Sunday, May 17, 2009

French Wedding Primer

As spring turns to summer and the setting sun casts a rosy glow over Paris, our American heroine munches contentedly on the rest of the carrot cake she made for her French in-laws (7 of them!), and naturally her thoughts turn to weddings.

Not just any weddings, mind you. French weddings.

I've had requests for information about what to wear, say and do at a French wedding and decided to compile a little dossier as the big season begins.

Let me begin by saying two things.

1). I love weddings. I'm a bit biased, because my wedding was probably the happiest day ever in the history of the world. Trust me, I'm a historian.

2). A French wedding is not a sprint, but a marathon. You'll want to spend a good bit of time preparing. The day will be extremely long and tiring, your feet will be killing you at the end and your dodgy knee might act up. You will alternately bond with the strangers around you and/or kick them. At the very end, you may find yourself being sick or limping around wearing a silver cape that someone threw on you. Most importantly, you will finish dazzled and thrilled, and will delight in sharing photos and tales with friends for years to come.

Very generally speaking, the French wedding industry is not as developed or vast as the American or British one. French brides I've spoken to are at once in awe and shocked at the amount of detail and money that goes into an average American affair. A larger percentage of the budget will be allocated towards food and drink, with much less emphasis on things like limos, bridesmaid dresses, favours and formal invitations. Surprisingly, you might find that the French wedding you attend is less formal that one in the US, even if the venue is extremely grand. The French weddings I've been to, while lovely and highly enjoyable, suprised me by the lack of interest in these details - some of it refreshing, some of it disappointing ("You splurged on a huge poofy dress but didn't get your roots done?").

Invitations typically arrive 2-3 months before a wedding and wedding websites are becoming more common. Some French couples have a formal engagement ceremony called a fiancailles. The couple might exchange rings - this is why you occasionally see French men wearing two wedding bands. This is often just for immediate family, but you might be invited to one.

A typical wedding-day timeline:

- Many French weddings begin midday and finish in the early hours of the next morning. Your invitation may specify that you are only invited to certain parts.

- In France, only the town/city hall (mairie) can perform legal marriages - unlike in the UK, Ireland or the US, where members of the clergy legalize marriages by signing a license. Everyone who gets married in France does so at the mairie, and has, if they wish, a religious ceremony after. The mariage civil oftens takes place in the morning of the wedding, but could take place a few weeks or days before the "real" wedding. Don't be offended if you aren't invited to the mariage civil: some mairies are quite small... and some are quite ugly, too. You're not missing much.

- Religious ceremonies: most people who profess a religion in France are Roman Catholics and most churches are centuries old, so you're in for a treat. Even if it's warm outside, you should probably bring a shawl or jacket for this part, because 12th century stone churches stay quite cool inside. A Roman Catholic wedding typically lasts an hour and features readings, music, an exchange of vows and a homily from the priest. (Tacky alert: there may be a collection so have some change or a 5 euro note handy. The guests pay for the church).

- After the final ceremony, be it civil or religious, there is always a vin d'honneur: a cocktail reception where champagne is served. The vin d'honneur is open to anyone who has attended the ceremony - in theory, that could mean locals in the village or work colleagues who aren't invited to the dinner. It can be held in a space next to the mairie or church, or it can be at the chateau where the reception is being held. (Note that chateau means castle, but don't be overwhelmed: it is also used to mean "place where reception is being held." It may be more like a nice 19th century home or manor house).

The vin d'honneur may last 2-3 hours, so pace yourself (remember: champagne = bubbles = alcohol moving quickly to your head!) and make sure to nibble. Right now verrines are all the rage in France: appetisers served in tiny glasses. If anyone can figure out how to maneouvre salmon tartare out of a plastic shot glass with a 2-inch plastic fork while holding a coupe de champagne, please enlighten me.

- Le diner: usually a sit-down affair, occasionally a buffet. Again, pacing is important. I went to a wedding where the mass was at 2pm, the vin d'honneur began at 4pm, we were seated for dinner at 8pm and we finished eating a little after midnight. The pros: the food is probably going to be great, with 5 or 6 courses and wines to match each one. The cons: even if you're sitting with people you know and like, 4 hours is a bit tough-going. Which is why there are....

