Those lucky enough to have one of those gilded and burnished invitations dropped into their mailboxes will soon be off to the most exclusive, most talked-about event of the year—and also the most challenging in terms of etiquette. Wondering what to wear, how to act and talk, is surely costing some their sleep, and adding to the pressure is the knowledge that more than a billion people are likely to follow the day’s events. Luckily, invitees have been given instructions for the day, in the spirit of the Middle Ages when special courtesy books were often distributed at formal banquets reminding diners not to scratch flea bites or pick their noses. This time, of course, the rules are more genteel.
It’s worth mentioning the obvious. First, guests must remember to bring the invitation, plus ID. Security will be incredibly tight. And they must get there early. Really early. Only the great and good arrive in the last hour before Kate Middleton and father start their walk down the aisle.
For the male half of the species, clothing advice is on the invite itself. Women get no such help, but precedence dictates a formal dress or suit. Luckily they’re not being asked to wear evening gowns, as guests were to Sophie Rhys-Jones’s daytime wedding to Prince Edward in 1999. Since this is a religious, as well as royal, event inside an ancient, cold abbey, ixnay on anything too short or skimpy. Yes, royals like their hats and this is a chance to sport a spectacular one—but not too grand, or those in the seats behind won’t see a thing. And women shouldn’t panic if they find themselves wearing something similar to one of the regal frocks. After Margaret Thatcher committed that sin at an event in the ’80s, she called the Queen’s household to ask whether the two women should coordinate colours on future joint outings, only to be told not to worry—Elizabeth II never notices what others are wearing.
For those invited to Buckingham Palace for the wedding breakfast or the evening’s festivities, the chance of actually rubbing shoulders with royalty increases dramatically. And the 600 guests attending the early afternoon reception will dine on sweet and savoury canapés spread buffet-style around 19 of Buckingham Palace’s state rooms—so, instead of being stuck between boring tablemates, they’ll have the chance to mingle with a lot of top-drawer guests. Alas, that also means the opportunity to behave like fools. It’s worth remembering royalty always talks first and is addressed as “your majesty” or “your royal highness” on first reference, then “ma’am” (as in jam) or “sir” thereafter. While curtsies (for women) or neck bows (men) are optional, instructional videos are on YouTube. And, yes, Michelle Obama got away with hugging the Queen, but lesser beings should resist copying her.
It’s best to go with the manners used when talking to your beloved grandmother’s best friend: formal greetings, complete with a confident but not strong handshake—they’re shaking hundreds of hands in a few hours—letting them take the lead in a conversation, avoiding asking anything too personal, and remembering that it isn’t all about you. Need we remind you that whipping out a phone or camera will result in a one-way trip to the palace’s corner of shame? And the royal household has an institutional memory that makes elephants look like dummies: they never forget and rarely forgive.
Generally speaking, those lucky enough to snag the 2011 version of Willy Wonka’s golden ticket—entry to the ultra-exclusive evening dinner and dance hosted by Prince Charles—actually know the family and memorized the rules long ago. But there are bound to be a few of the 300 invitees to the sit-down meal who won’t have a clue what to do with that wee fork (it’s for shellfish). For starters, Buckingham Palace isn’t a great place to be fussy about food—the hosts have gone to a lot of trouble to prepare dinner and it would be uncouth not to sample everything that’s served (without courting any life-threatening conditions, of course—allergies as well as religious requirements will have long been communicated to the palace staff by now). Guests can be thankful the menu won’t include “bride’s pye,” the first recorded dish to ever be served at a British wedding. This large pastry shell was chock full of choice ingredients including cockscombs, lamb testicles, veal sweetbreads and oysters. The closest this dinner could get, according to royal chronicler Brian Hoey, author of At Home with the Queen, is a pie stuffed with a boned turkey stuffed with a chicken, which is stuffed with a pheasant and finally stuffed with a woodcock—a royal family favourite. Charles absolutely loves it.
Though the menu is a secret, asparagus is likely to be served, since it’s been included in the last five coronation dinners. For the record, it is eaten with fingers, starting with the head. Bread is broken with the hands, not cut with a knife. If oysters are served on the half shell, the meat of the bivalve is loosened using the shellfish fork (that wee one), and then you use your thumb and first two fingers to bring the shell to your lower lip and tip all that goodness—including the liquid—into your mouth. The half shell is returned to the plate—with the shell’s exterior facing up. And at the end of every course, the cutlery—for dinners as important as this, the palace will likely bring out the gold flatware; solid gold—should be placed diagonally with the knife blade facing inward.
In an era of rampant wine snobbery, etiquette around the drinks is perhaps easier, though some guests will be unaccustomed to seeing up to five crystal glasses—for champagne, white wine, red wine, dessert wine and water—lined up in front of them. Guests should imbibe in the order in which glasses are filled. Stemware on a glass is there to be used; grabbing the bowl not only leaves fingerprints and smudges but risks raising the temperature of the precious liquid. And while sipping that cup of tea, keep pinkies down —that actually went out with the Victorians—and spoons where they belong: on the saucer.
Above all, as in the rest of the day, common sense rules. So when William and Kate hit the dance floor, resist the urge to document the occasion with an iPhone snap. There’s no need. You’ll remember every minute.