Right now in our offices, we’re hearing from a lot of people who are in the very early stages of planning a wedding for next year. Where the hell do we start? is a common question these days. When you have nothing besides, “We want to get married,” (which is, I should point out, the most important thing) all of the options in front of you can feel incredibly overwhelming. Are we rustic-barn-in-the-country wedding people? Sleek-urban-loft wedding people? Something in between? What the hell is Pinterest? If we don’t have a vision for our wedding, how do we find one? People keep asking us what our colors are going to be? How do I make that stop?
The good news is lots of what the WIC tells you is important about your wedding is… total nonsense. Your wedding doesn’t need a “theme” or even a “color scheme.” In fact, deciding those things first is often starting at the wrong end of things. So, let’s walk through where to get started, and how to let the “style” of your wedding reveal itself to you in a way that doesn’t involve a fifteen-point questionnaire. (Also, if you’ve pictured purple bridesmaid dresses and tulip bouquets forever, go for it! That’s not wrong either.)
I constantly reassure my clients that the first decisions they make regarding their wedding are by nature the hardest—the further you go the easier things get, and in fact, towards the end you’ll notice things start to just fall into place. The WIC generally wants you to start with the pretty and work backwards—can’t afford peony bouquets on every guest’s plate? Cut your guest list! Um… no thanks. One of my driving mantras in both life and business is, “People are always the most important thing,” and I think this is especially true in weddings. Now, this may mean you want all of your people there, and end up inviting three hundred. Or this may mean that you really just want your very nearest and dearest and invite fifteen. Both are perfectly legitimate ways of making people the most important thing—you’re surrounding yourself with the people who you need there with you on the day you get married. Which is why I encourage people to start with:
planning A Wedding Part I: THE GUEST LIST
A huge amount of your other decisions, and costs, will be based on how many people will be attending your wedding. Book a venue with a fire code capacity of 95 and then realize you have 215 on your guest list? You may find yourself out a deposit, or in tears as you start crossing your cousins off the list. A key thing to remember: not everyone you invite is going to attend. My general rules about attendance are:
- Under 50 invited: 90%+ attendance
- 75–100 invited: 75–90% attendance
- 100+ invited: 70–80% attendance
- 150+ invited: 65–75% attendance
People often don’t believe me when I tell them only seventy percent of their invited guests will show up, but through over a hundred weddings I’ve done professionally I’ve seen these numbers exceeded perhaps fewer than five times. We’ve all missed weddings we’ve deeply wanted to go to for various reasons—unavoidable work conflicts, already paid for vacations, family obligations, illness, or simply a lack of resources. The reason attendance goes down as your invites go up is that if you’re inviting fewer than fifty people we can assume they’re all fairly close friends and family—when you get into the two hundred range you’ve probably moved from the “closest friends” to “friends” category.
That said, guessing attendance is very much not a science, so please use these numbers as general guidelines, not law. I have seen over ninety percent attendance rates on very-large-guest-lists once or twice, so I generally encourage people to book a venue that will hold most of their guests if it comes down to it. (A note from editor Maddie: We had a nearly ninety percent attendance rate with about 225 guests, because we have big families and they are mostly local. So, also? Know your audience. A note from editor Meg: We had about a sixty-five percent attendance rate with about 165 invited. See: the worst of the recession and not local. I found it depressing. So there you go.)
Now. Why is all of this important?
PLANNING A WEDDING PART II: YOUR VENUE
It’s likely that your venue will ultimately have the biggest influence on the rest of your wedding. A hotel ballroom with red and teal carpet and drapes is probably going to call for different decor than a Craftsman house in the woods. In the same vein, a restaurant in Malibu will probably call for a different feeling wedding than a lodge in Tahoe. Once you have your guest list, start your venue search. There are two main ways to do this:
- NARROW DOWN BY LOCATION: (e.g., must be within the city limits of where you live)
- NARROW DOWN BY TYPE OF VENUE: (e.g., you want somewhere that the majority of your guests can stay onsite, or you can host multiple events over a weekend, but it must be within three hours of where you live)
Let the internet bet your friend here. There are the obvious venue locators—Here Comes the Guide and the APW Venue Directory are my personal favorites—but Google (or your search engine of choice) is also in your corner. Try phrases like “Northern California summer camp wedding” or “Los Angeles industrial loft wedding” and key in on wedding photographers’ blog posts—many are optimized to come up specifically in searches like this, and may feature wedding venues that are otherwise difficult to find because they have very little web presence. Save yourself some time and find out as much as you can about a venue before you go visit—you should hopefully be able to narrow things down based on price, noise restrictions, food and beverage restrictions (Do they let you bring your own booze? Do they have a mandatory caterer? Can you afford those restrictions/do you care?), availability, and other factors so that you only need to visit three or so venues in person.
