How Did the Father of the Bride Get to Be so Important at Weddings?

Updated 02/01/18

Photo by Liz Banfield

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.

Why is it that I sometimes get the feeling that after the bride, the next most important person at a wedding is the father of the bride? I mean, you have to ask him permission to have the wedding at all, you have to memorize his credit card number since he’s going to be paying for all the stuff, he has to give some tearjerker type of toast at the rehearsal dinner and a welcome speech during the reception, he has to look good since he’s going to be walking the bride down the aisle in all those emotional photos, and he probably has to memorize some quirky moves for a zip-a-dee-doo-dah father/daughter dance. That’s like a million times more stuff than any groom has ever been expected to do.

And hey, if you like your dad, you might not give it a second thought that all the other parents are treated as the red-headed stepchildren of wedding traditions (I can say that because I am, in fact, a red-headed stepchild). And if you like your dad, that’s awesome, but we probably aren’t friends. I mean, I like my dad—I do!—but it’s not like it isn’t complicated. And it was my fate as a red-headed stepchild with complicated feelings about her father to grow up and write articles about how the importance of the father of the bride is in direct proportion to what a huge burden the bride is, so that’s how we got here.

The reason dad is put on the proverbial pedestal is because back in the day, his daughter’s wedding was a big transaction for him. In patrilineal cultures, wealth was passed down to the sons, so “parents worried about finding wealthy husbands for their female offspring.” Can you even imagine what you would do with an unmarried 25-year-old worthless woman hanging around your household? What a catastrophe!

Wedding historian Susan Waggoner writes, “To offset the financial liability of taking on a wife, dowries were attached to daughters, and from this custom came the tradition of the bride’s family paying for the wedding.” Basically dad foots the bill because women are a financial liability, so paying for the wedding is sort of the equivalent of what a public figure gives after being caught acting badly: an insincere apology. Obviously this was pre-Beyoncé and “you go girl” and all that. However, “the custom has remained, along with the father of the bride’s other big moment, walking his daughter down the aisle and symbolically giving her away to the waiting groom.”

On a lighter note, for many women, these traditions offer cool ways to connect with their dads and honor the role their dads have played in their lives. Caitlin of Chicago says that not only did her dad help pay for the wedding, walk her down the aisle, and give a toast, but he was also really involved with the planning since she was out of the state. Having her dad be such a big part of the wedding was really positive for her: “I am so grateful for everything he has done for me, and I wanted our relationship to be celebrated as I moved into this new chapter of my life.”

Sara of Florida has also been pleasantly surprised that the father of the bride wedding traditions have created an opening for her dad to be more involved in the planning: “My dad is far more involved in the wedding than I thought he would want to be. He's paying, is penning a speech, and wants to walk me down the aisle. More surprisingly, he's also been paying attention to the details and weighing in when my mom and I ask his opinion.” It’s pretty great to connect with your dad through something that is so important to you.

Holly of Ohio recalls that her dad’s role in their wedding was pretty traditional—like, really traditional: “When my husband asked my dad for permission to marry me, my dad lectured him about how marriage is more like a business contract than anything else. It's not about the lovey-dovey feelings but understanding the commitment a marriage vow means.” Luckily, this lecture aligned with the couple’s view on marriage, and six years later the marriage business is definitely in the black.

Meanwhile, Pleasance of Washington, D.C. recalls her dad playing a less traditional role, but one that was perfect for their relationship: “We smoked a cigarette and had a beer together before I walked down the aisle. It was one of the best, most memorable moments of my life. I love my dad.” Ali of Ohio says that sticking to tradition worked for her and her family, but she can understand why it isn’t for everyone: “I have a great relationship with my parents so those roles felt right. If our relationship were different, I probably would have made different decisions.”

Folks who have more challenging familial relationships are forced to get creative. Corina of Ohio says, “Since I do not have a relationship with my father, I asked my two grandfathers to walk me down the aisle.” Some may even find that the wedding itself brings up painful family dynamics. Cindy of Missouri says, “My parents told me they wouldn't attend my wedding so long as I was marrying a woman, so they were not included in our plans.“

And even for those who have great, healthy or just plain fine relationships with their dads, planning a wedding by the book might not feel right. Jackie of Texas says her husband never asked permission from her father to marry her, and later her dad said, “If he would have asked, I would have told him to go and ask you! You're an independent woman!" Jackie laughs, “It's precisely what I expected from him and why I love him so much.” Personally, my husband and I have a lot of parents due to divorce on both sides, and it was important that the equality we proclaimed in our marriage vows was extended to our families. We gave them all equal opportunities to speak, dance, and, most important, pay! For me, it just would not have felt right to elevate my dad above the army of people who helped raise us. Plus, I’m an independent woman.

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