Problematic wedding themes: hobo, colonial, and more

Guest post by Little Red Lupine
Georgetown relief depot, 1932
HOBO WEDDING: Is this the line for the buffet? From Seattle Municipal Archives, used by Creative Commons Licensing.

Two weddings have been causing a stir on the internet lately: the Colonial African wedding (original post removed by photographers) and the Depression-Era Hobo wedding. They got me thinking about weddings, romance, and romanticizing, and I wanted to explore the issue here. This isn't a post ragging on these two weddings but, rather, a chance to consider what got everyone's knickers in a twist.

Okay, let's start with two words: “romance” and “wedding.”

What could go together more perfectly than romance and a wedding? Isn't that the same thing, even if we have different definitions of what is romantic? It could be hearts and roses, it could be candlelight, it could be a fairy grotto, the 1980s, Han Solo and Leia. For many people, their wedding is about pulling together those things that (re)create an ideal mood, place, or time that, for them, stands for romance.

In some cases it means a theme wedding. When we talk about weddings, though, it's not just about being romantic, it's also about romanticizing something. I'm talking about seeing something through rose-coloured glasses, viewing it as ideal and perfect, shiny and wonderful. Renaissance weddings are an obvious example. Yup, dressing up like a princess and a knight sounds pretty romantic, right? I wouldn't tell that to a medieval scholar, though — the Middle Ages weren't exactly all they're shined up to be. But we've generally accepted that pretty versions of medieval weddings are relatively ok.

This glorifying of the past isn't a new thing. Humans seem to like to look back and say that times were good way back when. The Greeks did it in their legends, looking back to the Golden Age. The Hindus did it, glorying in a past when the world was new and perfect, not yet degraded and ready for destruction. Artists and poets have done it for years (Romanticism, anyone?). Romance novels too have pulled on this with the sub-genre of historical romances. It is obviously sexier to get swept off your feet wearing a bodice than when wearing jeans and a t-shirt.

The dark side of romanticizing

There is, however, a darker side to this. Some things are a lot harder to get away with romanticizing and maybe we should think more about what we do romanticize or at least how we do it. Some things are going to be a problem and while some of them are obvious, like the Black Death, others may not be quite so obvious. The Colonial Africa wedding and the Depression-Era Hobo wedding are prime examples of this. They have both been attacked not because of whether they were romantic (because those couples look pretty happy and romantic to me), but because of the particular theme they chose to romanticize, and the way it was presented. Commentors frequently objected to the romanticization of these particular themes matched up with a wedding.

Why that Colonial African wedding was problematic

With the Colonial African wedding, the issue at stake is that the photos of the wedding that were displayed and the title of the original blog post easily worked together to suggest a glorification of British colonization of Africa and the negative things that came with it such as slavery, white-privilege, and the bitter history that followed. A storm erupted on the internet after the initial post was seen with most responses being pretty negative.

The couple had based the aesthetic on the movie Out of Africa, appreciating the look and feel of that movie without necessarily condoning the historical period during which it took place. They loved a particular look and feeling. The original bloggers were partially to blame as they admit they “were naive not to consider the negative implications of using the word ‘colonial' in the blog title” and didn't consider which pictures they chose to juxtapose with that title, ending up with pictures that all had black servers dressed in clothing that slaves would have worn (despite that the servers were not all black).

Jezebel was one of the main sites to pick up the story and focus specifically on the pictures, drawing conclusions from them and fanning the flames. They also later printed an update after the photographers took down their post.

Why was that Hobo wedding problematic

The Depression-Era Hobo wedding was written up by the couple themselves and they too made some grave word-choice errors that led to some very heavy criticism. Foremost among them was referring to their garb as “hobo-chic” which juxtaposed extreme poverty with high fashion. The wedding itself seems sweet and the romantic ideal they were going for came from memories of the Depression-era wedding of the groom's grandmother.

We need to think carefully not only about our own cultural context — but also that of those around us.