- Les jeux! To faire une petite pause between courses, sometimes games are organised. These could be musical chairs, hide-and-seek, duck-duck-goose... very, very funny, until someone gets hurt...!

- Le disco! This may begin at midnight or later; there may or may not be a first dance from the couple. French people are, in my experience, not good dancers, but after 9 hours, 6 courses and a few bottles of wine, I'm no Ginger Rodgers, either. This is also the moment where that high-cultured French facade crumbles and they reveal that they, too, like insipid pop music. Party on.

- Stop the music! It's time for la piece montee: the wedding cake, really a pastry and not a cake. This is a tower of chou pastry puffs filled with cream, held together with caramel and installed on a nougatine base. Absolutely delicious. A conic shape is traditional, but I've also seen more "creative" bakers do windmills, lighthouses, and... uh, what is that?

- Will it ever end? Who knows. I'm not aware of a cue for when to leave a wedding. Back in the day, the bride and groom left first; now it seems they are usually the last to leave. You can leave when the meal is completely finished, which may be well after midnight. Just make sure to say goodbye to the couple and their parents before you go.

- Note the possible absence of the following: the speeches, the first dances, the receiving line, the Achy-Breaky-Heart.

What about gifts?

Wedding registries are becoming more popular in France. The Galeries Lafayette department store chain is probably the leading one, and you can buy from their website (which, until very recently, had hilariously bad photos of the gifts, maybe from when they sent an intern around the store to take photos on his phone?).

Cash is also acceptable, or a check sent in the post. If you are (rightly) nervous about leaving an envelope of cash on a gift table, give it to one of the parents.

And finally... What to wear?

Whatever you want. That's what French people seem to do.

Okay, snark over. Study your invitation: are you attending the wedding of a couple named Segolene de France de Paris and Stanislaus Sarkozy-Bettencourt-Royal, held at Notre Dame with a reception at Le Crillon? Then beg, borrow or steal a metallic pastel Prada dress with matching jacket and hat (over 40s) or Chloe dress (under 40s).

Otherwise, don't panic. I am convinced that France is moving towards a single transferable dress code. The French don't go out in pajamas, old sweats and flip flops, but nor do they really dress up. It's the tyranny of smart casual. People wear the same clothes to work, to dinner, to the market and to the boulangerie in the morning. At one summer wedding I attended a lot of the women were wearing linen shift dresses with flat sandals - nice but not dressy. Dresses and pantsuits are fine; jeans are not, and anything you could wear to the prom would be OTT. It is perfectly acceptable to wear black - in fact, all of the French women who came to my wedding wore black, except for my mother-in-law, who wore white.

Exception to the smart casual rule: one of my informants tells me that hats are having a big moment, so if you go weak for a brim this could be your big chance to bust out.

Last thoughts: think about how you are getting home and plan ahead for a taxi or designated driver. I ended up walking home from a wedding once at 4am, not having considered how that cute little village wouldn't have cute little taxis just idling outside the reception.

Have a great time, and come back and tell me all about it!


  1. " fact, all of the French women who came to my wedding wore black, except for my mother-in-law, who wore white."

    !!!! Who does this?

    Can I just say, if my fiancé's mother turned up in white at my wedding, well, I think I'd pitch a force-9 fit.
    You are, indeed, a woman of great grace and patience under pressure.

  2. Well, in fairness it was white with some silver threads running through it...

    Hey, I knew that there would be no mistaking who was The Bride: 'Twas Moi.


    I am attending a wedding at the end of June in Paris (I am from NYC and have only attended US weddings). I am a panic stricken wreck over what to wear. I just dont want to be under dressed. I have a perfect little black dress that fits impeccably well and i was just going to make it more interesting with exotic shoes and jewels. My French BF told me that women in Paris do not wear black to weddings- even the evening ceremony (mind you I have a seperate dress for the church- a blush pink dress).

