Royal wedding: Hen dos... and don'ts

Group of girls on a hen party

If Kate Middleton is to follow the example of modern brides, she will mark the end of her single life with an all-girl party. But while the male equivalent, the stag do, has long been a rite of passage, the hen night is a more recent cultural phenomenon.

It's not often that royals and commoners alight on a cultural trend at the same time, but in the case of the hen do, that could be the case.

As Lady Diana Spencer prepared to tie the knot with Prince Charles in the summer of 1981, there was little expectation that she and a few friends might want to slope off to a wine bar for an evening.

But scroll forward five years, to the engagement of Prince Andrew to Sarah Ferguson, and the bride-to-be could be found enjoying the company of her female friends at a hen do in London's exclusive Annabel's nightclub. Among the guests was her sister-in-law to be, Princess Diana.

While stag parties have long been a pre-marital ritual, the hen do seems to be a more recent custom that began to emerge in the mid-1980s.

For Kate Middleton, as far as the tabloid press are concerned, the question is not so much if she will have a hen do, but where, when and with whom?

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But one thing is certain. if Philippa Middleton - Kate's sister and maiden of honour - has been fixing a celebration, it will bear little resemblance to the stereotypical British hen do which has become a familiar Saturday night sight. Cities such as Brighton and Newcastle have become hotspots for gaggles of young women, shuttled around from pub to pub in rented limousines, dressed with veils, L-plates and brandishing the odd phallic accessory.

No wonder the hen do is not universally admired. Its reputation for being loud, tacky and debauched has prompted broadsides from critics such as Guardian writer Hannah Pool.

She has talked of a "specific tyranny" about hen parties.

"Hearing women talk about hen nights, they sound like soldiers comparing their time on the front line. Ask any woman and she will have at least one story of hen-night-related humiliation."

With that thought in mind, what is the point of it all?

Wedding etiquette expert Peggy Post says in recent years, the tide has actually started turning in terms of what women want from a hen do. Where once it was seen as a "last night of freedom", as life has become ever-more hectic for today's career-focused female, the hen night is instead about spending time with friends.

"It once had the reputation for being the one last fling but it's now more a last chance to bond with close friends before you're part of a couple," she says.

Kate Middleton Will she, won't she? Is a royal hen do on the cards?

Whatever the reason, the phenomenon of the hen do seems to have taken off in the 1980s - a decade when young women started to enjoy the benefits of gender equality.

And as the stag night evolved from being just that - a night, perhaps at a humble watering hole, into a weekend away in a European capital, the hen also grew into an occasion at which women could party, indulge themselves and enjoy some time away from men.

As someone who has been organising stag and hen parties in the UK since 1997, Ian Lucas of Redseven is well placed to comment on how the occasion has evolved. He says that there have been three noticeable stages in the development of the modern-day hen:

"What started off as a night with friends at home with a few bottles of Asti Spumante in the 80s became a night on the town in the 90s and a weekend away in the noughties."

Over the years, as women have had more money through careers and marrying later, so hen parties have become increasingly elaborate.

Stag/bachelor party origins

  • Believed to date back to the 5th Century BC in ancient Greece
  • Spartan soldiers held a dinner for the groom on the eve of his wedding
  • King Henry VIII is alleged to have held pre-wedding banquets with his friends
  • In the late 1800s, men used it as a chance to say goodbye to friends they would not invite into the marital home

Stag dos were almost forced to become more organised events, as the very label - "stags" - became enough to earn a firm "no entry" from many a bar or nightclub.

"Alcohol forms a massive part of these celebrations. It's the key thing, the socialising. But it's not like it used to be with groups of girls and guys turning up in a town to get drunk, fall about and urinate in the streets," says Mr Lucas.

'More quality-driven'

As the organised packages became more popular - the UK industry is currently estimated to be worth between £300m and £500m - so both sexes seem to have wanted to get something more out of the occasion than a few drinks and a stripper.

"There's less focus on alcopops and bar crawls," says Mr Lucas. "15 years ago all hens wanted to do was go to a hotel with spa facilities then out for the evening whereas now they want more - dance classes, pottery-making, chocolate-making. It's become much more quality-driven."

Women in bikinis on beach in Cancun Cancun is a popular destination for US bachelorettes

In the US where the equivalent, the bachelorette party, is celebrated, it is a similar story. Peggy Post agrees that the type of event has moved on since she first wrote about it in the mid-1990s.

"They've become more about personalisation. Instead of having an evening party, there's been a lot more destination bachelorette parties to places like Vegas and Cancun in Mexico."

According to a recent Teletext survey in the UK, the average hen party leaves a woman £106 lighter.

Of course, there are always those who can, and will, push it to the limit in extravagance. Ahead of her wedding to England footballer Wayne Rooney, Coleen McLoughlin spent £20,000 on a weekend with her friends.

International ritual

The hen do/bachelorette party is not a purely British or American tradition. Other international equivalents include the French "enterrement de vie de jeune fille" and the Canadian stagette. There are also similar events in Denmark, Australia and South Africa.

Start Quote

In any other scenario I love an all-female environment but something happens when it's labelled a hen party”

End Quote Hannah Pool Journalist and author

But even if the British hen do is slowly starting to shed its tacky image, the concept still leaves Hannah Pool cold.

"In any other scenario I love an all-female environment but something happens when it's labelled a hen party: The bossy e-mails, the forced fun, the expense, giving up holiday to go away with a huge bunch of people, most of whom you don't know."

She says that the situation brings out the worst in women as they all vie for the bride's affections.

"It's usually mixed pockets of friendship who the bride has kept separate for specific reasons and then it gets incredibly competitive with different groups trying to see who knows her best and everyone trying to sit closest to her."

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