Exchanging wedding vows is a major life event rooted in varying traditions, and a military wedding is no different. In fact, if one or both members of the marrying couple currently serves, or has previously served, in one of the branches of the United States Armed Forces, there may be even more customs to include. That being said, the experience will still be focused on celebrating a couple’s union—there just will be an extra bit of pomp and circumstance thrown in.
To dive into the most common military wedding traditions and customs, we consulted experts Bree Carroll, a military wedding consultant and event planner, and Jan Wise, owner of Annapolis Military Weddings. If you’ll be attending a military wedding in the near future, or are planning one yourself, read on for the necessary background info you need to understand and appreciate the experience.
Meet the Expert
- Bree Carroll is the founder of Military Marriage Day and a military wedding consultant and event planner with her company B. Carroll Events. She holds the title of 2020-2021 AFI Air Force Spouse of the Year.
- Wedding planner Jan Wise is the owner of the event planning firm Annapolis Military Weddings.
Military weddings do not need to take place on a military base. A couple can opt for the venue of their choice, and, per Carroll's insight, military chaplains can officiate over a ceremony outside of a base chapel. That said, if you are interested in a chapel specifically tied to a branch, know that you might have to meet certain requirements. The Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis, Maryland, for example, is a particularly iconic setting for a Navy wedding, but in order to marry there, at least one member of the couple must be a graduate, a staff member, or an active duty military member assigned to the geographic area. Keep in mind that decor options may be more limited and that the chaplain may wish to meet with you ahead of the wedding for pre-marital counseling.
Dress Code and Uniform
It is up to the marrying couple to choose whether or not they will wear their military uniforms to their wedding, and whether or not they’d like attendees to wear their uniforms. If the couple would like the dress code to include uniforms, they should specify that in the invitation suite.
For military branches with multiple types of uniforms, the season of the wedding typically determines the uniform worn. In the Navy, for example, the dress uniform switches from blues to whites around the beginning of summer. That said, Wise notes that if a member of the couple opts to wear their whites, the members of the wedding party should follow suit. Uniforms are also non-negotiable for anyone participating in the Arch of Sabers (more on that in a moment), and those uniforms should be equivalent to what the member of the couple in uniform is wearing.
One thing you won’t see in military wedding fashion: boutonnières. “Medals are the only acceptable embellishment,” says Wise. “If you’ve put something on that’s not part of your uniform, then you are considered to be ‘out’ of uniform—hence no boutonnières.”
Any service member attending the wedding in uniform will need to adhere to the personal appearance codes of their military branch. For men, this will likely include a clean-shaven face—unless, Carroll notes, the member has a shaving waiver—and a haircut that doesn’t exceed a certain length. For women, Carroll adds this may include natural nail colors, certain hair styling requirements, and simple jewelry, such as stud earrings. The U.S. Army has recently updated and expanded its appearance guidelines to be more inclusive, so know that more flexibility in your desired wedding day look may be possible. Those guests not in uniform do not need to adhere to grooming and appearance regulations.
Seating Determined by Status and Rank
At the ceremony, military members of higher rank (captains, admirals, generals, etc.) will be given seats of honor just behind the immediate family members of the marrying couple. When coordinating the wedding day, Wise often also reserves special parking spaces for these distinguished guests.
At the reception, Carroll recommends including “distinguished visitor” tables. These tables will be placed close to the table of the marrying couple and will include the highest-ranking service members in attendance, along with their family or dates. From there, officers of the same rank and their dates or families will be grouped at the same tables.
Each military branch will have its own nuances when it comes to seating according to rank and status. To dive further into details, Wise regularly consults and recommends Service Etiquette.
Flags on Display
At the ceremony of a military wedding, it is tradition to display an American flag as well as the flag(s) of the marrying couple’s unit(s). The flags will often flank either side of the altar, with the American flag on the left side and the unit flag(s) on the right.
Arch of Sabers
One of the most unique and widely known military wedding traditions, this particular custom is referred to by slightly different names in different U.S. military branches. In the Army and Air Force, it is the Arch of Sabers, and in the Navy and Marine Corps, it is the Arch of Swords. Regardless, the tradition originates from British military custom and symbolizes the military’s pledge to honor and protect the newly married couple.
The Arch of Sabers takes place immediately after the wedding ceremony and almost always occurs outside of the ceremony venue if the ceremony is held indoors. (This is particularly true if the ceremony takes place in a house of worship, as weapons are almost never permitted to be unsheathed or drawn in a house of worship, though different branches will also have different rules about whether or not the ceremony can occur indoors.) In this tradition, six to eight service members—these can be military friends or local honor guards—line up across from each other in pairs, then create a tunnel by crossing their unsheathed swords. The married couple exits their ceremony venue through the sword tunnel, thereby being ushered into married life under the symbolic shelter of the military. “As the couple walks through the last pair of sabers, team members will drop their sabers to stop the couple, and the couple must kiss before the sabers are returned to an upright position,” says Carroll. “This makes for a great photo op.”
Patriotic Music Choices
It’s definitely not uncommon to hear a service branch’s signature song at a military wedding. While many couples will choose the anthem as the recessional song during their ceremony exit, that’s not the only option. “If there are several service members of different branches present, a fun way to acknowledge who is in the room is to play a medley of the branch songs and ask members to stand when they hear their song played,” suggests Carroll.
Though it’s not part of any official canon, there’s another familiar tune you might hear, especially at a Navy wedding: “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” (Yes, we have Top Gun to thank for that one!) Per Wise, in a heterosexual couple, the groomsmen will typically encircle the bride and sing the song to her at some point later on in the reception.
Cake-Cutting With a Sword
If a member of the marrying couple is an officer, the couple can (and often does!) opt to use a ceremonial saber to slice into their wedding cake. Typically, the military spouse presents the sword to their partner, and both members of the couple will place their hands on the sword and slice into the confection together.
Though not a military-specific tradition per se, a popular wedding send-off idea for military weddings is to wave American flags as the couple leaves the reception. Wise has also had guests write well-wishes for the newlyweds on paper airplanes and fly them during the send-off. It's a particularly fun idea for a pilot.