A Dress from Many Places

Many Americans do not identify with one specific cultural background. I have heard clients say, ‘I’m a mutt,’ or ‘I’m like Heinz 57’ – meaning they are a mix, coming from many places. I tend to think that it’s fine to incorporate something for one piece of your cultural puzzle, as long as you know your family will be ok with it as well. Some backgrounds lend themselves more to ritual than others. Just be sure that by choosing to highlight one particular branch of the family background you’re not causing others to feel left out. 

Traditions can add so much to a wedding, deepening the experience. Some couples may not have given much thought to their heritage, but looking back on their childhood, they can recall special moments. Often it’s around food, or memories of family gatherings that could also include music, dancing or storytelling. There are so many lovely traditions that can be used in either the ceremony or at the reception. 

Readers of this space every Sunday will now be expecting the rest of this column to be about rituals and religious traditions. But not this time. Today I want to focus on weddingclothing, and the traditions that go along with that!

Around the world modern brides and grooms are forgoing traditional styles for their wedding and opting to wear western styles, by which I mean white gowns for women and suits or tuxedos for men. But I lean in the other direction. I encourage you to consider some of these old-school looks from around the world. Could you actually wear something so different? I think it would be amazingly lovely!

On the beach with bridesmaids in saris.

A Chinese bride often wears red, the color symbolizing good luck, along with gold, a sign of prosperity. Plain white for a woman or black for a man just doesn’t cut it in China. I am a big fan of a wedding dress that isn’t white.

The bride wore blue. (Garth Woods Photography)

An Indian woman probably wears a sari every day, but for her wedding she’ll take it up a notch or ten. There are many specific types of saris, and whatever region or religion she comes from, there is a wide assortment to choose from. Colorful and elegant, silk crepe and georgette, the sari is one of my favorite garments of all time. Modern Indian brides will often change out of the sari and into western style clothing after the ceremony.

Photo: Bill Cardoni photography

Pakistan and other Southeast Asian countries also wear saris, and don’t forget about lots of jewelry – bracelets, necklaces, nose and toe rings and tikkas (the jeweled ornament hanging onto the forehead). Add henna to complete the look.

We think of men in Scotland wearing those fearsome kilts, but women can also incorporate the family tartan with a sash added to her dress. A good seamstress or tailor can make that work.

Korean brides have a very specific look, the ‘Hanbok’ – a gown of simple lines and vibrant colors, incorporating a long sleeve, short jacket with ribbons. I’ve never seen one in-person, but the photos are wonderful; however, once again, western style gowns are most popular now-a-days, and the traditional dress is worn after the ceremony (the reverse of the Indian tradition – traditional for ceremony, western dress after).

I’m personally familiar with the Norwegian traditions and the ‘Bunad’ is a general term for their folk costumes that reference 19thand 18thcentury clothing. In other words, the Norwegian people have recreated this old style in honor of their heritage. On their national holiday, The 17thof May, you will see many people wearing these outfits as they celebrate, enjoying parades and partying all day and night. A Norwegian bride might also choose to wear a wedding Bunad, and like western gowns, they can be quite expensive, especially adding the requisite jewelry, such as the ‘Huesølvet’ (literally: head silver) which is like a crown. 

In Nigeria, a country with 250 ethnic groups and over 500 languages, weddings vary widely, but Nigerian brides often wear brightly colored clothing and a head dress called a ‘Gele’ that is quite elaborate. However, not too far away in Ghana you will find Kente cloth used for both bridal dresses and groom outfits. I officiated for a bride from Somalia, who had her bridesmaids wear Kente cloth, while she chose a white dress.

I snapped this picture.

Kazakhstan is a country many Americans are not familiar with; it is between Asia and western Europe, and borders both Russia and China, making it quite interesting. In a traditional Kazakh wedding, brides typically wear a pointy headdress known as a ‘Saukele’ with a veil that cascades over her face. The Saukele is usually prepared before girls reach the age of marriage, and the dress is also extremely elaborate. (By the way –  don’t google ‘Kazakhstan brides’ because you will find mail-order brides, which is often human trafficking.)

Mexican traditions vary widely, but often you’ll find brightly colored cotton skirts and embroidered tops – a traditional Mexican look which may also be worn for the wedding. Dresses with a bohemian look are also evocative of Mexican style. Inspired by Frida Kahlo you might want a ‘huipil’ style – the tunic worn in many regions of Mexico and Guatemala. All of these lend themselves well for a summer wedding or in a warm location. For a more relaxed affair, such as a backyard or beach wedding Mexican style clothing for women and men fits perfectly.

Around the world you will see the classic white gown and the suit or tuxedo and is always in style. But consider how interesting it would be to honor your background with what you choose to wear. I know the ‘dress’ is something many women have dreamed of for a long time, but it’s not everyone.

Perhaps an ‘inspired by’ style of dress, like a hybrid, is something you might consider. Take the modern western gown and add something from a particular culture and: voila! The ‘cheongsam’ for example, the body-hugging Chinese style of dress can be quite contemporary, perfect for a bride, bridesmaids or guests.

And guys, there are plenty of traditional ensembles for you, too!

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