What to Wear to a Wedding (and What to Never Wear)

what to wear to a wedding

As a guest, it can be downright confusing deciding what to wear to a wedding. From trying to figure out if an outfit is too white, too casual, too fancy or even too inappropriate, it can feel like you’re in the middle of a fashion jigsaw puzzle. And let’s not even talk about whether you should bring a wrap or not when you’re always chilly! (Hint: Bring it.)

Thankfully, most weddings let you know the dress code ahead of time so you can begin to decipher what to wear. (More on that below). But there’s more to it than that. Read to to find out what the wedding dress codes mean, other factors to consider, and most importantly what NOT to wear.

Make Sure You Know the Dress Code

Typically, the dress code for a wedding can be found on the bottom right of the wedding invitation itself. If it’s not there, look for it on the details card included in the wedding invitation suite. It could also be on a separate dress code insert.

If you can’t find it within the wedding invite, head to the couple’s wedding website. You can usually find wedding attire information in their FAQ section, or schedule of events.

Once you do find it, you might be wondering what it all means. (Trust us, we know it can get confusing). Here’s a quick guide to the most common dress codes that will help you figure out what to wear to a wedding:

WGM Says: No dress code in sight? Feel free to reach out to the couple to ask them if their wedding is formal or semi-formal (let them tell you it’s casual if it is). Their response should ideally fit into one of the categories below.

White Tie:

While white tie attire is extremely uncommon (unless you’re going to an event at Buckingham Palace or other grand gala) you could see it pop up on a wedding invitation. If so, men should wear a black tailcoat, formal black trousers (with a satin side stripe), a white pique shirt and waistcoat, and a white bow tie (that’s hand-tied). Cufflinks and studs are also considered standard.

Women should wear a formal, full-length gown with elegant jewelry (you could even consider a tiara!). White gloves for both men and women are optional but always welcome.

WGM Says: If you’re wearing a tuxedo and bow tie, you should technically wear a tuxedo shirt that requires studs. Studs are used in lieu of buttons, and are often sold in a set of 4 or 5 along with cufflinks. (If you’re not wearing a cummerbund—which most people don’t these days— then you will need 5 studs). For a black-tie optional or semi-formal event, you can also choose a tuxedo shirt that has a covered placket (known as a fly front, which is covered just like the zipper on your jeans). These do not require studs. You can read more about the different style shirts for tuxedos here.

Black Tie:

A black-tie wedding has more flexibility, but not much. Men will want to wear a black tuxedo or black suit along with a black bow tie or tie. Patent leather shoes and cufflinks are also expected. A cummerbund, on the other hand, is not necessary or worn as much anymore.

For women, they should wear a long evening or ballgown (with the hem of the dress grazing the floor) and classic accessories like diamonds and pearls. Elegant pantsuits are an option as well. Of course you can always funk it up with a bold yet eclectic clutch and shoes.

Formal or Black-Tie Optional:

In this situation the couple is giving wedding guests options, but they still want a very dressy wedding. If you opt not to go black tie, just remember that the look shouldn’t deviate too much from it. Formal dress codes would still mean a long evening gown for women (though a shorter cocktail dress that hits right above the knee would also be acceptable) and a tuxedo or formal black suit with a classic tie or bow tie for men.

Cocktail

Cocktail attire is a notch below black tie, but still considered formal. For women, this would mean going for a knee-length or midi dress instead of a long gown. For men, a suit and tie is still expected.

Semi-Formal

While more casual than any of the above options, a semi-formal wedding dress code doesn’t mean anything goes. Even though a long gown and tuxedo would be out of place, the tone is still elevated. Women can choose to wear a dress that hits at or above the knees. A fancier skirt and top or a pantsuit works, too. For shoes, opt for heels, elegant wedges, or dressy flats.

Men can opt for a light or dark suit depending on the time of day (tie optional), or a dress shirt and pants.

Casual

You might find this dress code for a beach, backyard, or other outdoor wedding, but that doesn’t mean you should dress like it’s any other day. For a casual wedding, women should opt for a sundress or matching separates (including pantsuits). Men should wear a nice pair of pants (including chinos or khakis) and a collared shirt (polos are also OK). Unless the invitation specifically calls for it, you should not wear shorts, t-shirts, casual tank tops, or jeans. And forget the flip-flops!

Consider the Venue and Time of Day/Season

Once you know the wedding dress code, you’ll want to keep in mind the where and when. Aside from dressing appropriately for the weather and seasons, the type of venue as well as time of day all comes into play when figuring out what to wear to a wedding.

First, you’ll want to head to the wedding venue’s website to get a sense of the decor and layout. If the wedding will take place mostly inside, your shoe type will be less important. However, if the venue has an outside area where the ceremony, cocktail hour or reception might take place, then you’ll want shoes that can survive long walks in grass or on gravel. Wedge heels would be better than stilettos in that case. Or, you could consider clear heel protectors to protect your shoes.

Whether it’s a daytime or evening will also matter. While daytime black-tie events are less common, formal ones are not. A black ballgown would not be as appropriate for a luncheon as it would for a dinner, so let the time of day help you decide the color and style of your outfit. For daytime weddings, think bright colors and fabrics that won’t get ruined with a little sweat. (We’re looking at you, silk).

Speaking of heat, you’ll want to make sure you’re comfortable no matter the time of year. While sunscreen and lightweight fabrics are no-brainers for summer weddings, you still want to make sure you have enough coverage to be appropriate in a religious venue. Exposing less skin will also mean less chance of getting sunburned or getting bug bites if you’ll be outside.

For winter weddings, a cashmere pashmina or faux fur stole always looks chic, as do heavier fabrics like velvet, tulle, or taffeta. Men can opt for wool or tweed in the winter, vs. linens and cottons in the spring and summer.

What NOT to Wear to a Wedding

Unless you’re invited to a white-themed wedding, you should never, ever, wear a white dress. You should also generally avoid “mostly white” dresses, even if they have a print on them. If you have to ask yourself if it’s too white, don’t wear it! Instead, opt for black or jewel tones.

And I hate to sound like a mother here, but you should also avoid wearing anything that is too revealing. Mini skirts or dresses with large cutouts or crazy cleavage should be reserved for your own nights out. You also want to steer clear of any dress that makes TOO much of a statement (like wearing a dress that is so intricate it requires help getting in and out of the car). The main thing to consider when deciding what to wear to a wedding is the bride. You want to be elegant but you definitely DON’T want to take any attention away from her, in person or in photos. She’s the ‘wow’ factor of the event, not you. Save that for your moves on the dance floor! 🙂

Where to Shop for Wedding Outfits

The first place is your closet! Even though you might not have a ballgown hanging around, chances are you have a great dress that could be reworn for a semi-formal wedding. Or, you can break out that tuxedo you wore to your own wedding (just make sure it’s dry cleaned and that it still fits! Otherwise, a quick trip to the tailors is in order).

If you’re looking to buy something new, your favorite in-store or online retailer is bound to have something you love. My first stop is always Nordstrom or Saks Fifth Avenue, followed by Net-a-Porter. If you want to wear something new (to you) and designer without blowing your budget, consider Rent the Runway. You can find a ton of designer dresses to rent for a 1/10 of the cost to buy. Just remember if you’re going to a destination wedding, you have 4 or 8 days to return your rental outfit from the delivery date! For men, consider a custom tux or suit that you can wear again from a site like Indochino.

Do you have a wedding you’re planning an outfit for? What’s the dress code? Let us know in the comments section, below!


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