Now, lots of readers would agree that a wedding that could be described as “unfussy, honest, beautiful, fun and, most importantly, from the heart” sounds ideal. Again, it's the problem of how they described it and the way they put it into practice that got them such bad press. Regretsy criticized them for romanticizing hobos — homeless migrants who had no money and were forced to travel seeking work. Now, if the bride and groom had chosen different words to describe the wedding, likely few would have raised a fuss at their choice of fashion or decor. But they didn't. They wanted to romanticize hobos specifically.

So, what got everyone's knickers in a twist? Some things just do not romanticize well in this day and age of trying to be conscious of the past. The racism that gave justification to colonization is still alive and well and is still being fought today. The poverty that resulted from the Great Depression is still a keen memory for quite a few people, and the memory has been revived by recent economic conditions that have left many people in a difficult situation money-wise.

Just because we like a particular aesthetic doesn't mean that we should use it for our wedding without considering the implications.

Think outside your own privilege

Sipho Hlongwane's opinion piece in The Daily Maverick brought up a good point in regard to the Colonial African wedding: The couple just did not think about whether their wedding might be offensive, especially to people like their serving staff. Therein lies the problem. They themselves pictured a lovely wedding of vintage decor and clothing for everyone, including the waitstaff — but it never occurred to them that not everyone would be okay with that romanticization.

If we want to question the wedding industry's ideals and traditions about the romanticization of a wedding and all that it is supposed to be, opening our eyes to meanings and roots of aspects of it (like being “given away,” diamond rings, the budget, or etiquette), we need to keep our eyes open when we plan our own weddings. We need to think carefully not only about our own cultural context — but also that of those around us.

Now, while I don't think we should plan weddings solely based on the fear of offending someone, I do think we should be keeping it in mind, especially when it comes to larger cultural issues. We should be aware of whether or not our wedding will offend someone and consider thoroughly whether or not that is an issue. We should consider our guests, the people we hired to be present, and the world around us. And yes, unfortunately just having a gay marriage or an interracial marriage would be offensive to certain kinds of people — but obviously that's something they will have to live with. Just make sure your wedding is something that you can live with.

This goes doubly if you ever intend to put anything about your wedding on the internet. If you put it on the internet, someone will get offended. Be prepared. Be aware. Consider your words and images. Consider how much you are willing to share with the world at large. Because trust me, they are reading and they are watching.

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Comments on Problematic wedding themes: hobo, colonial, and more

  1. A reminder for commenters: we’re less interesting in discussing whether you personally found either of these weddings tasteful or not, and more into discussing the larger, more general issue of problematic wedding themes.

    Also, please remember our commenting policy! We will delete any comments that bash on people or their weddings.

  2. this is such a great and insightful post! thanks for being critical of themed weddings/ceremonies that inadvertently hurt other people, while also being super validating about how themed parties can be positive!

  3. Interestingly enough, my guy was the one to share the original Hobo wedding thing with me and what I usually do with wedding stuff is look at pictures first, then go back and read.

    I thought to myself, this is interesting and they look happy and it looks fun and rustic kinda.

    Then I read the blog. I was not offended or really even that bothered by it. People use the wrong words all the time but I was totally surprised at how MAD so many other people were.

     *shrug* I dont know. I spend my whole day being yelled at over the internet, replying to customers who dont care who they offend with the writen word but this is a tough call.

    I think I will just stay neutral on the topic….and roll with that.

  4. I think this is one of the risks people take when they deviate from the cultural norm of wedding traditions, period. The offense I take at seeing a “colonial” or “poverty-chic” themed wedding stems from the same place in more traditionally-minded folks that reacts to a non-white wedding dress or not having your father walk you down the aisle.

    Although a non-white dress and a colonial-themed wedding are very different in terms of severity and impact, the offense someone feels at non-traditional choices comes from the same place–the idea that we’re disrespecting tradition and their values, that we’re ignoring parts of our cultural history, and that we’re condemning choices they may have made.

    So how do we handle being individual without being offensive? Communication, honesty, and a willingness to hear critique. If someone tells us our choices could be read as racist or otherwise offensive, we need to evaluate their input and choose to ignore or accept it, and be prepared to back up our decisions either way. And it’s a two-way street–we have to be willing to call our friends, family, significant others, and ourselves on behavior that comes from places of privilege and ignorance.

