This isn’t a wedding blog, but my vintage inspired seaside wedding was a big part of my life this year and I learned a lot about planning it. You might have thought I was done with the wedding posts, but I have more to say (it’s just taken me a while to get round to it)! I always knew I wanted a wedding that wasn’t quite ‘the norm’ – the thought of a country hotel package was so unappealing I’d rather have not done it if that was my only option. That’s not to say that everyone who does is wrong, there are a huge amount of reasons to do it this way that avoid many of the headaches I had, but it just wasn’t for us as a couple. It was also seriously expensive to go this route and I wanted to work with a budget that meant I didn’t spend the rest of my adult life paying one day off.
But planning an alternative wedding – by which I mean one that is unique, perhaps unusual, and off your own backs from start to finish with no wedding professionals to help you – is no easy task. I will never forget phoning my bridesmaid at the start of this year basically in tears because my venue contact was abruptly leaving and I was convinced the whole thing was going to collapse as a result. (There’s more to that story than simply me being a diva, but it’s not one that’s worth digging up.)
So where do you start? You know you don’t want the conventional, but the conventional is easy. There’s a team of people who’ll do the hard work for you and for many decisions you just have to pick what you want from their list of options. Having been through the alternative, I wanted to summarise some important tips for how to plan your own unique day (or help someone else with theirs!).
Note that this advice is pertaining particularly to the UK, where you can only get married in venues with licences (and the legal bit has to be done inside).
1. Guestlist before everything
First of all, you can’t book a venue or start mapping out your day until you know roughly how many guests you’re likely to have. You don’t have to know exactly, but the maximum it could be will really help you out. So sit down with your partner and work out who should come to the whole day and who could just come for the evening reception and have these numbers in mind for every venue conversation. You just can’t do it later – some venues just won’t be able to accommodate your numbers, particularly if they’re not a typical wedding venue and have space restrictions.
2. Then the venue/s
Probably the single biggest factor in having an unconventional wedding day is your unconventional venue/s – it is the basis your whole wedding works around, from your dress (I couldn’t have one with a train and take photos on a beach!), to the theme, to what fun ‘extras’ you have. I say venue as singular or plural, but if your day is unconventional you’re likely to have more than one because you’ll likely be getting married somewhere with a license and having a reception somewhere that doesn’t. Doing it this way opens up a huge number of options to you, because a lot of places can throw a party, but there’s not going to be oodles of venues in each district that hold a marriage license. So you need to know roughly where in the country you want to marry and then you can find a list of places that are licensed (EDIT: I’m talking about England here – I hear it works differently in Scotland!0. The good news is that most councils host a list of ceremony venues on their websites – my council of choice had a whole Marry in Norfolk website that lists approved venues. It was very important to us that we really got married on the day and didn’t do the legal bit some other time (I’m looking at you, Don’t Tell the Bride), so this list was our starting point. If you’re not fussed about the legal stuff, you’ll actually open up a lot more options because you won’t be restricted to proximity to where the ceremony is.
We quickly found a venue in a fantastic location that could do ‘duo’ ceremonies, which is where the vows are exchanged outdoors before coming inside to do the legal signing. But the next part of the puzzle was: is there anywhere nearby that could host the reception? What followed was a lot of googling places within the surrounding area that said they could be hired for events – and I also put some more ‘wishlist’ places down. These were venues I couldn’t see had ever hosted a wedding or event, but looked to have spaces to hold a large number of guests and we loved them. As it happened, our #1 wishlist place, Cromer Pier, was exactly where we had our reception, within 3 minutes walk of our ceremony venue. With planning an alternative wedding, one of my tips is ‘you don’t know unless you ask’, so why not drop that quirky place an email and see what they say.
3. Colour-scheme is useful to know early
You might be thinking you don’t want a colour-scheme because that’s very ‘conventional wedding’, but my advice to you is if you have one it helps make your quirky day retain a little bit of what makes a wedding a wedding. You don’t have to go crazy matching everything to everything else, but having a running thread that connects all of the decor gives a slight degree of formality to proceedings that you might be lacking if you have an alternative kind of day.
Admittedly, I went crazy matching everything to everything else, but that’s because it’s the kind of person I am. Someone who routinely matches their shoes to their handbag not having a strong colour-scheme would have been a bit out of character, frankly. Anyway, one of the best things I did was decide what my colours were early. This meant that I started picking up bits and pieces for the day a long time in advance and started to picture it and ironed out the kinks a lot sooner. I knew I wanted bright red to feature because I wanted to wear red lipstick and selecting baby blue as the second colour was a no brainer to give the day both a seaside and a vintage feel. Armed with this knowledge, I got the bridesmaids dresses for a bargain about a month after we got engaged, within a week of getting my dress and they were perfect.
