20 Pieces of Etiquette Every Royal Wedding Guest Needs to Follow
If you were lucky enough to score an invite to the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, you'd better know what to do once you get there. And no, we’re not talking about just knowing which fork is the salad fork (though that’s important, too). Royal events come with their own set of rules—some of them obvious, others anything but. So that you don’t embarrass yourself on Harry and Meghan’s big day, here are 20 etiquette rules you’ll definitely want to follow.
1. IF YOU FORGOT TO RSVP, DON’T BOTHER SHOWING UP.
While it stands to reason that you should never show up to any wedding—royal or otherwise—if you did not RSVP to let the couple know you'd be coming, don’t expect to show up at Windsor Castle and watch the royal family scramble to make room for you. In 2011, the King of Cambodia forgot to respond to Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding invitation, and was left to watch the ceremony on television like the rest of us (not sitting alongside his fellow global royals).
2. RESIST THE URGE TO WEAR WHITE OR CREAM. OR BLACK.
This rule, too, is pretty standard and universal. But the Queen herself made a point of reminding guests to William and Kate’s 2011 wedding—via a 22-page Etiquette Book issued by Buckingham Palace—that “Wearing cream or white is not appropriate. That must be left to the bride.”
“We steer clear of white because that's considered to be stealing the bride's thunder,” CNN royal commentator Victoria Arbiter told Us Weekly, though she clarified that since the wedding is a daytime affair taking place in the springtime, wearing a floral or other printed dress with a white or cream base is fine, just as long as the pattern overwhelms the base.
On the opposite side of the color spectrum, you shouldn't wear black either (unless it’s a jacket or accessory worn over a brighter color). “Black is considered a funeral color, so you wouldn't wear all black,” Arbiter added. “Victoria Beckham wore navy to Prince William and Kate's wedding and it looked very elegant and sophisticated, that was fine since she wasn't in black.”
For the men in attendance, “Navy or grey suits are customary at weddings, and garish waistcoats or ties should be avoided,” Lucy Hume, an etiquette expert and publisher of Debrett's Peerage, told Town & Country Magazine.
3. WATCH THE HEIGHT OF YOUR HEELS.
Speaking of Victoria Beckham: Don’t make the same mistake that she did at William and Kate’s wedding and go too high with your heel height. “Don’t wear huge heels,” etiquette tutor William Hanson told Town & Country. “It’s not practical as well as not being etiquette. Victoria Beckham wore huge stilettos [to William and Catherine’s wedding]. Now, they were going into Westminster Abbey—a church floor is not a smooth floor.”
4. BARE LEGS WON'T IMPRESS THE QUEEN.
Bare legs have never flown in the royal family, a fact that came to very public light when Kate Middleton brought pantyhose back in a big way. So if you’re lucky enough to be invited to a royal affair, you’d best follow the rules—lest you become an object of hosiery-shaming. “Wear tights,” Hanson told Town & Country. “[Former British Prime Minister] David Cameron's wife didn't wear tights [to the Royal Wedding in 2011], which was a bit of a shame.”
5. MAKE SURE YOU HAVE A HAT, BUT NOT TOO MUCH HAT.
Nothing screams “royal event” like loads of fancy headgear, and that’s because it’s a required part of the day’s uniform. According to the Evening Standard, wearing a full hat—not a fascinator—is standard for all female attendees. (The guess is that the tradition has biblical origins.) And while fashion fans like to have fun with their millinery, there are rules of etiquette that apply here, too.
“Wearing the right hat and not overdoing it is important,” was the simple advice written in Buckingham Palace’s Etiquette Book. (We’re guessing Princess Beatrice of York, seen above, didn't get the memo.) “Resist novelty elements or anything that will draw too much attention away from the bride,” Hume said. Equally important is making sure that the hat isn't so large or distracting that it blocks the view of those sitting behind you. Which is why Buckingham Palace instructed male guests that, “A top hat should be carried, not worn, inside the church.”
6. LEAVE YOUR TIARA AT HOME.
Speaking of headgear: Wearing a tiara if you’re anyone but Meghan Markle is a very bad idea, even if you’ve earned the right to wear one (or just feel like royalty). “You wouldn't wear a tiara to a daytime British wedding unless you were the bride," Arbiter explained, adding that, “Meghan may choose to forgo that tradition since it's not a hard and fast rule, but chances are the Queen will offer to loan her a tiara and if the Queen is offering to loan you something, it's rare that somebody would say no.” (Which takes care of the “something borrowed” part of the bride’s outfit.)
