Dear Letitia

By staff February 1, 2003

When she graduated from Miss Porter's School and then Vassar, Letitia Baldrige confounded many in her social circle by zooming off to Europe for graduate study and then building a career that included serving as social secretary for the White House and chief of staff for Jacqueline Kennedy. A contributing editor to Town & Country magazine, she has written 18 books on manners and entertaining. Baldrige comes to Sarasota to speak at the Junior League's Legacy Luncheon, Monday, Feb. 24, at Michael's On East Ballroom. (Tickets are $75; call Debra Benedict, 485-8142.) For this special issue on love and weddings, Marsha Fottler asked for some etiquette advice.

Q. What are the responsibilities of a wedding guest?

A. Respond quickly to the invitation. Send your wedding gift to the home of the bride's parents or to the bride's home. Do not bring a gift or a card with money to the reception. If you send a check inside a card, be sure to add a personal handwritten note with your wishes for the couple. Never, never bring a date or an extra person to the reception unless you have been specifically invited to do so.

Q. Is it acceptable to wear black to a wedding?

A. It never used to be. In our culture black is the symbolic color of mourning, and to wear black to a wedding meant that you were publicly registering displeasure at the choice of the bride or groom. Today, wearing black is considered appropriate, although for a daytime wedding I like to see a guest add some colorful accessories such as a coral or turquoise necklace or scarf. But I cringe at the sight of bridesmaids coming up the aisle dressed in black. That is a dreadful look.

Q. What's about children in the wedding party?

A. Usually children over the age of four can be depended upon to carry out their duties as ring bearer or flower girl. But remember, children are darling and will attract attention away from the bride. At the reception, the tiny members of the wedding party should be allowed to mingle and enjoy the sights for about 30 minutes. Then a designated person should whisk them away. Children are bored by then, anyway. Q. Are bridal registries getting out of control?

A. You bet they are. Brides should register at two places, one where guests can purchase practical everyday kinds of items and another more upscale gift store where family members and close friends can purchase luxury objects. This business of registering at four and five places appears greedy. And it's in very bad taste to ask guests to contribute to things such as travel, a car or the building of a home. That's just nonsense.

Q. Any advice on thank-you notes for wedding gifts?

A. In decades past, many brides used to take their stationery on the honeymoon and scribble notes while the pair traveled. Most brides got them into the mail within a month of the ceremony. Today, we're more relaxed, and I've known couples who divide up the list and each write some of the notes. That's a nice trend, especially when you're sending notes to people known only to the bride or the groom. Avoid e-mail thank-you notes. I'd say couples should have their notes mailed within two months of the wedding.

Q. What about the toast to the happy couple at the reception? I've heard some that make people blush.

A. A toast can be a disaster all right, especially after people have had too much to drink. I advise having the toast early in the proceedings. If the best man is giving it, he should start weeks ahead asking members of the wedding party for ideas and remembrances about the couple. He should only say things that pertain to good wishes for the couple's great happiness and he should express everyone's delight that these wonderful people found one another. Off-color stories or bringing up potentially embarrassing incidents should not even be considered.

Q. Should a receiving line be a part of a reception?

A. Definitely. Ideally, the bride, groom and wedding party should exit the church and go to the reception, arriving in advance of the guests. They form a receiving line and greet the guests. This doesn't always happen because of extended picture taking following the ceremony. But I think it's rude to have guests milling about for an hour or more at the reception waiting for the stars of the show. Guests appreciate a receiving line. People want to shake the hands or kiss the cheeks of the couple. It makes the reception so much more personal.

Q. What are some unfortunate wedding trends you've observed lately?

A. Wedding dresses that are too revealing. This trend is being driven by Hollywood celebrities and television shows that feature brides wearing smashing white cocktail dresses that are supposed to be wedding attire. Even if you have a great body to show off, a wedding ceremony isn't the best place to do it. Also, for a second- or third-time bride to opt for a huge wedding and a white gown and veil is ridiculous, and yet I see it being done. Hollywood again.

Another thing that bothers me is the number of video cameras at some weddings. Guests should leave theirs at home. The wedding couple should hire one videographer, who should stay on the fringe of events and use a zoom lens. The professional videographer should be given a list of people to capture on tape and intrusiveness should be minimal.

Q. Any good trends you've observed lately?

A. Yes, quite a few. Black-and -white photography has returned, which is practical since it's more durable over time. And I very much like those throwaway cameras that are given to people at the rehearsal dinner. Some really good photos from those cameras make it into the couple's album.

Instead of the formal occasion that it used to be, today the rehearsal dinner is a relaxed theme event such as a picnic, a barbecue, a beach party. I love the idea. Officially, the groom's parents still pay. But many couples today are older and established in a profession, and I notice they shoulder some or most of the wedding and wedding-related costs.

One of the nicest trends I've observed is that many couples stop on their way from the church to the reception at a retirement center and pay a brief visit to an elderly relative who couldn't come to the service. You cannot imagine how such a visit lights up that person's life and becomes the talk of the whole facility for months.

Q. Any final insights about weddings?

A. At its core, a wedding is about two people expressing vows to one another. When a wedding strays too far from that essence, it loses meaning. As for tasteful versus tacky weddings, some of the most lavish and lovely weddings I've attended have ended in terrible divorce. And some of the most dreadful weddings I've seen have resulted in relationships that have endured in strength and love. So, in the long run does the taste level of the wedding matter or indicate something about the commitment of the couple? Probably not.

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