It’s also important to point out you don’t have to fall in love with your wedding venue. You’re not moving in there; you’re having your wedding there. So while it should be somewhere you like, and can picture getting married in, it’s okay if you think the bathroom tile is hideous, or the landscaping isn’t your absolute favorite style ever. Look at the big picture: can it fit your guests, what are their catering restrictions, will they allow the music you want, do the aesthetic qualities you like outweigh the ones you don’t? If your pro-column exceeds your con-column, it’s probably a good venue for you. (That said, if you walk into a space and immediately know that’s it’s right, your decision is even easier!)
AND NOW, THE OTHER STUFF
Okay! You have your guest list, and your venue—where do you go from here? You’ve never in your life imagined wedding colors, you don’t have a Pinterest account, and the thought of centerpieces makes your head hurt. First, take a deep breath. You don’t have to have wedding colors. In fact, I often tell clients that the truth is? Two distinct wedding colors (i.e., chocolate brown and baby blue! purple and green! blush and bashful!) can look a little dated these days. Even more than that—the truth is that the only person at your wedding who’s going to notice that your bridesmaid’s shoes, napkins, envelope liners, and aisle arrangements perfectly pantone match each other is the one guest at your wedding who is actively in the middle of wedding planning.
Liz just talked about this yesterday, and it’s worth quoting her: “Nary a single guest is coming to your wedding with the expectation of being dazzled by a successive unfolding of your relationship as told in party form.” The things that the vast, vast majority of weddings guests notice are:
- A happy couple, in love, and getting married.
- That they are fed, that they are fed enough food, and that they are fed at a reasonable time. (Basically before they get hangry. There is no one in the world grumpier than a hungry wedding guest.)
- That there is enough alcohol, and the music playlist is something they can dance to, whether that be iPod, DJ, or live band.
- They may also notice a generally lovely space, but I often joke that if you polled wedding guests three days after any wedding and asked them to describe the centerpieces, ninety percent of them would answer you with, “… They were pretty? And had flowers in them?” (Exception: if you have particularly stunning centerpieces, your aesthetically driven guests will probably notice. I have been known to call friends years after their weddings to get the name of their florists because their centerpieces were so incredible. These instances are very rare though. Most of the time even I couldn’t describe a centerpiece from a wedding a few weeks later, and I likely helped set them up and had one sitting in my house for a week after the wedding.) (Meg’s note: I remember the centerpieces that caught on fire, all at about the same time, when the candles melted. Memorable!)
All that said, things at weddings do need color (dresses, ties, flowers, linens, etc.) so you’re going to have to decide on some. Look around your house, and at your wardrobe, and see what colors you’re generally attracted to. Or think about the weddings you’ve been to that you actually remember and loved the colors of, and take note of what they were. Or look at photos of previous weddings at your venue and figure out which ones look the best to you. The colors of your wedding don’t have to represent you as a couple (although, if they somehow do? Rad). They’re totally allowed to just be colors that you like. They’re also totally allowed to just be “colorful” or “all white” or “shades of neutrals” or anything else you want. There are no rules, and be suspicious of anyone who tells you there are. Have no strong feelings about flowers? Look through some florist galleries and pick out some pictures that you think look pretty. Pick out a color that you think complements your bridesmaids, or that matches your bedding. What colors make you happy? Pick those. And then don’t worry if things that don’t normally “go” in the real world (like clothing and table linens) don’t end up matching (because yes, your bridesmaid dresses can totally clash with your tablecloths and no one will care).
And remember: the theme of your wedding can totally be “a wedding” (or better yet, marriage). It can also totally be “Harry Potter” or “Glam Urban Winter” or “Victorian Sleeping Beauty.” It’s definitely possible to start off with a specific vision that has everything to do with the pretty and go from there. Have a dress you love, or a centerpiece idea, or a specific type of food you absolutely can’t do without? Great, build your wedding out from there. Just realize that it may give you limits. (A ball gown with a cathedral length train might not look exactly right on a beach…which may be a problem when the only venue that fits your budget and fits your whole guest list is on the beach. Or maybe you don’t give a f*ck because you just want to wear a ball gown dammit and who cares if it’s “beachy” enough. That’s okay too.)
In the end, we come back to where we started: people are the most important thing (which very much includes the two of you). Your people, however many there are, care much more about seeing you happily married than they do about personally liking the color of your bridesmaid dresses. If aesthetics are your thing, go ahead and throw yourself in headfirst. But if they’re not? Remember that it’s pretty hard to go wrong with candles on white tablecloths—because everyone looks amazing in soft light.