    • I actually have to disagree with you here. Caveat before I get into this – I’m going to discuss what’s problematic about these weddings the way that they were *perceived*, as romanticizations of negative historical events, not the way the couples intended them to come off (which, since none of us are the couple in question, can only be speculation).

      While it’s true that perceived disrespect (perceived being the operative word here – I think both of these weddings are more thoughtless than flat out disrespectful) of traditions and values is a common culprit when it comes to outrage, I don’t think it’s the main issue at play here. What makes both of these weddings problematic isn’t that they’re disrespecting another culture or tradition, it’s that they’re making two very bad things – the horrific treatment of native Africans at the hands of colonialists, and the crushing poverty of the Great Depression – seem like one big party.

      What makes it all the more problematic is that the couples in question do not themselves come from a background with links to the oppressed/disadvantaged groups being portrayed. This is especially true of the African-themed wedding. They come off as a white couple romanticizing at time when white westerners horribly mistreated black Africans. That’s where the problem, and the offensiveness, lies. It’s in the romanticization of the suffering of others, not in the bucking of tradition.

      • What makes it all the more problematic is that the couples in question do not themselves come from a background with links to the oppressed/disadvantaged groups being portrayed

        Or at least they don’t *appear* that way. Just wondering if as many people would have taken offence to a verbal description only rather than the photos?

      • Actually the family of the hobo wedding had several people in attendance who had been homeless before, and according to the original Etsy blog, the idea partially came from the grandmother of one of the couple, who grew up during the Depression and lived in poverty.

        I think a lot of those few people who actually had legitimate complaints were just ignorant about what a “hobo” is and how much of a factor they were in the development of American art, music and literature. Many artists, writers and musicians admired the hobo community and from them, learned to be resourceful, resilient, depend on each other to survive and live outside of the mainstream. Since artists usually do live in poverty or at least out of the mainstream (and this couple are both artists), the wedding seemed completely appropriate to me (a musician), and the bride and groom’s family and friends obviously felt the same way. So I think “cultural sensitivity” can work both ways, and perhaps some of the commenters are just not aware of the artist subculture and how inextricably the wandering troubadour/writer/artist has been linked with bringing attention to the plight of the poor and homeless – since they often wandered together. Artists are the LAST people who would be insensitive to the poverty!

        • I think the big problem was that the people getting married said they spent 15k dollars in a wedding, and that they called themselves ‘poor cartoonists’…

  5. I am so happy to see this post. I originally heard of the hobo wedding on regretsy, and I do agree that romanticizing poverty isn’t the most tasteful of decisions. However, the viral backlash to this wedding is absurd. People are tearing them apart and it makes me so sad for the couple. Thank you for writing a well thought out response that articulated so many of my feelings.

  6. I also think that part of the issue is that it is MUCH harder to romanticize a period of time from which people are still alive. Speaking as a SCAdian and admirer of Steampunk, history needs to weather and get that soft patina and sepia tones to really be at a place where is is less dangerous/offensive to perform. People get married at plantations all the time and do Civil War re-enacting and that is not seen as (nearly) so offensive because it was “back in the old days”. Just like at SCA events I don’t care if a little chivalrous sexism happens because I know that everyone is just performing a part. Not that I want to suggest that performing racism is ever acceptable, it isn’t.

  7. Great post. The timing is really great. This is a discussion we need to all have and a topic we need to all think about.

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I’ve seen a trend of non-native brides wearing native war bonnets in photos – a kind of “goofy”, “dress-up” thing. And I find it quite repulsive. Yet, if you say anything you’re painted as someone who is offended by everything or “mean”. It’s not about that. Cultural appropriation is a real thing. And it upsets me that some brides are thinking only in aesthetics and what looks ‘pretty’ or is on trend when it’s actually deeply, deeply offensive to native people and people of colour. I guess the hobo wedding would be easier to swallow if you weren’t living on the poverty line. And the colonial wedding wouldn’t be so offensive if you weren’t a person of colour. The fact is they’re still hurtful. And I really think when the focus is on the bride and groom and how people are being “mean” to them – it’s once again drowning out the voices of minorities. Once again a native person or a person of colour is being asked to be quiet so that someone with more privilege doesn’t have their feelings hurt.

