The roots of the hen party tradition in the UK go back further than in the US, says American sociologist Beth Montemurro. There, it is more of a recent phenomenon starting in the 1970s and 1980s as an expression of sexual freedom tied to the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
Folklorist George Monger wrote about the pre-wedding traditions prevalent in industry in 1971, with some obvious parallels to the hen party culture we see today. He described the tricks played on female industrial workers on their last day of work. The bride would be dressed up in a coat or veil and made to look like a parody of a bride, then paraded around the factory where people would congratulate her.
Sheila Young, a researcher studying the tradition of hen parties in the UK at the University of Aberdeen, says there was a lack of knowledge about sex, with the bride-to-be going from living with her family to becoming sexually active. As a result, she says, messages with sexual innuendos were tied onto the bride’s coat before she was paraded around the local pub – an extraordinary sight by the social standards of the times.
Montemurro, who wrote a book in 2006 on the symbolism of bachelorette parties in the US, says the industry has completely changed since she started her research in the late 1990s. Back then, organised hen travel companies and hen club nights didn’t really exist, but now it is the industry that is driving the trend. “Reality TV shows contribute to the belief that it’s normal to spend lots of money on bachelorette parties, with women feeling entitled to have everything and spend as much as they want, from the time of engagement to the time of the wedding,” says Montemurro.
The phrase “hen party” dates back to the 1800s to denote a gathering of females, but there was no pre-wedding context. It was not until 1976 that the Times newspaper first used hen party in the modern-day sense. The term had quotation marks around it – perhaps implying it was still not in common use at that time – and was in a story about a male stripper who was fined by Leicester Crown Court for acting in “a lewd, obscene and disgusting manner”.