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British Wedding vs Mariage français

By Berlioz Deborah

If you’re French and invited to an English wedding, you may have some surprises, and vice and versa. Different dress code, food, length of the reception… France in London gives you an overview of the different wedding customs on both sides of the Channel.

Before the wedding

The French have to provide a lot of forms to get married
The French have to provide a lot of forms to get married

Except for those marrying in such places as Las Vegas, a wedding requires some preparation. First, there is a legal procedure to follow. In the United Kingdom, the couple is asked to provide some proof of name, address, date of birth and nationality. A passport or a birth certificate is usually sufficient. It’s somewhat different In France… Do not forget that the French administrative system is well known for being very complicated! A complete file is required from the couple, including a birth certificate, a certificate of single status, a proof of address, an ID card, and an Affidavit of law (certificat de coutume). And until 1st January 2008, the bride and the groom were also asked to provide a medical certificate, issued after a medical consultation and some biological tests including a blood test.

There is also a delicate issue that has to be settled before the wedding: who will pay for the festivities? In fact, French and British people have different views on the matter.

British hen party
British hen party

According to British traditions, the bride’s parents normally pay for the wedding. The same custom used to exist in France, but disappeared a long time ago. Now, both the bride’s and the groom’s parents tend to share the cost in order to see their beloved children say “yes”. This change in the tradition was certainly a relief for some parents…Having said that with more and more brides and grooms tying the knot later in life and once they have lived for a number of years together, the soon to marry couple often settles the bill whatever side of the Channel you are on.  However, wedding preparations are not only about filling forms and settling the bill. Fortunately, there are also parties to be had. The first one is  to celebrate the end of the bride and groom single life. This transition evening between celibacy and marriage is an old tradition, reserved only for men at first. It’s only in the 70s, with women’s emancipation, that brides began to have their own parties. However, if this practice has become widespread in France, Brits know better how to celebrate the end of their celibacy. They do not satisfy themselves with a small bash; they often party over a complete weekend: stag night or weekend for the boys, and hen night or weekend for the girls. Nothing is too much. Think weekend in Hamsterdam or Paris, hotels in Scotland or Ireland, themed evening and extremelly boozy nights. Because of it, the stag night or hen night is not often the night before as too many grooms to be never made it to their wedding because they ended up on a train miles away from their wedding with no clothes and still completely drunk.

The dress code

British tuxedo
British tuxedo

If the brides are still wearing a long white dress most of the time on both sides of the Channel, the British brides have a tradition: the famous 'something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue' (French people probably already know this tradition thanks to Hollywood…). The “old” remembers the bride’s family ties. The “new” should bring success to the new-weds, while the “borrowed” is supposed to bring them luck. Finally the “blue” symbolises fidelity and the couple’s 'purity'.


Brits have also a very special dress code for the groom. While in France the groom usually wears a simple suit, the British groom often wears morning suit. If you try to wear that in a French wedding, most people will probably smile…

Another thing should surprise French people invited to a British wedding: the groom, his ushers, his father and the bride’s father are all wearing the same outfit. And that’s the same for the bridesmaids: they are all wearing the same dresses, even if the style does not fit everyone (one should always ask to see the bridesmaid’s dress before agreeing to be one…). In fact, French people do not have ushers, and their bridesmaids tend to be under 10. Most of the time, the groom and the bride have their respective “témoins” (witnesses).

The wedding ceremony

Wedding ceremony
Wedding ceremony

Once again, French weddings have to be more complicated. To get married in Britain, you simply have to go to church or to the Registry Office that is if you do not want a religious wedding. But in France, you’ll have to say “yes” twice if you want to get married in a church. In fact, religious marriages are not recognized by the French State. As a result, the couple will have to marry in the town hall (La Mairie) before getting married in church. One wedding, one same couple, but two ceremonies… Perhaps twice more pleasure! But definitely much more complicated in terms of logistics. Imagine having to move your friends and family from place to place. First the town hall, then the church/mosque/temple, then the cocktail party and then sometimes, the dinner is also in a different place.

The wedding reception

French wedding car
French wedding car

The French and British receptions are very different. First, you do not go to the reception the same way in both countries. In France, when newly-weds leave the ceremony to go to the reception, nobody on their way can miss them. In fact, their car, and most of the guests' cars are decorated with ribbons and flowers. Then they all depart as a very noisy convoy. All the cars sound their horn to share their joy with everyone on the way. But if you do that in Britain, there is a likelihood that what you’ll get is a fine for public disturbance… British newly-weds are more discreet. Their beautiful rented and lightly decorated Rolls is the only thing that can make people notice that someone is getting married.

