A year ago Meghan and Harry charmed the nation with their own, not entirely traditional, special day.
Guests were addressed – at length – by the African-American bishop, Michael Curry. A gospel choir performed the soul classic Stand By Me.
And yet there was still a horse-drawn carriage, a diamond tiara and veil, Schubert and the Philharmonic.
It was, by general agreement, a beautiful wedding which honoured traditions in the families and backgrounds of both bride and groom.
Of course a wedding on that scale isn’t typical, but it did get people talking. While couples are increasingly choosing imaginative ways to celebrate, some argue the industry is still behaving as if everyone tying the knot is white.
When Assumpta Vitcu got engaged, a friend bought her a pile of wedding magazines. But the sight of them blunted her excitement.
“It was very disheartening not to see myself reflected in the pages,” says Nigerian-British Assumpta.
She handed them to her fiancé Horia, who is Romanian. But when he looked the only black face he could find was the tiny figure of a marriage officiant in a Caribbean wedding.
It got worse. When she went to a wedding show, where hundreds of firms market their wares and services, she felt almost invisible.
She stood at one stand while the jeweller attended a previous customer.
“He didn’t acknowledge me once,” she says. “Then two Caucasian women walked over and he immediately said ‘please give me a moment and I’ll be right with you.'”
She walked away infuriated. Perhaps, she says, he assumed that she had limited financial means.
She had a similar experience at a bridal boutique in London’s financial district of Canary Wharf, where she says the shop assistants automatically showed her the cheapest, entry-level options.
Yet in the end, Assumpta had a bespoke designer dress with a huge train as well as two more dresses to wear at the Nigerian celebration she held alongside her “traditional” wedding. Horia dressed in bespoke suit and handmade shoes, as well as in Nigerian traditional dress.
There are strong ethical reasons why the bridal industry should reflect a greater diversity in the pages of magazines, and treat customers with equal respect. But there are sound financial reasons too.
The typical UK wedding now costs around £30,000 and it’s a vast industry of photographers, flowers, honeymoons, music, make-up, stationery, hair, clothes, catering and cake decorating. If firms are failing to appeal to a segment of their customers, they’re missing out on business.
Zoe Burke, an editor at the online wedding site Confetti.co.uk, says it is only gradually dawning on the industry that they could be doing better.
“There’s been a long overdue awakening,” she says. “For a long time there’s been a growing consciousness that the industry as a whole hasn’t been reflective of the society that we live in.”
Confetti is trying to do its bit. Two out of three editions of its magazine have featured Asian and mixed-race cover models.
“I think the wedding of Harry and Meghan made the industry pay more attention to the fact that there is a huge variety of couples out there and that they need to feel represented.”
Nova Reid says she also noticed the “bizarre silence” around black brides when she began planning her wedding seven years ago.
It didn’t stop at magazines, it was show brochures, business portfolios and catwalk shows. At wedding shows, goody-bags are handed out containing tanning products designed for white brides. Make-up demonstrations didn’t cater for black skin.
Avoiding a car crash
“It was as if these shows were not expecting black women to be coming through the door, not expecting us to be getting married,” says Nova.
In the end Nova launched her own bridal brand, Nu Bride, which earlier this year hosted the UK’s first wedding show specifically celebrating diversity.
The show aimed to cater for couples that wanted to fuse different traditions, races, religions and cultures. There were workshops on menus, in case guests were encountering food that was new to them, discussion of what symbols and colours might mean to different people, and how to honour different cultures “without looking like a car crash”.
Nova says the industry would do well to pay closer attention to this market since African, Caribbean and Asian families tend to celebrate for several days, with more guests and more lavish events, spending around twice the general average.
She says mixed couples in particular want to reflect their backgrounds in their weddings, because often they’ve faced extra hurdles; a wedding that celebrates both cultures can help to legitimise the union.
“For some people getting married is about overcoming discrimination, so it is about being seen. And there is something about not being catered to that can make you feel you are valued less as a human being.”
Two years ago Sophia married Ayoola Olatunde, a British Nigerian, and since her Pakistani family didn’t approve, many, including her parents and brother, chose not to attend. But she was still determined to reflect all the aspects of their joint heritage, including their Britishness.
While the industry catering to traditional South Asian weddings is huge and well-established, she found firms weren’t prepared to provide things that veered from very traditional styles. She says although most of her friends seem to be in inter-racial partnerships, Asian wedding firms appear to be even more resistant to change than the mainstream wedding industry.
Sophia couldn’t find caterers that would fuse Asian and African food traditions. “They said there would have to be two caterers, two kitchens.”
So in the end they ate chicken in pastry with a dash of turmeric. “It was delicious,” she says. “But very British.”
They managed to create a sense of mingled cultures with her in Punjabi dress and the groom in a green tailored jacket. Her bridesmaids wore saris. His family was in Nigerian dress.
Since she is Muslim and her husband a Christian they asked a humanist celebrant to conduct a non-denominational service and the DJ provided a particularly successful blend of pop, Punjabi music and Afrobeat.
But for the most part, she says, it felt like she was planning two parallel celebrations.
“I wanted a balance of cultures, but in the end I had to find separate ways. I would love for someone to offer the fusion.”
Main image copyright: PA
Written by: Victoria Park & Lucy Hooker
First published 19.05.19:
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