Relationships

Bates’ blueprint for a ‘normal’ wedding won’t inspire those who want to be different

By Sarah Graham

Just over a month ago I married my partner of five years. Almost exactly a month later, I have been inundated with shares on Facebook and Twitter of an article entitled “How to have a feminist wedding” by Laura Bates. I was excited because I have a huge amount of admiration for Laura and her groundbreaking project Everyday Sexism; however, my husband and I found it anything but groundbreaking, and instead rather unambitious and uninspiring. It still lacked what I’d so desperately searched for, and never really found, in the two years leading up to our big day: a guide to being just a little bit more radical in feminist wedding planning.

Weddings are deeply personal events and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Laura getting married exactly as she chooses but, as something purporting to be a feminist wedding guide, it’s as lacking as so many of the articles I read during my engagement – endlessly reassuring women that it’s ok to be a feminist and still have a fairly traditional wedding, with the odd feminist twist, but nothing giving women permission to ditch all that and do something radically different. I ended up seeing myself less as a bride (whatever that is) and more as a creative director – there being virtually no existing model for what we wanted to produce – and much of our inspiration came from queer, rather than heterosexual, feminist weddings. Of course, we were always aware that some feminists would think there’s no such thing as a feminist wedding at all – and maybe the most radical thing would be to blow the whole thing up, not just tweak it – but we decided to tweak, and tweak boldly.

From the off we had very clear ideas of what we wanted: he wanted us both to have an engagement ring, so (much to the confusion of everyone we know) I bought him one; we both wanted to keep our own names, rather than double barrel (Mrs His Name never having been an option we considered); we didn’t want a church wedding, despite my Christian upbringing, because we knew it wasn’t really for us; and I definitely didn’t want a white dress. Finally, we both wanted to walk down the aisle, rather than simply have me delivered to him, and so we did – him accompanied by his mum, me accompanied by my dad, with half a dozen brides-men, women and girls in between.

bridesmen

Beyond that, we weren’t quite sure what a ‘feminist wedding’ should consist of and I quickly realised that there is no simple answer – believe me, I’ve typed “feminist wedding” into Google more times than I care to admit, and never quite found what I was looking for. I’ve read countless articles debating the questions “can you be a feminist and get married in white?” “can you be a feminist and take your husband’s name?” – all of which concluded in a slightly woolly way “yes, of course”, on the grounds that the institution of marriage has evolved, relationships are more equal now, and the sexist associations of white dresses and proprietorial rings have long since died away.  “But I don’t want to wear white,” I’d scream at my laptop: “even if it’s not sexist anymore!”

Earlier this year Zoe Holman wrote in the Guardian, decrying the number of feminist brides blindly following patriarchal traditions but admitting she feels too embarrassed to ask them why. I have to confess I occasionally felt the same up until I started planning my own, when I suddenly realised that it’s really fucking difficult to avoid. You’re not only up against society’s expectations but your family and friends come with their own expectations. Decisions you expect to be entirely personal are suddenly wide open to scrutiny, or interpreted as a rejection of their family identity, rather than an assertion of your own.

And, of course, the wedding industry doesn’t leave much room for rebels – if you’ve never looked for a wedding dress, you don’t realise how limited the colour choices are. When you say “not white”, people think you mean “ivory”, and when you say “no, coloured”, they warn you in bizarrely concerned tones that “you’ll just look like a bridesmaid”. I once laughed out loud at an advert in a wedding magazine daring women to “be bold” in an extremely pale pastel pink dress – think off-white with a “bold!” blush.

The more I searched, fruitlessly, for the kind of alternative wedding I was looking for, the more frustrated I felt, and the more obstinate it made me. I became determined not just to omit the bits I didn’t like, but to consciously replace them with a radical alternative that couldn’t fail to be noticed. Stubbornness is a typical Graham trait, as it happens – which also helped with sticking to my guns on the issue of keeping my surname!

In the end I realised that, with the exception of red (the archetypal anti-white wedding dress – hardly value neutral with its own virgin/whore association), coloured wedding dresses don’t exist in bridal shops and I’d have to go it alone. I sought out a local seamstress – an amazing woman with pink hair, a flair for intricate beadwork, and the punk spirit to bring my vision to life. She was more excited about it than I was and it was an enormous relief to be free from the body-shaming (how much weight are you planning to lose?), tradition-pushing (what do you mean you don’t want to wear white?) ways of the wedding industry.

Beyond the dress and the surnames, our biggest rebellions were against our guests’ gendered expectations. I had three bridesgirls, a brideswoman and two bridesmen; he had a best man, three groomsmen and a groomswoman. Before the ceremony our guests were greeted by the jubilant voice of Debbie Harry as Blondie’s Greatest Hits kicked off the day, and our friend Becca sang The Cure’s Love Cats for the bridal party’s arrival.

Josh Ann

My mother-in-law looked like she might burst with pride as she walked her only child down the aisle, and as many tears were shed over that unconventional but beautiful moment as over my arrival with my dad. My bridesmen read a passage from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex; his groomswoman – a fellow feminist, dressed in an utterly fabulous grey suit, complete with tux-style fitted blouse and cravat – read WH Auden’s Foxtrot From a Play, her Yorkshire accent beautifully bringing alive the lines “you’re my cup of tea”; and my mum read The Art of Marriage. It goes without saying that no one was given away and no one promised to obey; two female registrars (as we’d requested) declared us married, and both our mums witnessed the signing of the register because it’s currently the only way for their names to be included on the marriage certificate.

We had six speeches, split between the courses of the meal to spare everyone’s attention spans; my mother-in-law made everyone cry, my dad, bridesmaid, our best man and myself got a fair few laughs, and my husband scared the shit out of everyone climbing up on his chair to recreate a moment from our trip to Prague. The whole thing was so much fun, and so much more rounded than the standard “three men talking, three women keeping their mouths shut” routine that it genuinely made me wonder why everyone doesn’t do it; tradition means we’re all missing out on some really great speeches.

Speech

Ultimately there’s no formula for the perfect feminist wedding – our day was as personal to us as Laura’s will be to her – but I wish I’d read a feminist wedding guide this time two years ago that said this: “don’t be afraid to be radical, imaginative and push boundaries if the traditional, white, church wedding isn’t for you”. We need guides that give us the confidence to be different, just as much as we need guides to make us comfortable sticking with tradition. I wish someone had told me at the start how completely unfounded my anxieties were that all our guests would find it too weird; we’ve had nothing but praise for how special and different it was, and I’m so glad we stuck to our feminist principles rather than convincing ourselves to settle for the way society insists it “should” be done. If you’re planning a feminist wedding/anti-wedding, don’t be afraid to be even bolder than me, Laura, or a pale pink blush.

All photos Copyright Polly Thomas (Polly & Simon Photography) and Owain Thomas.

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