How dowry traditions relate to modern brides

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Vintage vibes at this 1970s-inspired NY waterfall vow renewal
Photos by Michelle Montgomery from this 1970s-inspired NY waterfall vow renewal

Weddings (and the institution of marriage) have almost always been wrapped in tradition, so much so that people often become upset when a couple wants to deviate from those usual wedding customs. The fact though is that many people would probably be appalled if they knew the roots of some of these traditions. Even if they are aware where these traditions come from, maybe they choose to forget it come wedding time. However, as an offbeat bride, I think it is especally important to muse on old wedding customs. At least when you tell people why you've made these decisions, you can explain the historical significance.

For example, the responsibility of a bride's parents to pay for a wedding. I've never been especially fond of this tradition, because I think in some circumstances all it does is foster an attitude of entitlement in those brides who would condemn their parents for choosing not to finance their extravagant tastes. That, or parents end up killing themselves (figuratively!) trying to earn the money for their child's wedding out of a sense of obligation, whether it's practical or not.

In the end, why?…

Because hundreds of years ago, women were considered chattel and the bride's family used to have to pay off the groom's family in the form of a dowry to take their daughters off their hands. After dowries went out of style, there was still the trousseau (the bride's dress and accouterments for the wedding, in addition to stuff like cake, etc.), usually hand prepared by the bride's family. Now that we have wedding vendors to make cakes and dresses for us, the trousseau has also gone out of style for the most part, and instead the bride's family just ponies up the cash.

I don't know about you, but the idea of my parents bribing someone to marry me makes me feel kind of sick. The idea of them bankrupting themselves for one day is also kind of disheartening. I'd say it's wonderful we've moved past those times, but obviously we haven't if the expectation still stands that a couple's parents are responsible for paying for their wedding, especially the parents of the bride.

We no longer live in the times where marriage was essentially a way to ensure that women were taken care of.

Love wasn't always a factor (and still isn't, in some cultures). Teenage brides weren't uncommon, because people just didn't live as long. Girls who were practically still children themselves got married and started having children right away, because culture and religion dictated it be so.

The dowry and trousseau were a necessity of those times, because they ensured that a groom would have the things he needed to support his new wife and their children to come. This is no longer the case, for the most part, as most couples who get married had acquired quite a lot of crap of their own-they don't need the “starter kits” that couples used to need.

My general feeling is that if you want to get married, you ought to be adult enough to do so without expecting your family to foot the bill.

I'm not saying that it's abhorrent to allow your family to pay for your wedding — if they really want to do it, let them. What I am saying though is not all brides should expect their parents to foot the bill for your champagne tastes when you really ought to be working on a beer budget. If your dad works sixty hours a week just to pay their bills and you expect him to buy your wedding dress, maybe you need to shop at David's Bridal instead of Kleinfeld's.

It's one thing to accept offers of financial help from family. It's another thing entirely to guilt them into it or solicit donations, or expect them to go over their own budget to satisfy your desires for the opulent. If you want that crazy chocolate fondue fountain, start saving your pennies!

You aren't entitled to a fancy, extravagant wedding.

You may be entitled to get married, but no one owes you a TLC fancy-schmancy wedding if you can't afford to do it without exploiting your loved ones. Yeah, it's nice if your family wants to help, but it's not exactly reasonable to expect them to pay for your life choice (read: getting married).

If cost is such an issue, get thee to a courthouse and a justice of the peace, friend. Otherwise, learn to budget what you can actually afford. Sometimes, that might mean selecting an in-season flower instead of the exotic orange blossoms you wanted, or getting married on a Friday night instead of a Saturday afternoon. This kind of sacrifice is really an important lesson, one that will serve you well as you enter into married life.

In the end though, if you're marrying your true love, it won't matter if you spent $1,000 or $100,000 on your wedding because either way, you're committing to the person you cherish the most and that is priceless.

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Comments on How dowry traditions relate to modern brides

    • I’m having a traditional Native American ceremony and it’s custom for the groom and his close male relatives to gift my mother at the beginning of the wedding if she is not satisfied she can refuse to let him marry me he has to keep going until he has her permission
      i found this to be a great alternative to the father giving away the bride which goes back to the concept of women as property of the father then husband.
      A sweet nod to the old matriarchal ways one mother i know wouldn’t let the groom marry nothing was good enough until he played her a song on his flute to melt her heart and show his love for her daughter she wept and conceded

  1. I agree with what you say about dowries, and feeling kinda squeamish about one’s parents paying to get rid of their daughter. However let’s remember that in the original days of dowries, things were much different. Females started being considered “women” much much earlier because life spans were so much shorter – about 40 or so in the 1400-1500s (granted, this was due to poor/no medical care, diet, repeated pregnancies and their inherent dangers, disease etc). As much as we dislike the idea now, a woman’s job was to help create heirs and run the household. She didn’t bring in her own food or money, so her parents’ dowry contribution eased the financial burden on the husband and family (not that the woman got a whole lot of credit for being the reason those extra cattle or piece of land came along). That said, things are much different now and it does often feel like the practicality of the dowry tradition of yore has morphed into “you had a girl, mom and dad, so now it’s time to sign here and pay up!”, which is unfortunate.

  2. I need to give this to my mother. If I hear one more time about how my Dad “really should be contributing” to MY wedding because he is the father of the bride, I’m going to scream. Amazingly enough my Dad raised me to be an independent woman who worked hard to save up money with her fiance for HER wedding.

    Not that I would turn down free money, but I don’t expect a handout from anyone.

    I’m done venting now, thank you for listening. 🙂

  3. I think the bride’s parents also end up footing the bill in this day and age because, let’s face it, there’s a LOT of moms out there who want to turn their daughter’s wedding into a bigger, fancier, 2.0 version of their OWN wedding. I’ve also seen a few poisonous cases of Mom (and sometimes Dad) saying “you’ll do it my way or I’ll cut off the money”.

