Wedding dress codes are one of the industry’s great mysteries. Although their intention is to make figuring out what to wear easier and more clear, they often have exactly the opposite effect. After all, who knows what “Hollywood casual” or “sailor chic” really mean?
In this post, we add some much-needed clarity to wedding dress codes. Whether you’re planning your own wedding and looking for some guidance, a confused guest searching for last-minute outfit advice, or anyone in between, we’re here to help.
How do I find out a wedding’s dress code?
Your first step on the way to a clear idea of what to wear to a wedding is discovering the wedding’s dress code. This sounds simple, but it’s not always as easy as just reading the invitation. Dress codes are often written using obscure language or are only mentioned on additional invitation cards or the wedding website. To find out more about the dress code for the wedding you’re attending, you may need to do a bit of sleuthing.
The wedding venue itself can be a great clue. By browsing pictures of past events, you may be able to get a good idea of the level of formality and additional things to be aware of. For instance, a venue with lots of grass may require flatter shoes, while an outdoor venue in a windy area may call for a bit more planning when it comes to hairstyles. Wedding Spot’s venue listings include inspirational pictures of past weddings at the venue, as well as contact information for each venue. Giving the venue a call is also a good option, as they can describe how wedding guests have dressed in the past.
You can also head to the wedding website and see if the couple has included any instructions related to guest attire. If nothing is listed anywhere, a quick call or text to the couple or a member of the wedding party should give you a good idea of what to wear.
What are the different types of wedding dress codes?
Below, we outline the most common wedding dress codes that you’ll see on an invitation or wedding website. Most dress codes include a range of acceptable attire, so choose an outfit within the bounds of the dress code that makes you feel comfortable and confident.
1. White tie
White tie is likely the most formal dress code that you’ll see on an invitation — even more formal than black tie. Attire options include formal floor-length ball gowns and evening dresses or long-tail tuxedos. However, white tie weddings are very rare, so you most likely won’t ever have to worry about this.
2. Black tie
One step under white tie is black tie, which may be what you picture for a formal wedding. This means guests should be dressed in tuxedos, evening gowns, or ball gowns. Black tie weddings are usually held in the evening at a luxury venue.
While black tie weddings are still common, they’re starting to embrace individual style a bit more. “To achieve the distinctly unique black-tie wedding you're dreaming of, invite your guests to dress 'black tie with a personal twist,’” wedding planner Lindsey Shaktman told Who What Wear. “This way, you're not sacrificing the formality of your celebration, and you'll have memories and photographs to cherish that feature your gorgeously dressed loved ones showcasing elements of their personal style beyond a snapshot of 30 black gowns in a row."
3. Formal/black-tie optional
This is one of the most common wedding dress codes. Most guests will dress in an evening dress (usually mid or floor length) or a dark suit or tuxedo. Because “formal” is a fairly broad category, you can always reach out to the wedding couple or a member of the wedding party for some clarification on what they expect guests to wear.
4. Cocktail/semi-formal/dressy casual
Cocktail or semi-formal attire is common for outdoor weddings and is a bit more casual than formal attire. Good choices include a cocktail dress or formal summer dress, a suit and tie, or a sport coat and dress pants. Cocktail dresses typically have a hemline between mid-thigh and mid-calf — a floor-length gown would likely be inappropriate in this circumstance.
If you’re heading to a destination wedding in the sun, you may see an invitation with “beach,” “resort wear,” or “destination” listed as the dress code. While “beach” inherently indicates a casual vibe, the couple is likely still expecting guests to dress up a bit. You can make sure that you’re ready for anything by wearing a sundress, summer suit, or linen pants and a light shirt with flats or sandals. Unless swimming is expressly mentioned, leave the swimwear at home.
Lucky you — you’re headed to a themed wedding! If there is a theme to the dress code, it’s likely to be spelled out pretty clearly for this type of wedding. From fairytale to Gatsby to Halloween, there are a lot of unique wedding themes out there. The important thing here is to have fun and play along with whatever the theme dictates.
Festive attire is usually on invitations for holiday weddings, such as those taking place on Christmas or New Year’s Eve. You should generally follow semi-formal or formal attire guidelines, and maybe throw in a nod to the season in the form of sparkles, sequins, or holiday colors.
7. Casual/come as you are
This one is tough because casual means different things to different people. We would suggest choosing a simple dress or dress pants with a polo or button-down shirt. This ensures that you’re dressed festively and aren’t underdressed.
How not to dress for a wedding
No matter what the dress code for the wedding is, there are a few attire items that you should always avoid. Keep these things in mind so that you’re comfortable and appropriately dressed:
Don’t wear something that makes you uncomfortable. No matter what the dress code says, you won’t have a good time if you’re wearing something that is overly restrictive or makes you feel awkward.
Don’t wear a wedding dress or white dress. For the vast majority of weddings, you can expect that the bride(s) will wear a white dress. It’s customary for guests to avoid white dresses so that the bride has time to shine. So unless you’re heading to a white-themed wedding, pick another great color that you’ll enjoy wearing.
Don’t dress too casually. Even if the dress code says casual, you’ll want to leave your denim and sweatpants at home.
Do all weddings have dress codes?
Setting a dress code ensures that all of your guests are dressed the way you want and gives them a good idea of what to wear. But not all weddings have dress codes, and dress codes themselves are not without their critics.
Dress codes have historically been used to limit what guests wear and help everyone feel that they are dressed appropriately. But by determining what is included and appropriate, you’re also creating exclusions. Dress codes are considered by some to be old-fashioned, forcing conformity to gender and class norms that may make guests uncomfortable.
But the mere fact of including a dress code doesn’t mean you’re putting a burden on your guests. Consider what your guests would be most comfortable wearing to a special event. If you can keep your dress code close to that standard, you’re more likely to have guests who are comfortable and ready to party.
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How to decide on a dress code for your wedding
If you do decide to have a dress code for your wedding, your theme and venue can give you a good idea of what might make sense. If your venue is very elegant, like an old mansion or luxury hotel, you may want to consider a more formal dress code. A beach, barn, picnic, or mountaintop wedding, on the other hand, will call for a much more casual dress code.
Close your eyes and picture your big day, with all of your guests gathered around you on the dance floor or at your ceremony. What do you see them wearing? Is there a level of formality or type of attire that is important to your culture, your destination, or you as a couple? These questions will hopefully give you a good idea of the wedding dress code that will make sense for you.
How to help your guests dress for your wedding
To ensure a stress-free dress code for your guests, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Be clear. Ambiguous dress code words like “preppy,” “Hollywood,” or “elegant” can mean different things to different people, and may create more confusion than clarity. Try to avoid made-up dress codes unless you feel that they’re really specific enough to help.
Include a picture. If you do decide to use a made-up dress code term, include a picture with the invite or on the wedding website so that guests can decide what to wear.
Give dress code guidance to the wedding party. Guests may ask members of the wedding party or family about the dress code to avoid awkwardness with the couple. If you give your wedding party guidance about attire ahead of time they’ll be in a better position to answer guest questions.
Now you know all about wedding dress codes!
Need some help on attire for the rehearsal dinner? We’ve got you covered with our guide on what to wear to a rehearsal dinner.