How Did Bachelor and Bachelorette Party Traditions Come to Be?
Bachelor and bachelorette parties are so ubiquitous in Western culture that they’ve inspired several films, from the eponymous “Bachelor Party,” starring Tom Hanks, to the newer “Bridesmaids.” Of course, the more off-course the fete goes, the greater the opportunities for comedy (we’re looking at you “The Hangover”).
But why do we feel the need for one last great hurrah, one more taste of “bachelor or bachelorette freedom” prior to tying the knot? For some, it’s one last chance to recapture their youth before real adulthood commences. But for others, like myself, it’s a chance to reconnect with old friends (boys turned men) to celebrate, well, being dudes.
However, the history of a final sendoff goes back some time, and we’re here to help you sort out that antiquity (you know, just in case there’s a pop quiz at your next bachelor or bachelorette party.)
According to Time magazine, the earliest known example of a bachelor fete dates to the fifth century B.C. in ancient Greece. The story goes that ancient Spartans — yes, they of the “300” story — were known to give a fellow warrior one last night of revelry prior to the big day.
This included many a toast with wine to the married-man-to-be and a great feast in his honor — thus parting from the definition of what a “spartan” meal is supposed to be.
From Girlhood to Womanhood
In much of the ancient world, ceremonies to celebrate a young woman’s officially entering a union to (hopefully) result in offspring were as common as they were diverse. Vice reports that brides in ancient Greece burned offerings of hair and childhood clothes to Artemis, the virgin huntress goddess, in trade for healthy and plentiful children of their own.
Not far from Greece, an ancient Moroccan tradition of “hamman” was a ritual bath used to cleanse a woman for several days prior to her marriage, with older female friends and relatives offering sexual advice for the wedding night. And what could likely be the world’s oldest form of a bridal shower — from the 15th century — comes from the Hindu “mehndi” ceremony, still practiced today, during which brides would feast, dance and get henna tattoos.
What Is a ‘Bachelor’ Anyway?
Believe it or not, the term “bachelor” didn’t come into the English language until well into the Middle Ages, as Time reported. You can trace this term to the very same Geoffrey Chaucer, whose “Canterbury Tales” were the stuff of college English class suffering (mine included).
They say that prior to Chaucer’s day, the term “bachelor” referred to a young knight or student with the equivalent of a bachelor's degree. Chaucer first applied this description to the Squire character in “The Canterbury Tales” in the 14th century, but Time says that “the bachelor party” itself didn’t come into the language until 1922, when the Scottish periodical, Chamber’s Journal of Literature, Science and Arts, described a “jolly old party” that sent a young man off into wedded bliss.
It's a Circus
When your grandfather is circus impresario P.T. Barnum, it’s little wonder that you might get caught up in a stag party bacchanal for the ages. The website Barnum.org reports that, in 1896, one Herbert Barnum Seeley threw a bachelor dinner for his brother, Clinton Barnum Seeley, soon to enter wedded bliss. The details of what precisely happened that night at a fancy New York restaurant are sketchy, but the evening’s entertainment was ruined when local coppers got wind that Herbert had hired a teenage belly dancer to liven up the affair — and offered extra cash to show off more than just her midriff.
Not only was the exotic dancer insulted, because the price was too low, but so too was her father irked by the lowball offer, who apparently then tipped off the police to this licentious affair. What followed was a pre-pre-pre-pre-TMZ field day of tabloid fodder, with the scandal rags only too gleeful to report on the evening of ill repute, at which members of several prominent New York families were said to have been dancing in the nude with “harlots.”
And this was before Instagram!
As bachelor parties entered the 20th century, they began to take on the contours of more formal sit-down dinners hosted by the groom’s father, according to Time. The groom’s father, standing before a room of young men clad in black-tie attire, would offer toasts to both the groom and the bride — doubtless with expensive wine and champagne to go along with this type of atmosphere.
But don’t worry, the high-class paradigm didn’t last long.
What's in a Name?
There are many different names for a pre-wedding shindig.
Such ear-pleasing variants of bachelor party include “stag do” or “stag party” in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Canada; the “buck party” in Australia (sounds pointy); and, because the French prefer to use so many syllables, “enterrement de vie de garçon,” which translates not so pleasingly as “the burial of the life as a boy.”
The 'Hangover' Era Begins
In a strange case of wagging the dog, real-life bachelor parties began to resemble their fictional counterparts, especially as ’80s sex romps like “Porky’s” and the aforementioned “Bachelor Party” informed popular culture. Movies and TV became the common reference points for a generation of young men raised on titles like “Animal House,” with Bluto and his merry mates hazing their Delta Tau Chi pledges to humiliating hilarity. (I still can’t watch Flounder “miss” the dean’s horse without chuckling.)
