Stag nights and hen dos: a brief history of bachelor and bachelorette parties

The transition from unmarried to married is one of life’s biggest changes for many, and throughout history people have celebrated the upcoming occasion with a variety of rituals and celebrations. Here, Emily Brand explores pre-wedding traditions through history – from the old Scottish custom of washing feet, to the traditional ‘stag’ and ‘hen’ dos…

Postcard of a group of men wearing identical clothing boarding a boat for a stag party, c1914. (Photo via Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).

Throughout history, prewedding rituals have been largely dictated by gender roles. For the bride-to-be, these traditions were more about preparation than fun. In Ancient Greece, the day before marriage was known as the proaulia. The bride, along with her mother and other women, would make offerings and sacrifices to appease the gods who might see fit to ruin the day – especially Artemis, goddess of chastity and childbirth. Similarly, the old Scottish custom of feet-washing, a symbolic ‘cleansing’ of the bride by her female friends, persists in some ceremonies today.

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While the bride traditionally anticipated the loss of her virginity, the groom was more likely to focus on the loss of his bachelorhood. In the western world, male freedoms (be it in sexual experience, drinking or simply leaving the home unchaperoned) have historically pushed their celebrations towards revelry and feasting. In ancient Sparta, for example, soldiers would toast each other on the eve of a friend’s wedding.

When did stag and hen dos start?

The terms ‘stag’ and ‘hen’ parties (sometimes referred to as a ‘do’) originate in the mid-19th century, although they were not necessarily tied to weddings at this time. Instead, they referred to entertainments attended by just men or just women. Victorian-era ‘stag’ parties involved activities such as fishing, oyster suppers, magic-trick shows and dressing up in costume. In Ohio in 1860, a ‘stag party’ comprising of 16 married gentlemen – who were hoping to enjoy “a sleigh ride, a supper, and a ‘good time’ generally” – was scuppered when their wives turned up to spoil their fun. By the 1870s, the equivalent ‘hen parties’ had emerged, generally featuring singing, dancing, tea and genteel amusements – though in 1907, one newspaper lamented that “in what is vulgarly called a hen party, cigarettes and liquers [sic] are handed round and partaken of just as though men were of the company”.

For decades, stag and hens solely referred to single-sex frolics, theatrical shows, birthdays, and parties. It was in the 1960s that the terms irreparably collided with pre-wedding celebrations. Hen parties at this time allowed the working bride-to-be to celebrate with her co-workers, before potentially leaving her job to become a housewife and mother.

With the more liberated sexual attitudes of the 1960s and 70s, women increasingly indulged in celebrations more akin to their grooms: one hen party of 1976, for example, came to an abrupt end after the male stripper was fined for acting in “a lewd, obscene and disgusting manner”. The industry has since exploded into a hugely profitable purveyor of games, costumes, events and sex-themed merchandise for party-goers.

As tastes and expectations have grown more elaborate, the celebrations have evolved: small parties on the eve of the wedding have been increasingly replaced by hyper-organised weekends abroad, with an itinerary of activities and often taking place months in advance. But while the outward accessories have changed, the focus on the night as a rite of passage remains, and it remains one underpinned by sex – even if it is no longer socially acceptable for either bride or groom to enjoy their last ‘night of liberty’ too much. “It’s no yoursel’ that’s having the final fling”, commented one Scottish stag-goer in 1980s, “everybody else is having it for you”.

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Emily Brand is an author and historian specialising in the long 18th century, especially the trials and tribulations of romantic (and not-so-romantic) relationships in England. Her new book, The Fall of the House of Byron, is due for publication by John Murray in April 2020 and is available for pre-order now