7. SHOWING SHOULDER IS A NO-NO. SAME GOES FOR TOES.
When choosing a wedding outfit, it’s always best to err on the side of a more conservative style. “Ladies must dress appropriately for church,” notes the Palace’s Etiquette Guide. “This rule includes covering one's shoulders, wearing a hat to cover one's head, and not wearing anything garish or to garner attention. It is the bride's day.” If you’re thinking, “Great, I’ll wear my favorite pant suit,” think again! “Pants suits are frowned upon,” according to the official guide.
Bare toes can also be considered a bit too revealing. “Shoulders should be covered, hemlines should be on the conservative side, and closed-toe shoes,” Myka Meier, the Plaza Hotel's etiquette expert, told Town & Country.
8. KEEP YOUR HANDS AT YOUR SIDES (AND DEFINITELY OUT OF YOUR POCKETS).
The Palace's Etiquette Book is nothing if not thorough, even going so far as to tell guests what to do with their limbs: “Keep your hands at your sides when standing,” it advises. “Gentleman, keep your hands out of your pockets. Europeans consider this act rude.”
9. ARRIVE AN HOUR EARLY.
What could be worse than arriving to the church after the bride has already started her procession down the aisle? In the case of a royal wedding: getting there after the Queen has made her entrance. According to Cosmopolitan UK, guests should arrive an hour before the wedding’s official start time to ensure that they’re not tripping over Queen Elizabeth II as they make their way in. “You don’t want to turn up after her,” Duncan Larcombe, the former Royal Editor for The Sun, said. “She will get there five minutes before Meghan will arrive.”
10. BRING YOUR CELLPHONE IF YOU MUST, BUT DON'T PLAN ON USING IT.
The official Etiquette Book was pretty straightforward when it came to mobile phones: “Needless to say, turn OFF your cell phone.” Larcombe underscored this point to Cosmopolitan UK, saying that while guests will likely be allowed to have their phones on their person, “Under no circumstances are they allowed to use them.”
11. DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT SNAPPING A PHOTO.
What happens at Windsor Castle stays at Windsor Castle—unless the royal family is the one releasing the information or images. “There will be no photography in Windsor Castle if they follow the precedent of the 2011 wedding,” Hume told Town & Country. “And with any wedding,” added Hume, “you shouldn't take photographs and release them before the official photographs are released.”
“Guests will be told not to take pictures at any [time during] the day, particularly during the evening reception at Frogmore House," Larcombe said. "No pictures ever emerged from William and Kate’s party—anyone who broke this rule would certainly end up in hot water with the happy couple.” (Not to mention being on the wrong side of the Queen.)
12. PLAN TO TAKE A SOCIAL MEDIA VACATION.
If the same rules apply to Harry and Meghan’s wedding as did William and Kate’s, the official stance of Buckingham Palace is: “Do not take photos of the Queen as she passes by with your cell phone … Enjoy the moment instead of holding the camera in the Queen's face as she walks in front of you and trying to capture the moment with a photograph. Do not update your Facebook status. Do not tweet.” Got it?
13. DON'T JUST GRAB ANY SEAT YOU CAN FIND AT THE CHURCH.
If you think that arriving to St. George’s Chapel a couple of hours early will nab you a front-row seat to the nuptials, we’ve got bad news: “The seats are all allocated,” Larcombe explained to Cosmopolitan UK. “They are numbered to match the number given on the invitation.” And being that this is a royal wedding, tradition dictates that the royal family calls dibs on the right side of the church (whether or not it’s the bride or groom who is the official royal).
“The entire royal family will be seated to the right-hand side of Harry and Meghan,” Larcombe continued. “Meghan's parents, co-stars, and friends will be given priority seating on the left. In a way, they will be trying to make it as normal a wedding as possible. So, when they look around they will both see their families.”
14. IF YOU WERE THINKING OF BUYING A BLENDER AS A GIFT, THINK AGAIN.
Royal wedding gifts are a tricky topic: Buying a toaster for a couple who occupies a royal residence seems strange, and probably unnecessary. But showing up empty-handed feels rude. (This conundrum might explain the long list of strange gifts that other royals have received over the years, like the tandem bike Boris Johnson gave to William and Kate.)
“For this kind of a wedding—for any kind of a royal wedding—it is considered a great honor,” Lisa Gaché, a manners expert at Beverly Hills Manners, told the Los Angeles Times. “In order to show or convey respect and that gracious feeling for being invited, the ante is a bit more.” She suggests that making a charitable donation of $500 to an organization close to the couple’s heart is appropriate.
