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Icing on the Cake

When I lived in London and commuted between Holloway Road and Goldsmiths in Lewisham, one of my favourite moments in my journey was when the train slowly rounded the bend into Cannon Street Station. On my right, the skyscrapers and churches of the City came into view, and if I looked quickly, I’d spot the spindly, delicately ornate spire of St Bride’s Church in Fleet Street, traditionally the spiritual home of Britain’s journalists.

I’ve been thinking of St Bride’s rather a lot recently. This is turning out to be a year of weddings: my best friend’s in Canada, my sister’s in February 2015, and at least two in-between. Although four very different weddings in terms of size, formality, and religiosity, I’ve been amused by how vehemently each of the couples has not wanted an old-fashioned wedding cake.

I have a dim memory of that kind of cake – comprised of dense fruit cake and covered in a thick layer of marzipan and royal icing so sturdy it could be used to plaster houses – from a cousin’s wedding in the late 1980s, where I was a not particularly successful flower girl. (I didn’t realise that my role was to hold the bride’s bouquet during the ceremony. And I refused to be in any of the photographs. I still have no idea why.)

Cake and sweet things have been eaten at weddings around the world for thousands of years, to symbolise fertility, wealth, and a sweet life for the couple. But the vogue for large, white wedding cakes is a more recent phenomenon. What we think of as traditional wedding cakes originated in Britain during the Victorian period, and was based on the sweet, fruit-heavy bride’s cake served at early modern weddings to ensure the luck and fertility of the bride. The myth is that William Rich, a baker apprenticed near Christopher Wren’s St Bride’s church with its tiered steeple, modelled his own multi-layered wedding cake on Wren’s design.

St Bride's Church, Fleet Street

St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street

To some extent, the British royal family popularised tall, ornately decorated cakes. Queen Victoria’s 1840 wedding cake seems to have been a consisted mainly of decorations:

This royal cake weighs nearly 300 lb. weight. It is three yards in circumference, and about fourteen inches in depth or thickness. It is covered with sugar of the purest white; on the top is seen the figure of Britannia in the act of blessing the illustrious bride and bridegroom, who are dressed somewhat incongruously in the costume of ancient Rome. These figures are not quite a foot in height; at the feet of his serene highness is the effigy of a dog, said to denote fidelity; and at the feet of the queen is a pair of turtle doves, denoting the felicities of the marriage state. A cupid is writing in a volume expanded on his knees the date of the day of the marriage, and various other cupids are sporting and enjoying themselves…

Simplified designs were copied by an emergent Victorian middle class, eager to show off their good taste and wealth through increasingly elaborate weddings. These cakes were expensive: white sugar cost more than the unrefined brown, and bakers needed to be trained in the art of piping royal icing, a fashion imported from the continent.

The double layer of marzipan and royal icing had a practical function too: not only were pieces of cake sent home with guests and to family and relations far away, but the top tier of the cake was kept for the christening of the couple’s first child, or to be eaten a year later for luck.

As the meanings of weddings and marriage have changed, so has the significance of wedding cake. At recent weddings, I have eaten carrot, chocolate, and red velvet cake. Although decorated elaborately, these are not cakes to be kept, but rather to be eaten as pudding at the end of the reception. But although couples are choosing to reinvent wedding cakes, these cakes are as full of meaning as they were in the nineteenth century.

As a recent report in the Atlantic argued, particularly in the West, marriage and weddings are an increasingly middle-class phenomenon – and I think that some of its arguments describe changes which have occurred beyond the West too. Olga Khazan explains:

Culturally, young adults of all social classes and income levels are less likely to think of marriage as the ‘cornerstone’ of their lives – that is, the first thing they do as adults. Instead, people now think of it as a ‘capstone’ – sort of a trophy for having earned a BA, obtained a job, and generally learned to live on their own for a while.

As a result of this, weddings are intended to express the likes and enthusiasms of the couple, from their clothes to the cake they serve at the reception. If anything, weddings have accrued more meaning as they occur later in couples’ lives and relationships.

The irony, though, is that the enormous wedding-industrial complex which has emerged in recent years to facilitate these increasingly elaborate middle-class weddings, has worked to settle a particular conformity on them: from the artfully posed engagement and wedding photos, to the matching outfits for attendants, and the painstaking attention to every detail from confetti to favours for the guests and the fonts used on the stationery.

My point is that wedding cakes are a particularly useful means of demonstrating how weddings are used to denote a range of meanings: from middle-class claims to respectability, wealth, and sophistication in the middle of the nineteenth century, to a marker of full entry into adulthood and financial independence in the early twenty-first century.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. I love that view into London from the South East. Especially from New Cross (where I live), where the tall towers of both Canary Wharf and the City peak out over the skyline, reminding you, you are in fact very much living within spitting distance of Britains biggest (and greatest city). St Bride’s is a fantastic inspiration for a cake!

    July 14, 2014
  2. On a completely different note … did you ever go inside St Bride’s? Its crypt hosts one of London’s most exciting sights: archeologists excavated and labelled the walls, providing you with a tour of London history in form of bits of wall, pavement, rubble etc, all labelled and taking you from the stone age all the way to the present day. It’s breathtaking!

    July 17, 2014
    • I didn’t! How fascinating – that’s definitely on my list of things to do when I’m next in London. Thank you! -Sarah

      July 18, 2014

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