brides cherish their special days by preserving deeply rooted traditions, while incorporating today’s trends. From the centuries-old tradition of the groom’s cake to contemporary after-parties, brides and grooms across the country are truly having their cake and eating it, too.
Saying Yes to the Dress: expert advice on bridal fashion
As a co-host of TLC’s “Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta,” Monte Durham is more than qualified to speak about what signifies Southern style. The South holds the “something old” tradition dear: “[The bride] may be marrying in the same church that her parents did, so she’s going to be looking back at what mom wore,” he says. “Her bridal style starts by incorporating heirloom pieces, such as a veil, a locket or a piece of lace.”
Durham says while there will always be “Gone with the Wind” belles, many Southern brides prefer simplicity to lavish accents. The look of the moment is relaxed and organic.
“I tell them, you’ll go down the aisle as a bride, so be mindful of your dress,” he says. “You’ll come back up a wife and enter the reception as a hostess. The same dress needs to get you married, but also needs to let you maneuver … and still look chic.”
For brides having trouble saying yes to the right dress, Durham’s advice is straightforward: Dress for where you’re going. “If you’re getting married in a cathedral, look like you’re going to a cathedral. If you’re at the beach, organza should be flowing and wrapping around you like waves hitting the shore. And if you’re on a mountaintop, choose a lace sheath dress with flowers in your hair.”