Setting the scene
This paper explores the role played by costume in two pre-wedding rituals practiced by women in Northern Scotland, the blackening and hen party, and how that role has changed since the 1940s. Costuming is just one of many significant elements, such as organisation and planning, journeying, games, eating and drinking, and gifting, in the two events that I explored as part of my doctoral research. While any of these would have been equally worthwhile, I focus on costuming, because, of all the elements examined, I believe that this has seen the greatest change in function, particularly in relation to the hen party. Although, the function of costuming has been discussed for life cycle rites of passage, such as the wedding (Charsley 1991; Montemurro 2006; Otnes and Pleck 2003), the role of subverted costuming at other rites of passage is under researched. The blackening ritual itself has largely been ignored by scholars until now, and I introduce the idea of the blackening materials as a type of costuming. In addition, I argue that undress, a feature of both the hen party and blackening, is also a form of costuming.
Before discussing the purpose of costuming in these two pre-wedding rituals, I offer a short description of both. The blackening takes place in the weeks running up to the wedding and is planned secretly by those closest to the bride and groom. Great care is taken, not to alert them to the fact it is happening. The couple knows it will happen but they do not know exactly when. This adds to their anxiety. They might be blackened together or separately. If blackened alone, only her close female friends and relatives generally blacken the bride. If together, the company is mixed. The bride/couple is generally "kidnapped," either from work or home, and often an elaborate scheme has been devised to tempt them out of their home, or to dupe them into believing they are doing something else. There is usually an element of chase as they are expected to try to escape. However, this is just part of the game; they are not expected to succeed. Once caught, they are usually taken to a public space and, to ensure they do not escape, often tied to an improvised pillory, or to each other. They may be given special clothes to wear or may be encouraged to change into old clothes. The blackening proper then begins as the participants begin to pour, throw or squirt litres of the vilest concoctions on top of them, including something sticky such as treacle, and something which sticks, such as feathers. The couple is generally left on display for a while so that passers-by can laugh at their misfortune. The couple then go home, have a shower, and then spend the rest of the evening relaxing and reliving the event with their friends.
The hen party also takes place in the weeks leading up to the wedding. While the bride generally has an input to where and when it will be, as well as who will be attending, there are always a few surprises thrown in that she does not know about, generally designed to embarrass her. The hen party can take place on an evening in a local city, a whole weekend, perhaps in another city in the UK, or a long weekend in a foreign resort. Each is unique and incredible creativity can be shown by some of the bridesmaids who plan the event. In its simplest form it will last one evening and will involve dressing up the bride, sharing a meal, drinking to excess, challenging the bride to lewd dares (generally with strangers), parading the bride to and between venues (pubs and clubs) and attracting attention by making a noise. If the hen party takes place over a longer period it will typically involve all the above but also several daytime activities, such as dance classes, making cocktails or having spa treatments.
The blackening has its roots in an earlier "feet washing" ceremony (1) (Young 2016a, 2016b), which, although once widespread across Scotland, is now generally found only in rural areas in Northern Scotland. (2) The hen party is a more recent, predominantly urban phenomenon, now enjoying unprecedented popularity. It is practiced throughout Scotland, and indeed throughout the western world, though under slightly different names. (3) There is nothing unique about the hen party, as celebrated in Northern Scotland; (4) the ritual is homogenous across the UK. While we might expect the blackening to diminish in popularity at the expense of the commodified hen party, there is no evidence to support this. These two rites of passage appear to be able to coexist happily, with the same women taking part in both. Furthermore, it is not unusual for them to have more than one hen party or blackening. (5)
However, the rituals are very different. First, the hen party is generally a female only affair (the male equivalent is the stag party), whereas the blackening is celebrated by both men and women, often together. Second, the hen party is ubiquitous; everyone, rural and urban dwellers alike, has a hen party, whereas the blackening is selective. In every village in Northern Scotland there are locals and non-locals (Insiders/Outsiders). (6) The blackening is a ritual for locals (Insiders). Non-locals do not get blackened unless they are marrying a local. Related to this is the third difference, the hen party is volitional, the blackening is not. It is done to you. You cannot choose to be blackened. I should add, that while men in Scotland (and elsewhere in Britain) have been blackened, or tarred and feathered in various rituals for decades, it is only in Northern parts of rural Scotland that women are regularly blackened.