    • THIS comment!

      There are so many traditions from other cultures that I am in love with (particularly when it comes to weddings), but even though I love the idea of chuppas, and the gloriously colorful and vibrant traditions in Hindu weddings, neither me nor my fiance practice those religions, and I don’t think it would be right to use their traditions just because I think they’re pretty. For me it comes across as disrespectful of those cultures.

      For a time I worked in a tattoo shop, and so often we would have people walk in off the street who “just wanted to look around”. Which seems neutral enough, but the reality it came across as though the shop was some sort of tourist destination and we were the freaks on display. That’s not a good way to feel, and it doesn’t promote unity. It’s the same feeling that I get with the weddings mentioned in this article and the “cause it’s pretty” ones you mentioned in your comment. Instead of having a day that is about celebrating the love of two people it ends up marginalizing people whose cultures/experiences are being usurped for someone else’s entertainment. And that is far from romantic to me.

      • I agree, but with a caveat: using the *traditions* of other cultures, especially sacred ones, is really not cool. Chuppahs, various other ceremonial practices all fall under that umbrella. I couldn’t agree more there. Not OK to plunder someone else’s religion and beliefs.

        Using some of the aesthetic of other cultures, I think, is fine. I would advise not overdoing it and keeping a careful eye on your plans to avoid fetishization and full-on appropriation, but I don’t think it’s a big deal to, say, use a few flourishes of *non-sacred* Indian decor (fabrics, postcards, etc.) or aesthetic touches you admire from other parts of the world. That’s not offensive as long as it’s not overdone to the point of being embarrassingly kitsch and fetishized.

      • Yes! Thank you. I had a very hard time when a friend invited me to celebrate one of my minority religion holidays with him. When I arrived, I found he was actually throwing a “my holiday” themed keg party. He could not understand why I was so upset. Someone else’s sacred object or occasion is not honored by being uprooted and used for kicks.

        Good intentions, while nice, really don’t excuse racial/ethic thoughtlessness. If the couple with the colonial Africa theme had stopped to consider others, they might have realized what statement they were actually making – rather than what they meant to say.

        There is power in not caring what other people think (see: Your wedding is tacky), but offbeat does not equal ignoring others’ feelings and ignoring what your choices actually say. Overall, I think the Offbeat Bride community walks this careful balance very well.

  8. I also saw the hobo-themed wedding on Regretsy, but really didn’t think much of it until the sh*tstorm started. I think why that one blew up was because family members of the groom or bride got WAY up in arms on twitter, etc, fanning the flames. Then it got huge.

    • I think the comic that the groom drew and posted to the world is what cinched it. And rightly so.

    • Exactly. It wouldn’t have been that big of a deal if the couple and their family didn’t fan the flames. But that just goes back to what was said in the article. If you’re romanticizing a theme, just stop for a second and consider the cultural context, not only for you but for those around you. Especially if you’re gonna post it on the Internet.

      • For me, posting about it on the internet is the key part. It’s not like their wedding just somehow accidentally made it on the internet. They put it out there for people to see- and to critique (though hopefully it could have been done with a bit more tact and grace). The reasons for publicizing their wedding aren’t exactly known, but I would hazard a guess that it has to do with wanting recognition for their creativity/offbeatness/awesomeness/whatever (don’t we all?!), and didn’t necessarily consider that there could be dissenters to this recognition.

        • Fair enough, but I also worry a bit about blaming people for having the AUDACITY to put themselves out there. I know you’re not saying “they deserved it” — but some folks definitely have. Again: while I think it’s totally reasonable to discuss why some wedding themes are insensitive, I just get squicked out when it turns into an internet pile-on. There are real people behind these weddings. Real people who may have made some mistakes; but real people none the less.

          • Oh yeah for sure! I think they do have the right to put their wedding on the internet. But I think people also have the right to take issue with what people do put on the internet, in public, for the world to see. The criticism just could have been done better, as you stated about the internet pile-on. I think the point you made in another comment is really good as well – it’s also how they handled the criticism.