4. Ignore most suggested timelines
The internet is full of these timelines that tell you what you should be doing 12 months, 6 months, 3 months etc etc before the wedding to make sure it’s planned smoothly. I looked at these and was incredulous about many of the pieces of advice, but in particular the parts about booking any kind of external supplier. If you follow these guidelines I’m afraid to say you’re probably going to be disappointed – but not least if you’re trying to book something that’s perfect for your unconventional wedding day as you may have fewer options to start with. Most of them say book your make-up and hair artists 6 months before the wedding. I can tell you the best vintage style professionals get booked up a lot sooner before that for peak times, especially Saturdays in peak season (late Spring/Summer/early Autumn/Christmas). You’re probably talking more like 1-2 years before.
Also bear in mind that if you’re doing things off your own back at a venue that’s not done weddings before, or often, that you need extra time to figure out how to convert it into a suitable space. I started having conversations with an events decor company about ten months before the wedding and we needed several meetings on site to talk through what would and wouldn’t work logistically. If you’ve booked a conventional venue you probably barely have to think about this (unless you want to!), as they’ll already know what’s possible and quite probably can provide it for you. You, however, may have to book outside help and really work through the options with them.
5. Work out your DIY as early as possible – and do it bit by bit
On a related note, one of the most fun ways to add some quirk to your day is to have some unique decorations. You may also have a bit more to do for this if you’re hiring a venue that’s not a typical wedding venue. Again, a lot of suggested timelines put DIY decor right down the list, usually at around the 6 month point to merely ‘start thinking’ about it. I think you want to be making them by that point, thinking about them sooner. If you work in a full-time job and only have two days a week to work on this stuff, it’s amazing how pressured your time becomes in the lead up to the wedding. Maybe if you could dedicate every weekend in the lead up just to making your decorations it would be fine, but life doesn’t work like that. For a start, you’ve got dress and suit fittings to do and probably trips to meet suppliers or go back to the venue. I genuinely lost count of the number of times we went back in the end and each time was a 5 hour round-trip.
So, the sooner you’re able to work out what you’re doing, the sooner you can make a start. Some things you won’t be able to finalise until nearer the day – you may not know your exact number of guests for the wedding breakfast until the RSVPs are in, so while you can get started you could make too many or too few until you have that information. But what you can do is buy the materials and have a trial run. I was lucky I had a lot of help with the trial stuff (more on this coming), but for example, our crab name-cards took a few goes to get right, both for the origami pattern we used and how we got the lettering on them. Having lots of time to do this meant I was a lot more relaxed about it going wrong.
6. You don’t have to have a ‘proper’ wedding dress
Ok, I could write a whole post about bridal shops and my utmost loathing of them following my own experience, but the bottom line is that given my time again I wouldn’t have bought my dress from one. Simply put: you just don’t need to spend that kind of money to get a fantastic wedding dress. If you want to have a more conventional white dress as the part of your day that nods to tradition, you can still do that without involving a bridal shop. If you want something more unique, and if you’re reading this post you might well do, don’t even set foot inside one, these places aren’t for you.
The wedding industry really wants you to believe your dress isn’t a ‘wedding dress’ unless you spend £1.5k+ on it and have a glass of bubbly while you try it on in front of your crowd of adoring friends and family who promptly burst into tears the second you emerge from the dressing room, but it’s just not true. If I hadn’t happened to have found my dress years before I was even engaged, and then bought said dress as a cheaper sample (and I don’t think anyone cried unless they hid it really well), I may have gone into one of these shops once before I learned better, but I wouldn’t have gone back. The prices are eye-watering and there are just so many good options out there, particularly if you’re looking for something a little different. From ASOS’s huge bridal range to companies like Honeypie Boutique who make custom designs, for hundreds not thousands, don’t feel you have to do the wedding dress shop thing. I really believe you don’t have to. I certainly didn’t for the bridesmaids’ dresses, which were £40 bargains in the ASOS sale and couldn’t have been more perfect.
7. Work out your strengths and get help with your weaknesses
Circling back to those crabs and our decorations generally, I worked out pretty early on that I sucked at crafts. Or at least, I sucked at the practicalities of them – I’m good with my hands when under instruction, but I’m not good at working out how to get my ideas into reality. I knew I wanted crab namecards, but I couldn’t work out how to make it happen. That’s because this side of crafts is not my area of expertise. It never has been, it never will be. Luckily, though, I had a bridesmaid who is fantastic at this stuff. I just let her get on with trying things out and then I could pop back for the execution – making 54 origami crabs is no quick job, let me tell you.