The hen (and stag party (7)), have received some attention from scholars from a variety of disciplines (Hellspong 1988; Tye, Powers 1998; Bennett 2004; Montemurro 2006; Knuts 2007). Costuming is discussed by each of these authors, but not in great depth, and with limited interpretation, and only Bennett looks specifically at the rituals as practiced in Scotland. However, the blackening has been largely ignored, save for recent articles by McEntire (2007), and Young (2016a, 2016b). Although it has been discussed within general works on Scottish traditions such as Gregor (1874, 1881), King (1993) Livingstone (1997) and especially Margaret Bennett (2004), little mention is made of the role of costuming.
Ethnographic data for this study were gathered over a two-year period from women who have attended and organized hen parties and blackenings. The field area was Northern Scotland. I collected around 100 accounts of the blackening and the hen party from women aged between 21 and 93. My contributors came from a wide variety of socio-economic backgrounds (school pupils, students, manual workers, professionals), as well as from a mix of rural and urban backgrounds. I conducted around 50 in-depth interviews lasting around an hour, which were recorded and transcribed, though many other accounts were gathered from casual conversations in the community, for example at bus stops, in shops, at the gym. I attended both a blackening and a hen party. Due to the sensitive nature of some of the information gathered in interviews, particularly about hen parties and initially at the interviewees' request, I decided to anonymize my contributors. (8)
Roach-Higgins and Eicher (1992, 3) suggest that the term "costume" be reserved "for use in discussions of dress for theatre, folk or other festivals, ceremonies and rituals," since it indicates an "out-of-every-day" activity or social role. However, I would like to describe the type of costuming found at hen parties and blackenings as "liminal costuming," (i.e. costuming associated with a rite of passage) since this type of costuming subverts the normal rules of dress. For example, the removal of clothing, undress, is an important part of "liminal costuming." Dress scholars (Roach-Higgins and Eicher 1992; Shukla 2005; Lynch et al 2007) have focused on the putting on of clothing and other adornments when talking about dress, but the removal of clothing to a state of nudity or semi-nudity, in Western cultures, is just as valid. It also fits with Shukla's definition of body art as "aesthetic modification" of the body. The removal of clothing is the most extreme form of dress that we see at hen/stag parties and blackenings. I would suggest that rather than looking at undress simply from the point of view of deviant behavior, it should also be looked on as a type of "liminal costuming."
Like other areas of pre-wedding ritual, such as playing games, journeying and feasting, normal rules around costuming are not followed during liminal periods. As we will see, costumes worn at hen parties and blackenings subvert normal expectations of dress. In her study of Greek village dress, Linda Welters notes that, "Part of the charm of the special occasion attire was its elegance compared to everyday dress" (Welters 2007, 10). Although dress at hen parties and blackenings is "special occasion attire," it is anything but elegant and it is designed to shock and/or amuse, rather than to charm. Costuming for the life cycle rituals of birth, marriage and death tends to be elegant or sombre, rather than shocking or amusing. There are a couple of exceptions to this. The first is costuming at the Mohippa (Swedish hen party), which Hellspong (1988) tells us involves a masked group of women, dressed as men (with false moustaches and wearing dark clothes), or dressed as little girls with ribbons in their hair, who lead a blindfold young girl in a mock bridal procession. Knuts (2007) brings Hellspong's study up to contemporary times and tells us that the older mock-bride rituals have almost died out but that the hen party is in the ascendance, with sexy outfits being very popular. At the Finnish Poltis (9) the bride is dressed up as "provocative sinful" or "ugly, officious or ridiculous" (Astrom 1989, 95). Another example is costuming at American bachelor parties, at...