          • True. Although I find the romanticization of the destitute to be atrocious (oooh, fancy words), I can’t help but also think that the couple is going to look back upon their wedding and remember how hundreds of people trashed it. While they needed to become more aware of the meanings behind their decisions, I don’t think an internet attack was all that effective in broadening their horizons. People in that kind of situation are more likely to get into a defensive stance right away and fight back.

  9. The hobo wedding in particular brings to mind a pair of scenes in the movie “Love, Actually” in fact, deleted scenes. They open on a charity call center in England, where a poster hangs on the wall depicting a rural african woman looking at her dry and damaged crops. The viewer then “steps into the picture” And views the woman first gossiping about her husband with other women, and then sharing words of love and affectioln with her husband… While, yes, they struggle with extreme poverty, as with everything else, while it controls their life it does not rule it.
    Hobos, or “Ho boys” Took to the rails to find work… but their struggles were not the whole of their lives… They traveled and worked, they fished, they struggled, they played music, they starved, They invented a secret code, they fell in love. … Peoples is peoples.

    I still don’t understand how people were offended by the hobo wedding, and I don’t mean that in an ornery way. I literally don’t understand.. admittedly, one of my teachers in HS was a hobo historian, so Maybe I possess knowledge which others do not? …

    • I hope you don’t mind, i’m going to paraphrase some bits from what I wrote in the Tribe discussion on this about why I find phrases like ‘hobo chic’ so offensive (this is a phrase that the couple used throughout their original blog post about their wedding).

      I can very much understand the argument that the lives of hobos weren’t all terrible, and that it would be wrong for historians to portray them as such. But the couple who had the hobo wedding weren’t hobos. By using a flippant phrase like ‘hobo chic’, they were making light of a situation that was tough for other people, not for them. In so doing, they appropriated and silenced the voices of people who suffered and died in their tens of thousands. While some real hobos might well have been happy to know that future couples would get some joy from their suffering, it’s not up to *us* to make that call on their behalf. By that same token, the lives of contemporary undocumented farm labourers aren’t all suffering and misery. But would it be OK for a couple of middle-class white kids to have a wedding based on ‘Undocumented Mexican Migrant Worker Chic’? I don’t think so. It’s exactly the same thing – the only difference is that we have a little distance from the 1930s.

      I don’t think the couple set out to make fun of homeless people. I think they quite genuinely felt they could connect with the Depression era in light of the current economic climate, and probably also thought they were celebrating positive things that emerged from a very negative situation. But I don’t think good intentions make up for bad results. Had the couple pitched their wedding as a casual, 1930s-themed farm shindig, I don’t think anyone could or would object to it. But by dressing themselves up in ‘hobo-chic’, they’ve crossed a line into pantomiming and making light of someone else’s very real hardship.

  10. I haven’t looked in to these two weddings, but I can say one thing, everyone going for vintage country style themes are romanticising a place which never existed or will exist.

    I was born on a farm and my parents and our families come from the equivalent to poor tenant farmers or crackers. Poverty has always been part of our life and I grew up not getting Christmas presents some years because harvest was bad. Yes. 1980’s Sweden. People don’t believe me when I tell them. Everyone dreaming of the countryside will make a chic version of it which has nothing to do with what real life out there was. Do I take offence? Nope. But I’m sure if I told people we’re having a cracker wedding gone chic I’d be torn down despite the fact that this is my roots and my childhood I’m honouring. Boy do I know what it is to not have what everyone else have! Or the joy of having hot running water (we didn’t get that until I was 10) or toilet indoors (12 there). That is why I don’t want to fork out way too much money because it’s an offence to all those out there who can’t afford such luxuries. Going with a “theme” that helps me not to do that and is a wink to what I am is the natural thing to do.

    The outrageousness on the net can take gigantic proportions and to be honest, the less you talk about anything here the better.

    • That is just what many people found offensive about the “hobo” wedding–they painted it as a “pared-down”, “simple” wedding in the original blog post, when in reality they spent $15k on vintage clothing and decor. That rubbed me the wrong way more than the whole “hobo” thing.

      I think the lesson here is not so much “Be careful about picking a wedding theme”, but more “Be careful when it comes to putting photos of your themed wedding on the internet”.

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