It’s almost as if a frat house-style feedback loop was born, with bachelor parties becoming increasingly less formal and far more, well, frat-like. More and more they resembled fraternity hazing rituals, with pushing the groom-to-be (i.e., the “pledge”) to drink to excess, strippers named Bambi, public humiliation and otherwise poorly made decisions. A more or less direct lineage can be traced to its ultimate potential in “The Hangover” and its increasingly improbable sequels.
Let the Ladies Play, Too
While, for most of the history of civilization, one last wild night was the provenance of to-be-married men, brides-to-be got into the game in the 20th century, too. Redbook reported that the modern bachelorette party is largely a product of the sexual revolution and fight for gender equality, which hit their strides in the 1960s as more women joined the workforce and experienced newfound economic independence.
However, the shindig wasn’t even called a “bachelorette party” for the first time until 1981, the magazine reports, with the first-known instance of such applied to the pre-wedding festivities of then New York Gov. Hugh Carey and his betrothed, Evangeline Gouletas, on the eve of their marriage (the governor’s second).
Before Bachelorette Parties
Many contemporary women have both a bachelorette party and a bridal shower, but back in the day, these two events were more or less combined into one tamed-down event, according to Time. In fact, prior to the 20th century, brides-to-be were pretty much limited to shower events with the express purpose of getting money for a dowry as well as gifts to start them on the road to an “independent” life with their mates (translation: transitioning from being her father’s property to her husband’s).
Fast-forward a few hundred years, and the dowry has largely disappeared from Western culture. Bridal showers remain en vogue, but women began throwing their own bachelorette parties to equal the masculine tradition in the last century. Ergo, there’s no gender disparity in drinking to excess, public humiliation, strip shows and making decisions you hope won’t be broadcasted on Twitter.
Who says only men can behave like fools?
Blame It on Princess Diana
Sociologist Beth Montemurro claims that the excessive modern bachelorette party — which hit its fictional apogee in “Bridesmaids” — can trace its genealogy back to July 29, 1981, when Prince Charles married Diana Spencer. An unprecedented 750 million people around the world tuned in to catch the royal nuptials, thus giving a whole new meaning to “fairytale wedding.”
Quoted in Time, Montemurro believes that the worldwide television audience for Charles and Diana’s big day had the effect of making young women dream bigger, both for their day of exchanging vows as well as events prior to tying the knot. Add to that a booming economy thanks to Reaganomics, and the race for bridezillas to become ever more outlandish bachelorettezillas was off and running.
Social Media Makes It All the More Viral
Remember when the only way to find out what your neighbors were up to was to knock on their front door? Thanks to social media, now you not only saw that they went canoeing in Tennessee but photos of every meal they had that entire weekend. Ditto for bachelor and bachelorette parties.
Montemurro implies social media is partly to blame for the northwardly spiraling budgets of these bashes in a constant cycle of one-upmanship. Tommy’s mates somehow got Richie Sambora to show up for cocktails, so Dick vows to get the entire classic lineup of Bon Jovi to play for him out of jealousy. Lisa had a pink limo for her 12 hen-do attendees, so Sarah begs her trust-fund parents to rent a private plane to get the whole troupe down to Cabo.
And on and on and on and on.
A 'Groom Shower' Is Now a Thing
Believe it or not, because many people are marrying later in life, some men are saying no to Vegas or Miami altogether in favor of having the guys over for something Time calls a “groom shower.” But instead of frilly dresses or naughty underwear (or maybe so; who knows), the fellas in these situations “shower” the eminent bloke with video games, gift cards to Best Buy, craft beers or even power tools.
Because, let’s face it, grooms will likely share none of the bounty of their better half’s shower, so maybe it’s only fair they bring the gang over to play trick or treat without ever leaving home.
A Combined Affair
Cohabitation prior to marriage has largely lost the stigma once attached to non-married partners. So, what that means for bachelor and bachelorette blowouts is that couples already living together, especially of a certain age, may decide to forgo the gender-segregated last ride away in favor of a low-key, combined event at home.
Maybe it’s not the kind of stuff bonkers comedies are made out of, but these combo “stag and doe parties” give the couple a chance to celebrate the end of “living in sin” and graduating to conjugal bliss with their friends.
Bridal Showers Go Co-Ed, Too
In addition to co-ed bachelor or bachelorette parties, Brides.com claims that even co-ed showers are becoming increasingly popular, as a fun way to desegregate the genders in a more inclusive celebration.
These typically include bride- and groom-to-be opening gifts together, which may sound fun for some. But if you're not one to enjoy opening gifts in front of people on your birthday or during the holidays, I suggest skipping this altogether.
But to each their own.