Gifts for groomsmen

One of the few official duties of the bridegroom, having chosen his groomsmen or ushers, is to present them with a souvenir of the day. Gifts may include personalised hip flasks, small electronics, silver pens, expensive alcohol and a surprising quantity of joke books and gag gifts. However, also still popular are the traditional monogrammed or personalised cufflinks, tie-clips and watches.

Advice and ideas on gifts for ushers is a staple of magazines, particularly in May editions, ready for the June wedding season. The items suggested over the years show us what has changed in men's fashion and what remains the same. Walking sticks, cigarette cases and lighters, money clips and scarf pins – formerly popular choices – would probably not fit the lifestyle of many modern men. Engraved cufflinks are enduring options, even if a wedding is the only occasion many men will wear them. The main consideration was to choose something which would be a lasting and personal memento of the day.

Black and white page from Vogue magazine showing canes, a flask, tie pins and a hip flask
Vogue magazine, 1912. © 2012 Condé Nast Publications

"Some excellent suggestions" of gifts for ushers and the best man, put forward by Vogue on May 1, 1912 included cigarette and card cases, decorative buttons, scarf pins, walking sticks and a hip flask.

Gold cigarette case engraved with radiating straight lines
Gilt silver cigarette case, about 1895, Russia. Museum no. M.154-1987. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

By the mid-nineteenth century, the custom of giving presents to the groom's male attendants was fully accepted. The regular column in Vogue, ‘As Seen By Him’, in 1892 complained that "usher pins are no small item of the wedding expenses". The writer went on to describe the plight of a young man, unable to marry because it was reported that ushers always received handsome scarf pins and the bride a diamond star. He might have managed the scarf pins but the diamond star was beyond him and no woman in the land, he felt, would forego that part of the ceremony.

Gold pin inlaid with micromosaic initials in white on a navy background
Tie pin, about 1830 – 70, Europe. Museum no. T.172-1959. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In a column the following year, the author noted that although he was to be an usher at four weddings, at some personal expense, he was consoled by the reflection that the men who had asked him knew "how to do the proper thing and that they have the most excellent taste in the selection of scarf pins". The popularity of scarf-pins is shown, for example, by the 1895 wedding of Mary Oliphant Wilson to Captain Henry Fitzherbert in which "the groom's gift to his ushers were pearl scarf pins". Pearl pins, before the invention of artificial pearls, were extremely smart and quite expensive. Pins, studs and buttons could also be used to add a note of colour to a plain shirt or tie or were used to show a man's interests or hobbies.

Page of designs for tie pins
Designs for pin tops, the firm of John Brogden, about 1860. Museum no. E.2:814-1986. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The intricately detailed pin tops by the firm of John Brogden could have been used as shirt, scarf or stock pins and gives an idea of the imaginative options open to the customer. A 'stock tie', on which the stock pin would be attached, was traditionally worn around the neck during formal equestrian pursuits (and still is for events such as dressage) but was adopted as everyday wear by gentlemen from the eighteenth century. A presentation set of mosaic buttons and studs decorated with the sights of Rome, such as the one in our collection, would have shown the donor's interest in the classical world, good taste and love of travel.

Twelve round tie pin heads featuring micromosaic designs of classic Italian architecture surrounded by a black border
Set of twelve buttons and studs with micromosaic monuments of Rome, about 1850, Rome, Italy. Museum no. LOAN:GILBERT.963:13-2008. © The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1914, Vogue magazine classed its guide for usher gifts as "the mere man's nearest approach to jewelry", possibly implying that men would not generally pretend to have any knowledge of, or interest in jewellery, but would have to submit to it for the needs of their wedding. Despite this, the range of jewelled pins, cufflinks and shirt studs suggests that this indifference was feigned. In May 1917, Vogue stated that, "the groom knows from long experience that cufflinks are absolutely vital to the happiness of man, so he thoughtfully presents his ushers or best man with engine turned gold ones". But, by 1932, cufflinks weren’t the thrill they once were, as one bridegroom reported, "Every man's been given them by every groom he's ever ushered for. They're overstocked with cufflinks. Now, evening studs, on the other hand, nobody ever seems to think of, and that's what I gave the boys".

Pair of gold cufflinks with green jade flower centres
Pair of gilt metal and jade cuff links, Baer & Wilde, about 1930, Germany. Museum no. T.730:1, 2&A/1, 2-1974. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Walking sticks were a similar problem. In 1927, Vogue presented them as a "discovery in chic" but in the same year, the New Yorker magazine suggested that "a wedding usher is an usher in name only; that is to say, he does not get paid for ushering. Every time he ushers at a wedding, he gets a cane, and when an usher gets twenty-five canes, he goes walking". This imaginary usher had become so addicted to weddings that he couldn't pass a church without attempting to offer his services and obtain another cane.

One gift which combined style with utility was the gold key case, popularised in the 1920s. It was suggested as a useful gift for ushers in a list of 1927, offering a case which holds "a gold key which can be cut to fit any man's front door, to carry with evening clothes", perhaps reflecting the fact that many young men were living in serviced apartments without live-in staff to open the door in the small hours. It appears again in 1932 as a "smart and thoughtful" gift, a "gold skeleton key with the recipient's initials raised on the handles, to be stamped in the screw of the men's several latches".

So, to answer the question posed by Vogue magazine in 1933: "those poor, innocent but very active bystanders at a wedding – the bridesmaids and ushers. What do they get out of it all?" The usher or groomsman of a thoughtful bridegroom might receive a personalised and usable gift – a memento of the wedding and symbol of a lasting friendship.

Background image: G.P.O wedding greetings telegram, designed by Anna K Zinkelson, 1961. Museum no. E.3805A-1983. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London