    Our parents weren’t like that, but still, paying for our own wedding was one of the best decisions we made.

    • I totally agree and its soooo sad! Its not their wedding!!! I know when my daughter’s get married if they want to pick a dress that I think os totally dreadful and ugly, im gonna smile and tell them they are gorgeous and that I am so happy for them!

    • These are often moms who had their own weddings commandeered by their own mothers and think it’s finally their turn to do it their way. What they really need is to do a big vows renewal.

  4. I’m just about to run out and I’ll try to follow up but as a history person (MA in Early Modern European History) there appear to be some slightly wrong assumptions regarding family financials and marriage. Well at least regarding what is now the UK, and France.

    • I’m re-reading a book on marriage in England from the late 17th century to the early 19th and so far the word ‘dowry’ is rare and family money is a class thing. Depending on the groom’s situation and the bride’s family situation a bride could come in with nothing if her family was broke. Think daughters of broke clergymen.
      Anyway, we’re separated from the world of Jane Austin by years and (in my case) space and anything directly resembling dowries has been formed by other needs and situations of the intervening years. Yes, there are non-Western cultures that have dowries or bride prices and I’m sure those cultures have their own histories and reasons of why they do what they do.
      Regarding, modern & post-industrial UK, Canadian, NZ, American and like cultures I wonder how much of this brie’s family paying for the wedding expectations is wrapped up in class? For the poor in 17th-19th centuries, what mention of weddings seem to be simple affairs, and factory girls brought their own earnings and savings to the marriage. Think Irish immigrants in Canada & US who marry after leaving Ireland in the 19th C.

      • Agreed that fancy weddings have more to do with class status than dowry.
        I’m pretty sure modern fancy ass weddings have their roots in middle class people emulating the weddings of wealthy socialites.

      • I took a look in my personal library and grabbed “A History of Private Life, volume IV” edited by Michelle Perrot, translated by Arthur Goldhammer. In France, in the 19th Century, among the wealthy and the bourgeois the purpose of the dowry was to allow the couple to live “in a style appropriate to [their] rank rather than [their] income.” In other words it let the couple skip that young and broke and in love stage, well the broke part. Also according to the book the trousseau accounted for 5% of the dowry, and it was mainly clothing and household linens, and from the description of these things it seems to be a middle class and upper class thing.

  5. I’ve heard that bridal showers are another off-shoot of the dowery tradition. They originated as a way for the friends and family of a bride to collect together a dowery for her when her father did not support the marriage or could not afford one. Although I’m not sure about this because showers do not exist in a lot of cultures where the dowery tradition does/did.

    I’ve always wondered how a dowery tradition worked alongside the opposite tradition of a bride price (where the groom would pay the brides family as compensation for the loss of the womans labour). On the one hand yay for families who found themselves getting paid when they expected to pay but it must have caused some issues if for example a woman from a culture/region which practiced bride prices wanted to marry a man from a culture with a dowery tradition.

    Back to modern times and my own wedding maybe I should show this to my parents as I’m actually having the opposite problem. They not only want to pay, they want to pay almost everything and want to spend more than we had intended. I have nothing against them contributing, our policy has always been we’ll have whatever kind of wedding we can with whatever money is avaliable, but it’s kind of rediculous when I’m having an argument with mum one day because she wants to hire a florist and I want to DIY arrangements with market bought flowers and the next day I catch my parents wondering if they should take out a loan to help fund the wedding!

  6. I’m the eldest of 4 girls and my parents told all of us that they would help us pay for colllege -OR- a wedding, but not both. Of the 3 of us who are college-aged or older, we’ve all chosen college, and honestly, I’m glad they did it. I am not yet engaged, but if/when the time comes, I think we’ll be happy to have the freedom of monetary control (at least on my side of the family. His side jokes about a “surprise shotgun wedding”, so who knows, lol.)

  7. This is one of the best posts I’ve read. You are totally honest about this stuff, where I’ve seen people tiptoe around it in other places. My parents did pay, but man we tried to cut down prices wherever we could and made most everything and potlucked it and you know what? It was f***ing AWESOME.

    Whoo. Rock on.

  8. In victorian England, the dowry paid by the brides family formed part of her inheritance (upper classes only) and meant she inherited less (or nothing at all) compared to her unmarried sisters when her parents died.

    My opinion is this, The average age of marriage in the uk is now 25, 100 years ago it was 18. 100 years before that you were considered an old maid if not married by 25 (see pride and prejudice!). Getting married that young would require a parental contrabution, because you wouldn’t be able to work yourself, and you’d be barely more than a child, still living at home with your parents. These days, if you’re 25 you’re an adult in your own right. You probably don’t live at home, and if you do, you probably don’t live off mother and fathers money. If that’s the case, why should your parents pay for your wedding? you’ve left home! you’re an adult!

  9. “You aren’t entitled to a fancy, extravagant wedding. You may be entitled to get married, but no one owes you a TLC fancy schmancy wedding if you can’t afford to do it without exploiting your loved ones. Yeah, it’s nice if your family wants to help, but it’s not exactly reasonable to expect them to pay for your life choice (read: getting married).”

    I love this! Thank you for being so honest. I attended a huge wedding a couple of years ago that was absolutely dripping in money. I complemented the bride on her dress and her response was ” thank you! It cost £6000!” This is fine if you have £6000 to spend on your dress but the couple were asking for money in lieu of gifts! We were so uncomfortable with all the extravagance and money that had obviously been spent when the couple claimed to be so broke they needed money from guests. I had to question where the money had come from for the wedding and which poor soul was footing the bill.

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