Planning the wedding ceremony itself should, in many ways, be the simplest part of the whole process: The groom’s guests on one side, bride’s on the other, repeat what the officiant says, throw some rice in the air and then head off to the reception. But anyone who’s done it knows that in reality, it’s a minefield. Who can you safely leave out of the bridal party without sparking a family feud or friend-group meltdown? What happens if the couple isn’t religious, but the parents paying for the whole thing very much are? And how do you stop her from marrying anybody else but you?
To provide answers to such fraught questions, we’ve assembled a team of experts to weigh in: Wedding planner Kristeen LaBrot, a three-time winner of California Wedding Day Magazine’s “Best Planner” award; Daniel Post Senning, our go-to etiquette expert and the great-great grandson of Emily Post; and Marley Jay, who has been officiating secular weddings in New York since 2014. Here’s what they say about planning a ceremony with only one hitch.
Am I obligated to make siblings part of the bridal party?
LaBrot: Absolutely not! That said, I would be prepared for hurt feelings if you don’t include them — either from the parents or the siblings themselves. It’s really just inevitable that feelings may be hurt in this situation, so it’s best to address it early on and explain why you may be leaving someone out.
Jay: You’re never obligated to put someone in your wedding party. But you should consider that many years after your wedding, you might regret leaving them out.
Post Senning: You’re not obligated, but you’re well-advised, would be the way I’d put it. It’s an honor and a nice way to include immediate family, but it’s a personal choice.
Do bridal parties have to be gendered anymore? Like, can a female friend be a groomsman?
LaBrot: I was a groomslady in a wedding last year, and I had two bridesmen in my wedding party. Everybody was pretty cool with it. The only issue was that for some reason, people thought I was going to wear a suit. Of course I didn’t! I ended up wearing a dress similar to the bridesmaids’, with the colors of the groomsmen. For bridesmen, they usually match the bridesmaids’ colors in their vests, ties, etc.
Jay: Many of these traditional rules have eased in recent years, so you shouldn’t feel the need to exclude a dear friend from your wedding party based on their gender. That goes for siblings as well. In my own wedding, my wife and I each had people of the opposite gender in our parties, and there was no real reaction at all from my family. These people were so close to us that it would’ve been weird if they weren’t there.
How many groomsmen is too many groomsmen?
Post Senning: I’d say seven or more. It’s meant to be an honor — you don’t want to dilute that. But it isn’t a hard-and-fast rule; it’s more about thinking practically, especially if there are costs associated with asking people to participate.
Jay: It depends on the size of your wedding: If it looks like you’ll have more people standing behind you than sitting in the seats, you’re probably overdoing it.
Should I have my wedding in a church just to appease family? What about if they paid for it?
LaBrot: No, the wedding is for you and your partner, and you should be true to yourselves. We made a compromise for an upcoming wedding: We have a priest performing the ceremony, but the wedding itself is at a private estate.
Jay: Just because someone offers to pay doesn’t mean they can dictate things. But you should consider your priorities and talk these things out so you understand everyone’s feelings and expectations, especially if money is involved.
Post Senning: If you’re taking a more traditional approach, the people paying for it do get some say — they’re oftentimes given greater deference in terms of the guest list, for example.
Does a black-tie dress code for the ceremony mean a tuxedo, or is a black suit and tie acceptable?
Post Senning: Black tie doesn’t actually mean tux, though that’s the most common interpretation. You definitely want to go more conservative if you’re going with the suit option, but a black suit with a black tie can definitely pass.
LaBrot: Since most men don’t own tuxes and aren’t going to rent one as a guest, I suggest using “black tie optional” on the invitation instead.
Should you drink at all before the ceremony?
LaBrot: I don’t recommend it. Drinking will make you tired, and you’ll see it in your photos.
Jay: It’s not an etiquette violation to have a drink before the wedding, but if you’re a guest, asking the staff to open a bottle before cocktail hour is tacky.
Post Senning: I advise bringing a clear head to the ceremony itself — it’s one of the biggest commitments you’re going to make in your life, and you want to be at your best. It’s also one of those moments that you’re going to want to remember.
Is there ever really a good reason to object?
Jay: If you’ve just discovered the bride is a secret princess and that her intended is the evil count who is trying to usurp the throne, object away. Otherwise, you should probably handle any issues in private. If you’re in love with someone who’s getting married, take the hint: It’s time to move on.
Post Senning: The time and place to do that is beforehand. I think it would be pretty rare for that moment to happen; it’s more for Hollywood movies like The Graduate.
Can I skip the ceremony and just go to the reception?
Post Senning: The ceremony is the best part! The more frequent question is, Do I have to attend the reception? I’ll go, and I’ll bear witness, but do I really have to stick around for all the bad food and worse dancing? I would do your absolute best to attend the ceremony, and if you really can’t, check in with the bride and groom and let them know what’s going on.
Jay: If the couple gives you their express permission, sure. Otherwise it’s a jerk move because you’re suggesting you’ll eat your friends’ food and drink their booze, but their marriage is boring.