Until the end of the 1940s, it was considered improper for a man to walk beside a lady whom he was escorting. His proper place when strolling in daylight was a comfortable two paces behind, the rationale being that he would be in a better position to “protect” her from that vantage point—the way a bodyguard is called a “guardaspalle” in the Italian language (which translates as “back guard”) or consistent with the phrase, “I have your back” in English. William O. Stevens, in his new and revised edition of The Correct Thing—A Guide Book of Etiquette for Young Men (1935), writes in his chapter, “Public Places”: “A lady always precedes a gentleman on the street….” Only at night, in inclement weather, when assisting the elderly or the infirm, when in a wedding procession or recession, or when crossing a busy intersection, for example, was a man allowed to offer his arm to a lady in public places. But etiquette evolves—thank God! And today, it is considered quite apropos for a couple in-love to stroll arm in arm, hand in hand, or to walk abreast down Paris’ Champs Elysees in broad daylight. Even today, however, public display of sexually suggestive affection is considered in poor taste. And what has not changed over the years is this: In Europe, when a gentleman invites a lady to take his arm or to walk with him, she must take his right arm or walk along his right side—even if doing so places her on the curbside. In America, on the other hand, the gentleman should walk on the curbside, whether that places his lady escort on his right side or on his left. It is advised in America, however, that a lady only be offered a gentleman’s right arm, though she is free to walk beside him on his left side.
In some very conservative communities, men precede women in a funeral cortege: The order of the procession en route to the cemetery is the hearse, followed by men, followed by women and children. Though that tradition is rarely observed today, it should be observed in places where it is still the custom.
Weddings are partly to blame for the ambiguity as to which “side” men and women should occupy when walking, posing for photographs, greeting guests, etc. In a traditional Western wedding, the bride’s “side” of the church is the left side, while the groom’s “side” is the right. (In the case of a traditional Jewish wedding, the “sides” are reversed). Correspondingly, the bride’s family and friends sit on the left side of the church, and the groom’s family and friends sit on the right. Also, while before the altar during the wedding ceremony, the bride occupies the seat and uses the prayer kneeler on the left, while the groom is positioned on the right. That left-right configuration, however, has the effect of the bride being situated on her groom’s left side throughout the ceremony, when conventional practice is for women to accompany a man on his right side. People have long attributed the left placement of the bride in the traditional wedding ceremony to the Biblical account of God removing Adam’s rib in order to make Eve; and romantically assuming that the removed rib was from Adam’s left side since the human heart is anatomically situated more towards the left half of the body (which also serves as the rationale for wearing wedding rings on the left hand), the justification resonated with many people. The fact, however, is that the Bible is silent as to the side from which Adam’s rib was removed. (See Genesis 2: 21). Similarly, the more chivalrous types claim medieval custom: They claim that placing the bride on the groom’s left kept his sword-hand—his right hand—free so that he could better protect her in the event some bandit attempted to abduct her at the altar. (Tough luck for left-handed swordsmen!) The fact, however, is that medieval-era weddings looked very much unlike what is today regarded as a traditional wedding ceremony. While marriage became a Catholic sacrament in the 13th century, until 1545, most marriages in much of Europe were by mutual consent and private declaration, not in a church. And as such, no priest or witnesses—and certainly not bride-robbing bandits—were required to effectuate (or disrupt!) the union.
Ironically, it seems as if the left-right placement is neither for the benefit of the bride nor the groom, but instead a logistical convenience for the father-of-the-bride! During the procession, the father of the bride walks up the nave with the bride on his right arm, as is to be expected. And after situating his daughter in front of the church-kneeler on the left (“her side” of the church), she is joined before the altar by her groom, who, during the procession, is awaiting her just right of the pair of church-kneelers—more towards “his side” of the church. The bride’s father then simply steps aside towards the left, taking his seat next to the bride’s mother, who is seated in the first pew of the left side of the church. And in so doing, there is no need for the father-of-the-bride to have to walk around or hop over the train of the bride’s gown—some of which can be cathedral-length—in order to access his seat. (And with that being the real reason, there is little wonder people have concocted myths that are shorter, easier to explain, and more romantic!) But the even more compelling and important reason for the left-right placement is the fact that at the conclusion of the wedding ceremony, when the bride and groom face those in attendance for the recession, the bride is then conveniently and rightfully situated on the right side of her new husband as they make their triumphant promenade down the aisle as man and wife.