Marriage Etiquette in France in the Late 1800s

Marriage etiquette in France involved many rules. For instance, when a Frenchman decided he wanted to marry, he did not go directly to the parents and ask for their daughter’s hand in marriage. That would have been a major faux pas. Instead his best friend was charged with the delicate task of asking the parents, and if they agreed, the prospective bridegroom then arranged a meeting with them. This first meeting was all business and involved “the dowry, and the almost equally important one of the young man’s fortune, expectations, etc.”[1]

French wedding ensemble from 1864. Courtesy of Met Museum.

If everything was determined to be favorable for the young man, then a second interview was scheduled between the parents and the prospective bridegroom with “the day and hour rigorously settled before hand.”[2] On the appointed day, at the appointed time, the prospective bridegroom presented himself for a second time. He was “carefully but not too carefully dressed – that point [was] essential. His betrothed, in elegant but simple attire, await[ed] his coming, surrounded by parents and relatives.”[3] After this meeting, the prospective bridegroom was then entitled to be received as a pretendu. However, to gain that status, he had to request it in writing.

Once permission was granted, marriage etiquette in France then allowed the bridegroom to meet his future bride for the first time as her future husband. Thereafter he was also allowed to visited her home on a familiar basis. However, it was necessary for him to visit in full dress, and his intended had to receive him properly dressed too. Proper dress for a young women meant “a morning dress, no matter how fresh or tasteful [was considered] completely inadmissible.”[4]

Marriage etiquette in France also resulted in other rules that were applied when the couple met. For instance, on the day the bridegroom called, he was to send his fiancée a bouquet of flowers. Moreover, the engaged couple were “never to be permitted to indulge in a tete-a-tete, nor … call each other by their first names without using the prefixes of Monsieur and Mademoiselle.”[5] This was because parents did not want the couple to become too familiar with one another before the wedding.

When a civil ceremony was to occur the couple appeared with half a dozen documents at the mayoralty. Among the documents required were the couple’s birth certificates. Next, the couple needed written consent by both sets of parents. If a parent was deceased then proof of their death was also required, and the consent of grandparents or guardians was accepted instead.

“If you are sixty years of age, and have parents still living, this written consent is still indispensable, unless, indeed, you go through the formality of the trois sommations respectueuses, which consists in ‘respectfully summoning’ your recalcitrant parents three times to show cause why you should not espouse the beloved of your heart, after which you can do as you please.”[6]

Officers of the Army also needed permission for marriage. They obtained permission from the Minister of War and permission was not granted unless the bride possessed a dowry of 30,000 francs or had a settled income of 1,200 francs a year.

After these formalities, publication of the banns came next and took place at the mayoralty and in the church. The signing of the contract was the next step. It was considered a ceremonial occasion and generally turned into a family festival that required special dress for the bride, usually a facsimile of the wedding gown but not tinted white. During this occasion, the notary read the contract, the bridegroom rose and bowed to the bride, signed his name, and passed the pen to his intended bride. She then signed and handed the pen to the mother of the groom, who in turn gave the pen to the mother of the bride. Once this had been completed, the necessary papers were then handed in to authorities and the marriage could proceed within two or three days of authorities receiving the papers.

Marriage etiquette in France - Napoleon III's marriage to Eugénie de Montijo

Napoleon III, who was nephew to Napoleon Bonaparte, married Eugénie de Montijo on 29 January 1853. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Marriages in Paris usually occurred on one of three days, Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday. They also occurred primarily from nine in the morning until five in the evening. When a civil (sometimes called a mayoral) marriage occurred, there was no special wedding outfits required, and, so, the bride could wear an ordinary walking costume or anything else she desired. Moreover, women of middle and upper classes usually did not wear a wedding ring.

Often times women performed both the mayoral and a formal (religious) marriage. When both marriages were to occur they usually were not performed on the same day, and because they were on different days, the bride usually wore the same outfit to both ceremonies:

“[I]n all ceremonious or elegant weddings, … the bride … wears her white toilet with veil, wreath, etc., to both ceremonies. Etiquette exacts that she carry a white prayer-book to the church, but if she has not one … she may, if she pleases, put a cover of white watered silk on her old one. The law [also] prescribes that all the doors of the room within the civil marriage takes place to be left open, even if the personages be of such importance that the ceremony takes place in the private parlour of the mayor.”[7]

Marriage etiquette in France also meant that there were other requirements to be observed before, during, and after the ceremony. For instance, when traveling to the church, the bride and her parents sat in the first carriage, and the groom and his parents followed in the second carriage. After arriving, the bride was led inside the church by her father. The groom took the arm of his mother and escorted her inside. During the ceremony, when the question, “‘Wilt thou have this man or this woman,’ … was asked, the bride or groom [was required to] turn toward his or her parents and bow slightly before responding.’”[8]

In a Roman Catholic service, the bride had a bridesmaid and a groomsman, “who after the service make a collection from the guests and hand it over to the priests. The two perform this act very gracefully. The gentleman turns one hand palm upwards and the lady lets her fingertips rest upon his with her palm downwards, while as they pass down the aisle together, each holds an alms-bag to the company with the other hand.”[9]

After the  ceremony was over, the bridal parties signed the marriage register and guests gave them their congratulations. When the wedding party left the church, the bride was led by her father-in-law and the groom escorted his mother-in-law. The wedding celebration was then usually closed with a dejeuner (lunch) hosted by newly wedded couple.


  • [1] Dundee Evening Telegraph, “Cream of Current Literature,” May 10, 1877, p. 4.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Appleton’s Journal, Volume 2, 1877, p. 421.
  • [7] Dundee Evening Telegraph, p. 4.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Devereux, G.R.M., The Etiquette of Engagement and Marriage, 1903, p. 95.

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