The Most Common Wedding Guest Dress Codes Explained, So You Don't Show Up in the Wrong Outfit
Any well-mannered wedding guest takes special note of the wedding day's dress code and arrives outfitted appropriately — but with your own touch of personal style. The prerequisite to adhering to the dress code? Well, understanding the dress code. From black tie to casual, we're here with an easy-to-follow guide to the wedding guest dress codes that you'll most commonly see on the lace-adorned invitations, plus what to do when a dress code isn't specified at all. Because there's no time to stress when merriment and a celebration of love is to be had. Here's how to dress confidently for your next wedding.
There aren't many times in life when this dress code will be required of you, unless you're attending a royal wedding, perhaps? White tie attire is the most formal dress code and typically calls for floor-length gowns for the ladies and a black dress coat with tails and matching pants for men, as well as a white bow tie and gloves. White tie attire has been around for a long time, but is pretty uncommon for modern weddings.
This is the most familiar formal dress code. Gents should dress in full tuxedos (possibly substituting a white dinner jacket in the warmer months), and the ladies should wear either elegant floor-length gowns or their most formal cocktail dresses. Since many of us don't have closets full of evening gowns at our disposal, this is the perfect time to consider using Rent the Runway to find hundreds of gowns for rent. Pull out your best jewelry, and don't be afraid to pop a red lip!
Formal or black tie optional
As the name suggests, it allows a bit more flexibility than a black tie dress code. Men can wear tuxedos or formal dark suits, and women can wear anything from evening gowns to dressy cocktail attire. Want to straddle the line? Choose a long dress with a bit less structure and more color than a black tie wedding would require. Basically, you can get a little more fun with it.
Semi-formal or cocktail
This is one of the most popular dress codes, and for good reason. It fits in with almost any wedding venue and is relatively easy for guests to abide by. A semi-formal dress code calls for suits for the men and cocktail dresses for the ladies. Since many women have a favorite go-to cocktail dress — little black dress, anyone? — it's a fabulous idea to wear the same dress for multiple events, paired with completely different accessories. You can also employ sneaky beauty tweaks, such as changing up from hair down to an updo, or a smoky eye to a bright lip color!
Casual or daytime
There's a good chance the invitation will say, "dressy casual." (Don't get our style editor started on how confusing that term can be for guests.) Going to a beach, farm, or very intimate wedding? There's a good chance the dress code will be casual, but that doesn't mean jeans and tank tops are acceptable — unless otherwise specified, of course. We suggest at least a dress shirt and dress pants or khakis for the gentlemen (a light coat, no tie, is nice too), and a pretty sundress and wedges or sandals for the ladies.
This dress code is most likely to come into play for a wedding that falls around the holidays or New Year's Eve. Dress appropriately for the time and venue, then add in sparkling accessories (like statement earrings) and unique textures (like a feathered handbag) to zhuzh up your look. For men, a suit may be dressed up with a silk ikat bow tie or velvet smoking slippers. "Festive" may also appear on an invitation for a destination wedding, and in those cases, let the locale be your guide: An outfit that hits the mark in Aspen, Colorado, will be entirely different than one that dazzles in Palm Beach.
Generally, these weddings are held outdoors and in the afternoon, so following the prescribed attire for a daytime dress code is appropriate. That said, the specificity of garden party attire invites more color and pattern than your typical casual wedding might. Linen dresses with fluttery sleeves or midi dresses in floral prints fit the bill here, as would an elegant pastel pantsuit or tiered skirt. For the guys, a light-colored suit (or seersucker in spring and summer) paired with a colorful pocket square or tie is especially dapper.
Our best advice here is this: Commit to the requested theme, but not so loudly that you detract from the happy couple; there's a fine line between enthusiasm and attention-seeking. Lest you think this is a dress code no couple would ever employ, consider this: President George W. Bush's second inaugural ball called for "Black Tie and Boots;" and guests showed up wearing their finest gowns and cummerbunds with, you guessed it, cowboy boots. A classic Texas move, if we've ever heard one.
No Dress Code Specified
If a dress code is not explicitly stated on an invitation or the website, look to the invitation and wedding details for clues. The time of a wedding, for instance, can be hugely helpful in determining what to wear. A morning wedding typically calls for casual dress, while a wedding after 5 pm generally calls for formal attire. The location, too, can be helpful in decoding the dress code: A 4 p.m. reception at a swanky hotel or private club may require a dressier outfit, while a reception at the same time at a rustic locale, like a converted barn or stables, would allow for a slightly more casual look.
There are also a few rules of thumb that apply regardless of the dress code, specified or not. First, avoid wearing anything that is more than 50 percent white. Don't want to upstage the bride! Second, keep attire guidelines for ceremonies at houses of worship in mind. This might mean wearing a shawl to cover your shoulders or donning a dress that hits below the knee. Respect for others' cultures and beliefs is at the core of every etiquette rule we care about. Finally, when in doubt, err on the side of overdressed. Who doesn't love an extra fancy night out, anyway?