When my mother told me that my uncle Bert was getting married and that I was to be a bridesmaid, I was ecstatic. I was finally going to get the totally impractical fancy dress and special silver shoes that I could re-wear and show off with at parties. Weddings were primarily family affairs, family made up most of the guests and for younger relatives, they often brought the magical opportunity to be a bridesmaid. Fifties wedding dresses were romantic with their tiny waists and full skirts. Putting on their wedding dress was probably the closest that most women would come to those impossibly elegant spreads in Vogue and being a bridesmaid was the closest I could get to that princess-like magic.
Buying a wedding dress meant bus journeys to the nearest town with suitable shops. Wedding dresses had their own department in the more expensive stores like Kendal Milne in Manchester. My cousin Margaret had a holiday job in the Bridal department there. It was poorly paid work and her only hope of earning more was commission on any sales she made. On one particular afternoon, a mother and daughter arrived for a bridal dress ‘trying on’ session. As the store stocked only the more expensive gowns, veils and accessories Margaret excitedly began a mental calculation of her next wage packet, only to have her hopes crushed. Access to the lovely gowns was only possible by unlocking the tall glass-fronted display wardrobes and when she requested the key from her supervisor she was told ‘That will be all thank you, Miss Coombes.’ The supervisor no doubt enjoyed a very pleasant addition to her own wages that week.
A wedding in my family was always seen as an occasion to be ‘well-turned out’, but wasn’t at all an opportunity for every guest to buy an entirely new outfit. There was going to be the expense of a present for the couple and that was quite enough to think about. Current wardrobes would therefore be carefully examined to ensure that anything suitably serviceable could be reused or repurposed. There was no question of the groomsmen wearing morning dress suits with matched waistcoats, cummerbunds, ties and top hats. My Uncle Bert, the groom, invested in a new suit, shirt and tie and new shoes but that was the limit. He could wear those to other celebrations afterwards and ultimately they would become the clothes he wore to school. As a headteacher, he was expected to dress professionally.
As my older cousins moved into their later teenage years the process of acquiring a ‘bottom drawer’ began; this was a notion rather than a location. It was a collection of household items to help furnish a future bride’s home. My mother and other ladies of her generation set their eagle eyes to work, searching out bargains for these unmarried girls. My cousins received all sorts of household items, often as birthday or Christmas gifts, with the whispered explanation of ‘It’s for your bottom drawer’.
I talked about little else in the lead up to my uncle’s wedding day and somehow, finally, it did arrive. In the morning I had to have my hair pin-curled at home by my mother. This was a painful process whereby strands of hair were selected, dampened, twisted like a Catherine wheel and then flat pinned to the head with hair grips driven firmly in place. The pins would then be left in place for as long as possible and only combed through at the last minute.
Getting ready for the ceremony was definitely the worst part of the day. Breakfast might have appeared, but parents and other family members seemed somehow to have forgotten that the regular appearance of food was still a necessity. We still had to travel to the bride’s house so I was fobbed off with tales of ‘There’ll be plenty to eat later on’ and constantly reminded not to get in the way as adults barged to and fro fretting about arrangements and their own preparations. It was even worse after I was finally changed into my wedding finery ‘Just sit down and stop running about – you’ll get your socks filthy!’ was all I heard - girls always had new white knickers and socks for a wedding, even if they weren’t a bridesmaid.
My headdress of yellow and white fabric flowers in a circlet had been far too firmly clipped in place but my curls were constantly adjusted by whichever adult was at hand using whatever implements they could find, which was both painful and annoying. The treatment I tried to avoid at all costs was being grabbed by an older relative who would spit on their hanky and fiercely rub away some imaginary mark on my face.
The next logistical issue was moving people to the ceremony. Aunty Win’s wedding car was owned by a family member, cleaned, suitably decorated and driven by them for the day. The back seat was covered with a white sheet which I tried hard not to crumple as I climbed into the car. Broad white ribbons had been attached from the side windows to the centre of the bonnet. I travelled with the bride from the tiny terraced house and I felt really important when neighbours came out to smile at us and wave.
There were only two places where a couple could get married; it was either a church wedding or a registry office wedding. Laws allowing beautiful and expensive venues to open their doors for both the service and the celebration had not even been imagined. Auntie Win and Uncle Bert’s service was a full nuptial mass which seemed to go on for an extremely long time, partly because the service was in Latin but also because, as a non-churchgoer, I had no idea what was going on. To add to my difficulty, as a bridesmaid, I was sitting at the front and this meant I had nobody to copy when it was time to stand up, sit down or kneel which we seemed to do a considerable number of times. My headdress of fabric flowers didn't fall off when I moved but then the hair clips holding it in place seemed to have been driven deep into my skull. The church wasn't particularly cold but the pews were bare wood and every sound echoed. The stiffened skirt of my dress made a rustling noise every time I moved and I felt as if I were repeatedly whispering to the entire congregation.
Then came the time when the formal photographs were taken. Nobody in my family owned a camera. Occasionally my father was able to borrow one from work and that is why we have at least some family photos. I was in terrible trouble with the photographer because I didn’t want to show my teeth when I smiled. I had recently been losing my baby teeth and somebody had told me that the mixture of sizes when I smiled looked odd. My mother was disappointed because she hoped there would be some nice pictures of me, but she didn’t order any when the proofs were delivered. I can’t recall seeing an album of any kind from the day. I remember looking through my Auntie Fran’s wedding album, though. It had a white plastic cover embossed with bells and rings. Inside were thick card backed pictures interleaved with what looked like sheets of greaseproof paper.
After the photographs came the reception in the church hall which was close by, a relief to my parents who were desperate for a cigarette. Anyone who had been invited to the wedding was invited to the reception. It was all very simple. Unusually we were provided with a sit-down meal. Most other events like this were buffets which was perfect as far as we children were concerned. The day had gone beyond the point of adults making a fuss about our appearances. This meant we were free to perch wherever was comfortable, preferably out of sight. Adults were relaxed, enjoying a drink and a cigarette and therefore paid no attention to what was going on with our paper plates or what we did with them. It was possible, for instance, to take a slice of pork pie, eat the pastry, the only edible bit, and leave the vile meaty part. It was perfectly possible to do this several times, dump each plate under one of the trestle tables and go and get another. Nobody noticed. The same was true of the desserts.
Jellies were served in small wax-covered cardboard bowls with a pointed petal-shaped edge. Cream was not usually on offer as a topping but glass jugs filled with delicious evaporated milk were plentiful. It was just a question of regularly topping up the same bowl with evaporated milk as if that were the first helping. Wedding cake was often dry with too few glace cherries so the best plan was just to eat the icing – especially the crunchy bits shaped like the tops of those iced-gem biscuits.
As the day wore on we children found ourselves surrounded by a crowd of increasingly cheery aunts, uncles and grandparents. There was no such thing as a cash bar and there was plenty of something for everyone to drink. As people started to leave they would press half-crowns or two-shilling pieces into small hands and whisper ‘put it in your money box’. It was perfectly possible to come home from a wedding with well over a pound! Happy days! Like other Weddings, this one ended as everyone waved the bride and groom away on their honeymoon and threw the last bits of confetti. But there was no evening event. Most of the adults would have been in no fit state to cope with one anyway.