    After this post I am going to confidently wear my black dress, after all I do not even know the bridal party, I am simply his American date who doaes not speak a word of French... why draw more attention to myself.

  4. Hi Caboosh!

    I have access to statistics on how people find my blog, and I'm shocked at how many are finding it with a keyword search along the lines of "what to wear French wedding guest". You're not alone!

    Bear in mind that your French petit ami is probably fabulous in many ways, but honestly: does he really notice what women wear? Many men don't. "What women wear to weddings" could mean "what I recall my mother wearing to cousin Jean's wedding in 1994 - uhh, it was blue, or maybe purple."

    I think your plan to wear pink to the church and black in the evening is perfect. I think you could get away with wearing black to the whole thing, but the most important thing is that you are comfortable and feel fabulous.

    Regarding language... trickier!
    - Learn a few basic phrases
    - Smile and make eye contact while stumbling through basic phrases - you'll show that you're trying
    - Remember that a lot of young French people speak a decent amount of French, and someone will talk to you.
    - If you can't find anyone who speaks English, just enjoy the food and wine.
    - If you drink enough wine, you'll end up discovering that you actually can speak French very, very well. Oh la!

    Have fun and let us know how it goes! AP

  5. Thank you for the additional tips. I am 1,000 times relieved that black wont be a total fashion faux pas!

    I did want to ask if many women wear full length gowns. The reception is at an Abbey in Cernay de Ville outside of Versaille... I am not sure if that is a formal venue at all or if you are even familiar with it. I am 28 and feel that a cocktail dress is more than appropriate, but as I mentioned this is the first wedding outside of the US that I am attending, so I am trying not to rely on my assumptions.

    As for the language barrior I am religiously listening to French conversation on my ipod, and my petit ami is also helping me out a bit. I promise to try, and I agree that wine will surely help.

    I am so grateful for your help... I know I must sound crazy, but I just want to be appropriate. I know fashion is of the utmost importance to the French, and I don't want to disappoint.

  6. Hi Caboosh,

    Cocktail. Definitely. A full length gown sounds too dressy. I'm the same age as you and I'd wear a cocktail dress.

    The one exception is that the full-length 'maxi dresses' are stylish right now, but they are definitely dresses and not gowns. I am far too short to work this look, but YMMV.

    Oh, one last thing - young French people loooove New York so introduce yourself with, "Je suis New Yorkaise"!

  7. Ok- great! I am not much of a gown girl at all... I like to dance and all that fabric just gets in the way! I can not work the maxi dress either... they really don't appeal to me for an event. More of a beach/vacation/weekend dress in my opinion.

    Thank you for the NY tip! I will keep that in mind. I will definitely let you know how everything turns out. Thank you again- you have been a wonderful help :)

  8. I also found your blog by looking at "what to wear to a french wedding" via google...and THANK YOU SO MUCH. I've been living in Paris for 5 months now with my own petit ami, and honestly, I am so grateful for your blog because it seems like you've experienced many of the exact same things I have. It's such a good resource and comoforting at thank you for your helpful tips and great sense of humor. :)

  9. Thanks, and welcome, Grace!

    As of today, 46 different people have found my blog with some variation of 'what to wear French wedding.' Forty-six! That's crazy! Maybe I should write a book on it...

    1. That's how I found this post...4 years later! Thank you so much!

    2. Haha, that's how I found your post too (August, 2013). It's nice to know that I don't have to lug a gown to Paris for a wedding. So much easier to pack a cocktail dress.

  10. Hi,

    Any advice for a guy attending a wedding in France? I will going to the marie, church and reception though I think the marie is not the same days as the church/reception. Would a black suit and several changes of shirt and tie be acceptable? Is black during the day a faux pas in France? What colors did most men wear to your wedding? I hate to have to pack 3 suits for the trip...

  11. Hi Anonymous Guy... based on my experience, and after a little consulation with Mon Cher Mari, I can say that it is perfectly acceptable to wear a black suit with just a change of tie. I think most men at my wedding wore black suits. The one thing you don't see very often in France is red ties, which are seen as quite Yankee.

