The Origins of the Garter Toss Are Pretty Icky, TBH

Liz Susong weighs in on garters and bouquets: to toss or not to toss?

Updated 06/01/17

Courtesy of Instagram/biancakatephotography

In Catalyst Wedding Co. editor Liz Susong's weekly column devoted to the feminist bride, she dives headfirst into the crazy history behind common wedding traditions we may take for granted. Liz investigates here.

Sometimes, ignorance is bliss. I’d say that’s definitely the case when it comes to the origins of the garter toss. But let’s be honest, I didn’t need to read about how medieval guests used to try to rip bits of a bride’s clothes off for luck—or how they would crowd around the couple’s bedroom egging them on and tearing at their clothes after the wedding—to know that the garter toss just wasn’t for me.

There’s something that’s at a minimum eye roll-worthy, and at its worst just icky, about wedding traditions that include a dude hunkering down in front of his seated bride and clumsily pushing aside layers of tulle as he clambers up her freshly shaven leg to tug away at her undergarments, which he then victoriously flings over his head to a gaggle of scrambling single bros holding a beer in one hand as two sets of Catholic grandparents look on. Or maybe that’s just my family?

So, where exactly did this tradition come from? In Wedding Customs Then and Now, published in 1919, Carl Holliday paints the following picture of medieval England: “The brides-maids start with the weary bride to the wedding chamber when suddenly the cry arises, ‘Get her garter!’...If the woman has been thoughtful, she has fastened it loosely to the bottom of her dress so that it drags in plain view of the scrambling ruffians; if she has not been a wise virgin, she may find her clothes in rags after the struggle.” For a guest, having a tatter of the bride’s dress was considered good luck.

Cool, right? Can you imagine getting all dolled up, only to be bum-rushed upon uttering “I do”? Crowds of guests became so bawdy that they’d often follow the couple to their marital bed, ripping at their clothes as a form of “encouragement.” And so, the bride and groom started tossing the bouquet and the garters that held up the bride’s stockings as a way to appease the crowd.

Fast forward about seven centuries. I took the question of “to toss or not to toss” to the streets, and the stories came pouring out. Many people approach these traditions with a sense of playful light-heartedness. Have you ever been to a fairly traditional, modest wedding, where you’re all wearing your Easter best, and all of a sudden the groom is out there doing a sensual little dance in front of the crowd, and surprisingly in your head, you’re like “he can get it”? Jessica of Texas sums it up, “We all just do it in fun.”

There are plenty of ways to get creative with these traditions if you want to incorporate them into your wedding. Alison of Ohio says, “My husband turned the garter into a magic trick and had one of those never-ending ribbons magicians use, which made it way less awkward.” Shainna of West Virginia shares that her dad surprised her mom by also wearing a garter for her to toss. Chloe Jackman, a photographer in San Francisco, explains, “There are so many things that we say and do in our everyday lives that are rooted in history, and sometimes that history is unsavory.

The garter comes from a time when women were property and controlled, but now it's a fun part of a wedding. We did it because we wanted to, because it can be hilarious, and I know I am not property—that's for damn sure!”

But now for the tales of the unfortunate female souls who actually caught the bouquet...

Dana of Arizona shares, “I caught the bouquet at a wedding, and they had the guy who caught the garter put it on my leg—extra good luck for every inch above the knee. It was so awkward and uncomfortable!”

But it’s not all cringing and fake laughing. Amber of New York says, “At a friend's wedding, I caught the bouquet and met my husband two months later. The bouquet was a few fake flowers with a $15 Starbucks card attached.” When asked if it was coincidence or causation that she met her husband shortly thereafter, she simply answered, “magic.” The only magical part of this story for me is that $15 Starbucks gift card. Now that’s a woman who knows what her single friends really want: free lattes.

Speaking of single friends, they may very well pose the most convincing argument against including the garter and bouquet toss at your wedding.

Stephanie of Virginia says, “I didn't include these traditions because, for 10+ years I was the single friend (sometimes the only female single friend) at the wedding, expected to catch the bouquet, and I thought it was humiliating. So, I wasn’t going to put my girlfriends through that when it was my turn to be the bride.”

Val of New York agrees: “Being forced up on stage as a single person, as if catching the bouquet should be important to me, made me feel uncomfortable. I felt like the girls in Sex and the City when the bouquet landed at their feet and none of them tried to catch it.”

Not only can the bouquet and garter toss be uncomfortable for folks who are happily single, as well as guests in long-term relationships who are unmarried, these traditions can be particularly distressing for guests whose sexual and gender identities fall outside the “Barbie & Ken” norm. Cindy Savage, a queer wedding planner from St. Louis, sums it up: “I hate that these traditions divide the crowd into binary gender categories, that they pressure people to be the unwilling center of attention, and that if both the garter and bouquet are done, the result is a new heterosexual pair.”

Wherever you stand on ye olde garter and bouquet toss, as a culture it seems like we may be phasing them out. It’s like we all sort of looked at each other and were just like, “This is over, right?”

Dawn Mauberret, a wedding planner in New York, says “In the 6+ years I've done weddings, I have not seen the garter toss one time. And as for tossing bouquets, I've only seen that once.” Cindy Savage agrees, “As a planner in 70+ weddings, I've had three couples do it.” Sarah Campbell, a planner based in Washington, D.C., says, “It's just not something that people are incorporating anymore. I have even had some traditional weddings, or couples that are trying to incorporate some traditional aspects to please their parents, and this is never one of the traditional aspects that they include.”

The good news is that the less time you spend breaking up your reception for traditions like the garter and bouquet toss, the more unstructured time you have to allow things to unfold organically. Emelie Samuelson, a writer in Connecticut who is currently planning her wedding, sums up my feelings, exactly: “Just let me dance, man!”

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