Even if you do decide to bring something tangible, “Don’t bring [the gift] to the wedding itself,” Hanson said, though he added that Markle’s status as a divorcée adds one more layer of complication to proper etiquette: “This is a second wedding for Meghan Markle. The etiquette in both America and Britain, especially Britain, is that you don’t normally ask for gifts, because it’s your second wedding. They’ve already got toasters and French presses, etc. It would not surprise me if they choose donations for charities instead.” Indeed, in early April, Kensington Palace announced via Twitter that:
“Prince Harry & Ms. Meghan Markle are incredibly grateful for the goodwill they have received since their engagement, & have asked that anyone who might wish to mark the occasion of their wedding considers giving to charity, instead of sending a gift. The couple have personally chosen 7 charities which represent a range of issues that they are passionate about, including sport for social change, women's empowerment, conservation, the environment, homelessness, HIV and the Armed Forces.”
15. PREPARE TO BOW AND CURTSY.
When you're in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II, it’s appropriate to curtsy and bow. “Americans are not required to bow or curtsy as the Queen walks by, but may do so out of respect,” according to the Etiquette Book, which included tips on how to do it correctly. “Ladies, place your right ankle behind your left ankle and dip at the knee, arms at your sides, and bow your head slightly. Gentleman, bend your elbow and place your hand, palm in, at your waist. Bend slightly at the waist and bow your head slightly.”
16. DON'T ATTEMPT TO WIN THE QUEEN'S AFFECTION.
Just because you’ve been invited to sit in a room with the Queen doesn't mean that you’ll get a chance to meet her—and if you do, it should only be at her bidding. “Normal protocol suggests you shouldn't approach the Queen or ask her any questions,” Larcombe said. Myka Meier echoed this sentiment when she advised, “Enthusiastic fans beware: Never approach the Queen unless she approaches you. One should never touch the Queen unless she extends her hand to you.” And definitely don’t ask if you can take a selfie with her, no matter how much you’ve had to drink. Speaking of which …
17. DON'T GET DRUNK. BUT DO KNOW THE CORRECT WAY TO HOLD YOUR CHAMPAGNE GLASS.
As lavish as a royal wedding may be, overindulgence is never appropriate. “Do not gobble up food and gulp up drink at the reception,” noted the Etiquette Book, “and for goodness sakes, do not get drunk.”
Of course, a wedding just wouldn't be a wedding without a bit of bubbly, but don’t embarrass yourself by clasping your glass incorrectly. “There will be champagne flowing and you’ve got to hold the glass properly, by the stem,” royal etiquette expert Jean Broke-Smith said. “During the formal dinner a lot of people won’t know how to use a knife and fork properly, let alone which cutlery to choose from. You must eat from the outside in and if you have a mass of glasses in front of you, it helps to know which to use. With tea cups, lift the cup not the saucer and hold it very gently with your index finger and thumb, returning the cup to the saucer after every sip.”
18. IF YOU DO MEET THE QUEEN, KNOW HOW TO ADDRESS HER.
If you do get the chance to meet the Queen, don’t make an idiot of yourself. “When you meet the Queen, she puts her hand out first and you address her as Your Majesty,” Broke-Smith said. “In conversation you address her as Ma’am, to rhyme with jam or ham, not palm.”
The Etiquette Book is even more direct with its dos and don’ts:
“Do not touch the Queen.
Do not shake the Queen's hand unless she holds her hand out first to shake your hand.
Do not speak to the Queen unless she speaks to you first.
If the Queen addresses you first, answer her ending your first response with ‘Your Majesty.’ End your second response with ‘Ma'am’ to rhyme with ‘jam.’”
If you think you’ll have trouble controlling yourself from hugging Her Majesty, just remember how Australia's former prime minister Paul Keating was dubbed “The Lizard of Oz” by the press when he dared to place his arm on the Queen’s back.
19. KEEP YOUR HAND GESTURES TO YOURSELF.
You might be tempted to give Harry a thumbs up or flash Meghan the “OK” sign once they’ve said “I do,” but don’t do it. “Do not make any gestures with your hands,” the Etiquette Book warns. “In Europe, the ‘O.K.’ and ‘Thumbs Up’ hand gestures have very different meanings, and these hand gestures are extremely insulting and rude.”
20. DON'T CUT OUT EARLY.
Between the wedding itself and not one but two receptions—a post-ceremony luncheon at Windsor Castle’s St. George’s Hall and then a more intimate evening event at The Frogmore House—it’s going to be a long day for the happy couple and their guests. And if the bride and groom decide to keep the party going into the wee hours of the morning, you’d better be prepared to celebrate right alongside of them. “You shouldn't leave before the newlyweds,” Hanson told Town & Country. “They will be the most senior members of the royal family in the room at that time.” Better get a good night’s sleep!