Academic journal article Cultural Analysis

The Role of Costuming in Two Pre-Wedding Rituals for Women in Northern Scotland

Academic journal article Cultural Analysis

The Role of Costuming in Two Pre-Wedding Rituals for Women in Northern Scotland

Article excerpt

Setting the scene

This paper explores the role played by costume in two pre-wedding rituals practiced by women in Northern Scotland, the blackening and hen party, and how that role has changed since the 1940s. Costuming is just one of many significant elements, such as organisation and planning, journeying, games, eating and drinking, and gifting, in the two events that I explored as part of my doctoral research. While any of these would have been equally worthwhile, I focus on costuming, because, of all the elements examined, I believe that this has seen the greatest change in function, particularly in relation to the hen party. Although, the function of costuming has been discussed for life cycle rites of passage, such as the wedding (Charsley 1991; Montemurro 2006; Otnes and Pleck 2003), the role of subverted costuming at other rites of passage is under researched. The blackening ritual itself has largely been ignored by scholars until now, and I introduce the idea of the blackening materials as a type of costuming. In addition, I argue that undress, a feature of both the hen party and blackening, is also a form of costuming.

Before discussing the purpose of costuming in these two pre-wedding rituals, I offer a short description of both. The blackening takes place in the weeks running up to the wedding and is planned secretly by those closest to the bride and groom. Great care is taken, not to alert them to the fact it is happening. The couple knows it will happen but they do not know exactly when. This adds to their anxiety. They might be blackened together or separately. If blackened alone, only her close female friends and relatives generally blacken the bride. If together, the company is mixed. The bride/couple is generally "kidnapped," either from work or home, and often an elaborate scheme has been devised to tempt them out of their home, or to dupe them into believing they are doing something else. There is usually an element of chase as they are expected to try to escape. However, this is just part of the game; they are not expected to succeed. Once caught, they are usually taken to a public space and, to ensure they do not escape, often tied to an improvised pillory, or to each other. They may be given special clothes to wear or may be encouraged to change into old clothes. The blackening proper then begins as the participants begin to pour, throw or squirt litres of the vilest concoctions on top of them, including something sticky such as treacle, and something which sticks, such as feathers. The couple is generally left on display for a while so that passers-by can laugh at their misfortune. The couple then go home, have a shower, and then spend the rest of the evening relaxing and reliving the event with their friends.

The hen party also takes place in the weeks leading up to the wedding. While the bride generally has an input to where and when it will be, as well as who will be attending, there are always a few surprises thrown in that she does not know about, generally designed to embarrass her. The hen party can take place on an evening in a local city, a whole weekend, perhaps in another city in the UK, or a long weekend in a foreign resort. Each is unique and incredible creativity can be shown by some of the bridesmaids who plan the event. In its simplest form it will last one evening and will involve dressing up the bride, sharing a meal, drinking to excess, challenging the bride to lewd dares (generally with strangers), parading the bride to and between venues (pubs and clubs) and attracting attention by making a noise. If the hen party takes place over a longer period it will typically involve all the above but also several daytime activities, such as dance classes, making cocktails or having spa treatments.

The blackening has its roots in an earlier "feet washing" ceremony (1) (Young 2016a, 2016b), which, although once widespread across Scotland, is now generally found only in rural areas in Northern Scotland. …

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