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The Weddings Issue

How to plan an Instagram-worthy wedding

From colorful “smoke bombs” to “Game of Thrones”-themed nuptials, here’s how these couples made their big day very uniquely theirs.

In days gone by, the ideal wedding might have been an elegant ballroom affair. Guests wore gowns and tuxedos, danced to a six-piece band, and nibbled on slices of vanilla cake. Or perhaps a breezy, Kennedy-esque seaside celebration, with navy blazers and probably a carved ham. Styles came and went, but a wedding was a wedding was a wedding.

Today, couples are brands, with logos, websites, and a full week’s agenda. Weddings consist of “moments” — well-designed vignettes and experiences meant to set the mood and wow the guests. Instagram has 5.2 million images tagged #weddingdecor. When did “wedding décor” become a thing?

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Unique moments — from floral silk kimonos for the bridesmaids to neon signs delivering hashtag-like messages (“best day ever”) to post-reception ice cream trucks — make for Instagram-worthy memories. More importantly, they define the day and the couple. Alyssa Longobucco, style and planning editor for The Knot, says, “You want guests to walk in and say, ‘This is so them.’”

We talked to local couples about the standout moments that amped up the fun factor of their wedding day and made it “so them.”

DOUGHNUT DÉCOR

Maple bacon, Fruity Pebbles, and the couple’s favorite, chocolate butter crunch, were among the flavors on Molly and Mike Shaw’s DIY doughnut wall.
Maple bacon, Fruity Pebbles, and the couple’s favorite, chocolate butter crunch, were among the flavors on Molly and Mike Shaw’s DIY doughnut wall.(Zac Wolf Photography)

Hitting Doughboy Donuts & Deli is a weekend tradition for Molly and Mike Shaw, who live across town from the South Boston staple. When it was time to pick a dessert for their Cape Cod wedding, which was catered by Mike’s restaurant, Loco Taqueria & Oyster Bar, Molly suggested doughnuts. “They’re easy,” she says. “Just grab and go.”

Mention a doughnut wall, and wedding industry professionals groan. “I want to tell you that doughnuts are dead, but I don’t see them going away anytime soon,” says Longobucco. According to Pinterest, searches for “donut décor” increased 748 percent from 2017 to 2018.

Rebecca Roth Gullo, owner of Blackbird Doughnuts, says her Boston and Cambridge bakeries have concocted pastries of every ilk, from doughnuts inspired by a couple’s signature cocktail (Moscow Mule, anyone?) to galactic styles replete with edible glitter. She notes that Asian-inspired flavors, such as matcha and lychee, are trending.

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Mai Linh and Javier Colon, who wed in Cohasset last fall, ordered 200 green tea matcha and coconut building blocks for their doughnut wall from Momo Café in Quincy. Linh says with equal parts excitement and dismay, “They were such a huge hit that nobody touched our four-tier wedding cake.”

DREAM THEMES

Ashley and Charlotte Buchanan, who live in Salem, planned a “Game of Thrones”-themed wedding at Hammond Castle in Gloucester.
Ashley and Charlotte Buchanan, who live in Salem, planned a “Game of Thrones”-themed wedding at Hammond Castle in Gloucester.(Zac Wolf Photography)

Ashley and Charlotte Buchanan did not want a cookie-cutter wedding. “We both love Game of Thrones,” Ashley says. Adds Charlotte, “I was like, yeah, good idea.” Neither had ever attended a theme wedding, but they embraced the idea. Black scrolls with gold lettering requested the honor of “your noble presence” at Hammond Castle, perched on a rocky cliff in Gloucester. Ashley’s brother, robed in black, officiated in the stone castle’s Great Hall.

Charlotte wore a tiered confection by Oscar de la Renta and a crystal bolero from Etsy. Ashley wore a custom doublet and a crown. Attendants and guests had fun with the theme, sporting medieval ensembles of black and jewel-toned velvets and brocades.

The hit show, which debuted in 2011, has spawned more than a few themed celebrations. An Instagram search for #gameofthroneswedding turns up more than 4,000 posts. Pinterest searches for “abandoned castles” increased 142 percent last year. The Knot reports that books and TV shows are increasingly dictating wedding décor. “Themes are big, whether intense or subtly nuanced,” says Longobucco.

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The couple was an inspiration: One of their attendants is now planning a Hollywood-themed wedding in Los Angeles. Ashley says, “We’re excited to show people that weddings can be anything.”

ABOUT FACE

Jacky Wilson and Will Chiang commissioned portraits of their guests for the seating chart at their wedding last June.
Jacky Wilson and Will Chiang commissioned portraits of their guests for the seating chart at their wedding last June. (Madeline Rose Photography Co.)

Jacky Wilson and Will Chiang were married on the rooftop of the XV Beacon hotel, followed by an intimate reception in the wine cellar of Mooo, the on-site restaurant. They commissioned an artist to draw a portrait of each guest for their seating chart. “Oftentimes the details are all about the bride and groom, so it was fun to turn the tables and make it about the guests,” Wilson says.

