Story: Marriage and partnering

Page 6. The big day

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Where and when

19th-century weddings often took place within the home of the bride or a friend of her family. The move to church weddings coincided with increasingly lavish celebrations.

Morning weddings were the norm until the 1880s (a wedding breakfast was literally a meal eaten in the morning), when late-afternoon or early evening weddings became more common. In the 20th century there was a new focus on partying and dancing as part of the wedding celebration. Often a newly married couple would begin the first dance alone, watched by their wedding guests.

Letting the public in 

Until 1994 the legal requirement that weddings be held with an ‘open door’ – in case of an objection to the marriage – complicated marrying onboard ship, boat, plane or helicopter. If the vessel was tied at a wharf or jetty with its gangplank down, all was well. If not, the couple had to re-marry on land to make it legal. Marrying on board a plane or helicopter in flight was impossible. 

There was a return to weddings outside a church setting in the later 20th century, in places such as public gardens, reception centres, or locations significant to the couple. People began to marry on beaches and in back gardens. Some New Zealanders went overseas for their wedding, with the Pacific Islands a popular destination.


The marriage service best known in New Zealand was that of the Anglican Church. It emphasised the permanence of marriage, its procreative purpose, and set out the relationship of husband and wife (he to love and comfort, she to obey and serve).

From the 1970s people began writing their own vows, in which they could highlight the matters most important to them. Personalised vows became commonplace, and in the 2000s websites devoted to vow writing sprang up.


When weddings were usually paid for by the bride’s parents, it was common for the majority of guests to be older people – family and friends of family. Once weddings were more often organised and paid for by the couple themselves, a majority of guests were likely to be personal friends.

Amongst Pacific Island families, guests might arrive from home islands to help celebrate a wedding, particularly when important families were involved. With their help, significant elements of the wedding would be done island-style.

Meringues and penguins

Bridal dress has changed dramatically over time. White weddings became fashionable in the 1860s, and by the 20th century were common among both Pākehā and Māori. In the 1910s dresses, which had been worn over rigid corsets and were very concealing, began to loosen, flow and reveal. From then on fashions changed decade by decade.

19th-century grooms often wore colourful jackets or coats – blue or a shade of deep red were both common – along with a coloured top hat. Over the 20th century clothing for grooms was relatively stable. Apart from the white gloves, a typical groom’s outfit from the 1920s, including a suit, wing collar and white bowtie, would not cause surprise in the 21st century.

Māori sometimes mixed elements of European and traditional dress. This became increasingly common in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. When Pacific Island people marry, they might wear a dress or suit for the ceremony, then change into traditional dress afterward.


The saying ‘three times a bridesmaid, never a bride’ neatly expresses the tradition that bridesmaids were unmarried brides-in-waiting. When the bride tossed her bouquet, it was often toward one of the bridesmaids – it was supposed to bring her luck and mean she would be the next to marry. 

Bridesmaids, page boys and flower girls

Elaborate weddings, fashionable from the 1860s on, meant the bridal party became larger. A maid (or matron) of honour, several bridesmaids, flower girls and a page boy or two might all be included in a bridal entourage. Bridesmaids proved a popular addition. Their dress complemented that of the bride, and increased the ceremonial and sometimes theatrical aspects of a wedding.


The groom’s attendants – the best man and groomsmen – were dressed to complement the groom. The best man was responsible for the wedding ring given by the groom to the bride. Once men began wearing wedding rings, the best man often looked after that as well.


Giving presents to couples when they married was a well-established tradition amongst European settlers. Often the gifts were useful household items, or even a section of land on which a home could be built. Less mundane presents were also given – some examples are a piano, a racehorse, a pair of duelling pistols and shares in a gold mine. In the case of wealthy families, presents would go well beyond the merely useful, such as elaborate silverware.

Pacific Island migrants had their own gift-giving practices, including the giving of gifts between the families of those marrying. These could include fine mats or money to help with the costs of a wedding.

How to cite this page:

Megan Cook, 'Marriage and partnering - The big day', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 April 2024)

Story by Megan Cook, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 May 2017