What I am good at, is having those ideas and the vision in the first place. I’m also really good at logistics and big-picture thinking. This meant I was perfect for working out what needed to happen in the venue, where and when. But I suck at talking to people – I tend to be too details-focused, as well as thinking I can do everyone else’s job better, and bombard people with overlong, micro-managing emails that could have said the same thing in half the word count (yes, I’m a delight). I also panic when I’m told ‘no’ or ‘I don’t think so’ and that could literally cause a nervous breakdown (and did). Having figured this out early on, we gave some of this side of the planning to my husband who is great at dealing with people and isn’t phased by a negative response. I’m sure the suppliers he spoke to had a much better time of it than my lot.
The bottom line here is planning a wedding, especially an alternative one, is going to involve a lot of different skills needed for different tasks and if you can be honest about your flaws there will be so many people willing to help pick up the slack.
8. Supplier enthusiasm can go a LONG way
8 and 9 go hand in hand, really, but one of the biggest lessons I learned is that if you’re planning an alternative wedding, having suppliers who get nearly as excited as you do about your vision can make a real difference to how the day goes. My hair and beauty ladies were excited to do something a bit different to usual and we had such a great morning with them – and they’ve been sharing photos on social media ever since, so I think they liked it! The pier staff were also 100% on board with the day and excited to work at it – and that actually made all the difference when…
… our one supplier who wasn’t ever as enthused, our decorators, failed to show up to dress the wedding breakfast room. My husband now says he had a feeling from the start that they weren’t that engaged with the plans and in hindsight, when I compare dealing with them to everyone else I completely agree. What it meant, though, is that they messed up… but fortunately for us the pier staff took the initiative, mucked in and fixed the mistake before we even got there. In fact, we didn’t even find out about it until we went back and saw them a week later. I’m convinced it was to do with levels of motivation and investment in the whole day that made the difference here. And if you don’t agree with me, put it this way: we didn’t pay them for this part of the proceedings (whereas we had paid the decorators!).
9. You can’t over-manage some suppliers
Like I say, this relates to the above. I worried towards the end that I’d been too micro-managery with some of our poor paid help and I started to relax a bit. Probably the main time you shouldn’t relax, can I add. If I’d just acted on my first instinct to check the decorators knew where they were meant to be and when on the wedding day they wouldn’t have failed to show up the first time they were supposed to.
When you’ve got a more unusual day planned, really you as the planner is the only person who knows exactly how it’s meant to play out. I knew there were two occasions the decor staff were supposed to show up on that day, but that is quite an unusual circumstance that was unique to the fact we actually had two reception venues in one place. If I did this again, I would just stop trying to feel bad about over-checking things – as it happened I’d had at least three conversations about the timings of the day, but clearly a 4th time would have been good for something that important!
10. You might not need a DJ, but you do need time (and ideally no agenda!)
Our venue, quite frankly, didn’t have the space for a DJ and all his/her gear, let alone a band (nor could we have afforded the latter). Add to that that B and I know our music and had quite strong views about must-have songs and it was a no-brainer to make the playlist ourselves. It was actually an integral part of our day and theme – we wanted to take our guests through the decades, starting in the 50s and ending today. We knew we could do just as good a job of this as anyone we could hire.
The only piece of advice is that creating a playlist, in our case for 6 hours worth of music, needs a fair amount of time investment to do it well. In fact, we started building our playlists before we even got engaged – as we love making them for car journeys and we kind of knew they’d come in handy one day. It took probably a solid weekend altogether of editing these drafts down, testing the playback (we used Spotify’s gapless playback feature but it took some tweaking) and further time to run them past other people to see what they thought of our selections. Because that’s the other thing, while we do have perhaps alternative tastes and added in some songs you probably wouldn’t hear on your average wedding playlist, we still wanted the songs to achieve one thing: make everyone want to dance! Looking round the room in the 90s section of our playlist, when Backstreet’s Back came on and everyone went crazy for it, was a great moment in knowing we were right to DIY this part of our day!
So there you have it, these are the key things I learned from planning my unconventional wedding day. I hope you or someone you know can benefit from these tips! Anything crucial I’ve missed from those that have been through it?
Oh and if you’re new around here, check out some of my previous wedding posts to see the details!