But the biggest difference between a French and a British reception remains its length. British receptions are quickly over and done with. British weddings are traditionally held at noon, and followed by a seated lunch called a “wedding breakfast”. Some starters, a main dish, the wedding cake, some speeches by the Best man and the bride's father and the groom… And at 6pm, it’s all over! The newly-weds can leave at last for their honeymoon. Some couples have realised that this is when the real fun begins and often invite all the friends they could not have for the sit down dinner to the evening party.

British wedding cake
British wedding cake

At 6pm, a French wedding is just starting! The town hall ceremony is either in the morning or the afternoon, but in both cases, the party goes on until the small hours. First, straight after the ceremony, the guests are invited to a “vin d’honneur”, which is a kind of a cocktail party with champagne and canapés. People who are not invited to the dinner tend to be invited to it. Count two hours for that. Then there is the main meal. And as French people just love good food, this meal includes a series of dishes. Most of the time you’ll have a starter, a fish dish, a “trou normand” (some alcohol sorbet or a small glass of spirit to help the digestion), a meat , some cheese, perhaps a dessert, and finally the wedding cake. And by the way, French wedding cakes have nothing in common with British ones. The traditional English wedding cake is made of two or more tiers of fruit cake. It’s also customary for people present at the wedding to take a piece home with them. There is a saying in England and Ireland that if a young maiden places it under  her pillow, she will dream of her prince. The guests attending a French wedding will also be given something to take home but it will be in the form of  sugared almonds (“dragées”).

All in all, do not expect to leave a French wedding dining table early. By the time speeches, games and pranks have all taken place, it will probably be well past midnight and this is when dancing starts.

The bride's garter
The bride's garter

Brits may wonder how it’s possible to eat and drink so much. Easy, French people just spend many hours sitting at the table. But they do not get bored! In fact, French people love to organize games to liven up a wedding. One of them is an old French tradition: the auction of the bride’s garter. This custom was aimed to gather some money for the installation of the newly-weds. But with the appearance of the wedding lists, this tradition has fallen into disuse. Now it is often  organised to pay for the honeymoon or even for a charity of the newly-weds' choice.

Around 5 or 6am, when your feet are just too tired for you to stand up, there is the onion soup. The last guests will share it with the couple, sometimes even in their house. A very convivial moment.

Just forgot to mention that yu should not forget to take cash with you to either type of wedding. You may have to take part in an auction French style of course or having to buy your drinks during the party English style of course.


03/01/2013 - sezzieb said :

Oh how I agree particularly with cartierbresson. A good well planned English wedding is such fun. The meal is called a wedding breakfast even when eaten in the evening, as it was for my daughters wedding. She was married at 17.00hrs We encourage friends and family to mix and do not seat the separate families apart as is in French style. I rather thought that the old and out of date presumption of the French being the only ones to have and enjoy good food was way gone. An English wedding breakfast would include amuse bouche and obviously a champagne sorbet, cheeses and puds and then the cake in a grand finale. Loads of wines and champagne and being very english, port with the cheeses but brandy for those who prefer. The dancing would continue for hours with wine/other drinks still being provided and later during the night perhaps a light breakfast of smoked salmon and bagels with soured cream. Althought at my daughters this was also served with champagne and orange juice when friends came around to collect their abonded cars the next morning. I am sure that wedding in both countries can be fantastic but please do not make the english out to be staid and boring and lacking in good food. Thank you

04/05/2011 - Chris.Shaw00 said :

In my experience (and I am a caller (teacher) for traditional English dances, and French dances too!), many English weddings have an evening dance, often an English 'ceilidh' or barn dance. They encourage families and guests to mix much more than just sitting round tables or having a disco. Try it!

20/11/2008 - cartierbresson said :

What a bizarre and peculair view of English weddings. I am afraid to say, that English weddings vary so wildly, and are always bound by class. The variety of weddings within the socail strata are as venusians to martians. For a pretty good view of English weddings , see the classic film "Four Weddings and a Funeral". Although fifteen years old, the mores still hold true today. You will also notice that one uses "English" - this is because Scottish weddings are more akin to the French model, with an evening dance the norm. Oh - and on the subect of Morning Coats, most of us start off by wearing one's grandafther's inherited Coat....


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