    In fact, MCM insists that you don't even need a tie, though I always err on the side of formality. (As Carson Kressley says, you can alwayslie and say that you have someplace more exciting to go later).

  12. I have been invited to attend a french wedding in the country side. (well my boyfriend has been invited) I dont know the family neither the couple that are getting married and I dont know what to wear!!. I know they are quite sophisticated- aristocrat people! so any advice is well received! the wedding ceremony is at 4Pm and the dinner party afterwards

  13. Thank you SO MUCH for this blog post. Phew.

    I too, asked mon petit ami and he said "uh.. didn't you see the pictures from the other weddings?"

    Me: Of the bride and GROOM!!! And the bridal party! I have no idea what to wear. You're useless.

    BF: Er.... Google it.

    And here I am :)

    Merci beaucoup!

  14. Love it!! Im going to a wedding in South of France in June, the bride is my boyfriend's best friend... and Im really worried about what to wear then... After reading you, I think I was clearly OTT with my search for my dreamy dress.... Thanks to you, I will be fine, now!

  15. Yes found your blog by typing" what to wear to a french wedding". This is really helpful, I'm going to my first French wedding in June, and my second, the week after. I've been stressing because they are all my boyfriend's friends, and most likely the same people will be at both. This is very helpful in my planning. Thank you!

  16. This is hilarious! Been there, done that and here I am reading your blog - how many French weddings do you go to and still feel over dressed!
    It never ceases to amaze me!
    I have one coming up and, for me ...a seated diner at 2030 would mean a long evening dress....
    but I am sure the lasses will all break out their hats !
    Still I always find it hard to decide what exactly to wear!
    And....only a French Mother in law (or as someone once said "monster in law" would wear white to your wedding!

  17. I have one question, why do French weddings begin midday and finish in the early hours of the next morning? I don't get the idea but I am curious. please do explain what is the reason behind it. thanks

  18. Love the information on French Weddings, key to a great wedding is a great Engagement Ring and the Europeans know hot to buy diamonds. Was in Paris last year at it was street after street of high end jewellers, very impressive.

  19. Thank you so much for your insights. My hubby and I will be attending a wedding in Paris at the end of August. The wedding is in Paris and the reception is being held about an hour outside of Paris in a castle from the 13th century. It all sounds intriguing and fabulous but I too am curious about attire. Your post has been helpful but given the two location scenario... Should I be planning on two separate outfits?

  20. Woohoo I am *so* glad I found this; I'm going to a Frenglish wedding (marie, church & reception) in Brittany at the end of August and have been wondering what to wear. I have a much better idea now! Thank you <3 :)

  21. My son is getting married next month at "la mairie de La Garenne Colombes." The ceremony is 3 pm on a Saturday afternoon and the dinner is at a very nice restaurant on the Champs-Elysés I bought a simple black dress with black lace. It is classic and very beautiful. Now I am concerned that the mother of the groom should not wear black. Your thoughts?

  22. Hi, attending a wedding in the south of France in July, and my boyfriend is best man (i know no one at all) - is a dark green short dress ok? how short is too short... this blog has been super helpful so far! :)

  23. Hi there! Excellent blog post! Relevant years later!

    I'm headed to a wedding Aveyron in July on a Monday! I'm also curiously in the wedding party. After receiving a request for "funny american games" to play at the reception, I had to ask them what actually goes on at these French weddings. I have the following questions that hopefully you can help me with:

    -What are typically games to play? Just duck duck goose etc? Any others that you've seen? I suggested the shoe game, which is the only game I've ever seen played at an American wedding.

    -Wedding on a Monday?! Is that normal?

    -GIFTS! I usually give money, but seeing as how I don't have a euro checkbook, I think I'm stuck with gifts. I don't know if they have a registry or even know their address to send something. Is there a way to search for a registry at Galleries Lafayette to see if a couple is registered? I'm doing my best to translate the website, but no luck.

    Thank you!!

  24. It's June 2017 and I found this post when trying to find out if I could wear black to a French wedding! Perhaps a book would still be a good idea.


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