There’s no denying that weddings are stressful for nearly everyone involved. Yes, the bride and groom certainly experience the bulk of the stress; however, guests—particularly those that haven’t been to many weddings before—are faced with a myriad of questions leading up to the big day: What sort of wedding gift should I buy? Can I bring a plus-one? What do I wear?
The latter is particularly tricky, especially if the wedding invitation doesn’t indicate a dress code. And even when it does, you still have to decode what exactly “white tie” or “beach formal” really means. Here, we break down different types of wedding attire, while also advising against what you should never wear (ahem, white).
A wedding with an unspecified dress code is obviously difficult to plan for, but it’s not entirely impossible. First thing’s first, make sure you do more than looking at the invitation. A couple may have included information about what to wear on their wedding website, so check there, too.
Still nothing? Consider the date and the location. Regarding where the wedding falls on the calendar, factors like the typical temperature can inform how much coverage you’ll need; as can a season’s associated palettes when it comes to picking a color. Location is a big help, too—especially for determining how formal the affair will be. For example, if the couple is hosting both their ceremony and reception in their backyard, you probably wouldn’t want to show up in a detailed cocktail dress, let alone an extravagant floor-length-gown. Do some research on the venue listed on the invitation. Most, like ballrooms or hotels, will have galleries of previous weddings that you can browse to try and get an idea of how “dressed up” you’ll need to be.
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You can also take another look at both the invitation and the wedding website to analyze their level of formality. Are they bright and whimsical, or neutral and minimalistic? Are there fancy details like pressed wax seals or detailed embossing? Answering these questions won’t give you 100 percent certainty, but it’ll definitely help.
If you’ve never heard of this dress code, that’s because it’s not often used—especially for weddings. If by chance you do get invited to a white-tie wedding, you’ll need to pull out all the stops, as this is the most formal of any dress code.
Men’s attire is a little more straightforward than women’s, with expectations typically including a combination of the following: black tailcoat, white dress shirt, white waistcoat, white bow tie, black pleated pants, and dress shoes (like black pumps). To add extra flair, thrown in a top hat, white gloves, or even a walking stick.
Since there are so many styles of floor-length gowns—the recommended length for white-tie events—it can be difficult for women to narrow down their options. Generally speaking, don’t stray away from a full-length dress. You’ll want something not only long, but perhaps even wide, like a ball gown. Don’t be afraid of pouf, either! Gloves are optional; heels typically aren’t.
Black-Tie Required & Black-Tie Optional
The difference between these two is pretty apparent, with the ultimate distinction being the leniency of the dress code. Black-tie itself usually refers to evening wear—tuxedos for men, gowns or classy cocktail dresses for women—and when the term “required” is attached, you should err on the side of caution by opting for a dark tuxedo, matching accessories, and dress shoes; or a floor-length gown and heels.
Black-tie optional isn’t as strict. Men can typically get away with dark suits if they don’t want to wear a tuxedo, and the same goes for women but with cocktail dresses (as long as they’re still pretty formal). How fancy you choose to dress is ultimately up to you, but again, if you want to play it safe, stick with the general black-tie code.
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This is where things can get confusing and the dress codes seem to all blend together. However, think of cocktail attire as slightly less formal that black-tie and black-tie optional. Men definitely don’t have to don tuxedos, as a suit and tie works just fine. Women’s options aren’t limited to long gowns, either—cocktail dresses, tailored suits, or jumpsuits also work.
The word “beach” might bring shorts and sandals to mind, but as long as there’s “formal” alongside it, you shouldn’t just throw anything on. Your attire should be nice, but still reasonable enough for sand and sun.
Men can wear summer suits or a nice dress shirt paired with linen pants or khakis, but should avoid short sleeves and open-toe shoes. For women, flowy dresses work well. They don’t need to be a particular length—maxi dresses and sun dresses are both viable options—just not too tight or stiff. Open-toe wedges or sandals are okay, but flip flops rarely are.
This is without a doubt the most wide-ranging dress code, as just about anything goes. Couples who include this on their wedding invitation will typically add specific details or recommendations either alongside the indication or on their wedding website. If they don’t, that doesn’t exactly mean you should show up in a t-shirt and shorts. Instead, men can opt for anything from a sweater to a polo, paired with relaxed pants or even shorts. Shoes don’t have to be too dressy, either.
For women, the dresses that qualify for beach formal weddings make great options for this type of dress code, too. Rompers are also a great choice!
What to Never Wear
There’s nothing wrong with an outfit having a little bit of sparkle, but by no means should you show up donning a bedazzled jumpsuit. The same could be said for anything boasting animal print, lots of glitter, or even too bright of a color (like hot pink or red). Don’t overdo your accessories, either.
Shades of White
Not only should you avoid wearing white to any wedding ever, but you should also avoid wearing any shade of white. This includes cream, pale pink, or even off-white—just any color that could allow you to be confused as the bride.
Old or Damaged Clothing
A casual dress code does not excuse wearing ripped jeans, let alone ratty sweatpants. Denim itself is a gamble, and best to be avoided for the most part.