Wedding guests used to retrieve table assignments from tastefully calligraphed cards arranged on a table dressed up (or not) with a flower arrangement. Today, the displays are major moments. Blackboards and reclaimed-wood panels have mostly given way to sleeker styles, such as gold metal grids and engraved acrylic displays. Some couples go interactive, perhaps asking friends and family to navigate to tables by following compass coordinates.

“We’re seeing an evolution of escort cards that reflect couples’ interests and unique aspects of their relationship,” says Etsy’s trend expert, Dayna Isom Johnson. She reports that the online marketplace offers more than 110,000 custom portrait options.

Longobucco adds, “Whether it’s a haiku station with someone banging out poems on an old-school typewriter or an artist drawing on the spot during cocktail hour, couples want to give back to their guests.”

SWEET SERENADE

Cassidy Mellin and Alex O’Reilly wanted every aspect of their day to be meaningful. They even handed out local honey from Mellin’s father’s bees, complete with wooden dippers turned on a vintage lathe by the bride herself.

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During the ceremony, the groom performed two acoustic guitar numbers he composed for the occasion. “I opened with the Beatles’ ‘In My Life,’” says O’Reilly, who works in tech. “I didn’t want to sing while she walked down the aisle — all eyes should be on her — so I wrote music that flowed from that in the same key and tempo.”

A query to local wedding-industry professionals turned up a dozen such scenarios, from a ukulele-playing groom to a couple who sang Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon.” One groom, in lieu of a toast, performed with his college a cappella group.

Jason Silverman, leader of Boston band Hot Mess, recalls his favorite musical moment: A bride surprised her new husband with an acoustic version of “Into the Mystic,” by Van Morrison. “She placed a single chair in the middle of the dance floor, asked him to take a seat, and serenaded him,” he says. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

CULTURAL VIBES

The Carolinas youth dance troupe performed at Amber and Brian Kabuye’s 2018 wedding in Bolton.
The Carolinas youth dance troupe performed at Amber and Brian Kabuye’s 2018 wedding in Bolton.(Karen Lane/Promessa Studios)

Highlighting the culture of the Ugandan region of Buganda was a priority for Amber and Brian Kabuye. In addition to small acknowledgments throughout their wedding weekend — including “Source of the Nile” signature cocktails — the couple hired an African dance troupe to perform at the reception.

“Dance plays a strong role in celebrating life events in Bugandan culture,” Amber says. “This recognized the traditions of his tribe and welcomed everyone who traveled to be with us.” The dancers wore traditional dress in bright colors and patterns typical of eastern Africa and brought instruments, which did double duty as conversation starters.

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Tributes to the couple’s background are increasingly popular. Between 2015 and 2017, the number of couples who said they featured customs related to race and religion in their wedding celebrations jumped by 18 percent, according to Wedding Wire.

“Couples are finding ways to modernize cultural traditions,” Johnson says. Think personalized items like African-American jumping brooms and Celtic handfasting cords.

Ugonma Chukwueke and Samuel Botsford hired Afrobeats Dance Boston to perform at their reception last year as a way to connect to her family’s Nigerian background. The ceremony also included Jewish traditions to honor Sam’s family’s heritage. Says Chukwueke, a neuro-oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, “They came out after we had changed into our Nigerian outfits and danced the hora.”

BOMB SQUAD

 Jess Mooney and Katy DeMoura declare their pride in front of an installation of rainbow-colored smoke before tying the knot.
Jess Mooney and Katy DeMoura declare their pride in front of an installation of rainbow-colored smoke before tying the knot.(NATO TUKE)

Incorporating a unique rainbow element into their Provincetown wedding — a nod to pride — was essential for Katy and Jess DeMoura Mooney of Cambridge. Katy, who had seen smoke bomb photos on a wedding blog, ordered two rainbow sets. Her dad, citing safety concerns, wasn’t thrilled. “He actually tried to hide them,” she says.

Au courant couples are lighting smoke bombs in colors coordinated with their wedding décor. Jen Campbell, editor of the website Green Wedding Shoes, shared staged editorial shoots that incorporated smoke bombs in 2015. The following year, she began seeing (and posting) photos of real-life couples encased in clouds of colored smoke.

Searches for “smoke bomb photography” on Pinterest increased 436 percent last year over the previous year. Longobucco predicts an explosion in interest in the coming seasons. “It takes the imagery up a notch,” she says. And in this age of social media, that’s important.

Despite Katy’s careful planning, there was mayhem in the moment. “The smoke was so overwhelming, we kind of panicked,” she says. “But the photos were worth it.”


Marni Elyse Katz is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Get the best of the magazine’s award-winning stories and features right in your e-mail inbox every Sunday. Sign up here.