What Is Semi-Formal Wedding Attire?

We're walking you through this semi-ambiguous dress code.

a bride with three wedding guests

Photo by Margherita Calati

There are some things couples always hope their wedding guests will get right. Chief among them? The dress code. Even if the dress code is clearly printed on the wedding invitation, guests don't always arrive in attire that fits the bill—it's not always for lack of trying, though. After all, some wedding dress codes can be downright confusing. For example, what does semi-formal attire really mean? In general, semi-formal dress codes call for a more relaxed look than what’s required at a formal black-tie event. It's a way of asking guests to wear something nice without requiring them to purchase an expensive gown or rent a tux. That flexibility is exactly what makes it tricky for guests, though: Without clear guidance on what's expected, your family and friends might have no idea what's appropriate to wear.

That's where we come in. To walk you through this semi-ambiguous dress code (which is widely deemed the most confusing of all), we tapped industry experts Kaila Rudolph and Ariel Gutowicz to and asked them to share their insights. Read on for a breakdown of semi-formal wedding attire.  

Meet the Expert

  • Kaila Rudolph is the former director of merchandising and product development at Brideside, a concierge service that offered brides and bridesmaids a personalized shopping experience, which has now closed.
  • Ariel Gutowicz is a brand stylist for BHLDN, a retailer that is part of Anthropologie and specializes in wedding dresses, bridesmaid dresses, bridal accessories, and wedding décor.

Semi-Formal Wedding Attire for Men and Women

If you're not a fan of floor-length gowns, you'll be pleased to know that these are beyond what the semi-formal dress code requires. Women following this fashion directive might opt for a cocktail dress or a polished set. Semi-formal also translates to shorter hemlines, bold prints, or elevated separates like a festive top paired with tailored dress pants. "Like all wedding rules, fashion has also shifted," says Rudolph, former director of merchandising at Brideside. "A jumpsuit or tailored pantsuit with refined accessories can have the same impact as a cocktail dress or even a long, flowy gown. Flirty details like ruffles, sleeves, slits, or high-low hemlines also work."

If a semi-formal event is set to take place outside, chic flats are acceptable. "You can you go more relaxed with a fun sandal, but not the dingy ones you wore all last summer," Rudolph advises. When it comes to beauty, skip the Cinderella-style up-do. "Finish the look with simple yet styled hair and fun accessories," adds Gutowicz, a brand stylist for BHLDN. 

This is not the time for tuxedos. Instead, men should focus on matching a suit jacket or a blazer to dress pants. When choosing the color, keep seasonality in mind. "Winter months call for darker fabrications, while lighter hues are perfectly acceptable for summertime soirees," Gutowicz suggests. "A sleek dress shirt and jacket will do the trick." As for shoes and accessories, feel free to wear a tie when in doubt—there's always the option to take it off later. "Don’t get too creative with footwear," Gutowicz cautions. "Play it safe with a classic leather dress shoe."

Semi-Formal Wedding Attire Etiquette

A semi-formal dress code isn’t an invitation to be totally casual. "Focus on the level of refinement versus the type of clothing," Rudolph suggests. A wedding, no matter the dress code, is still a special event that deserves an out-of-the-ordinary outfit. Rudolph also points out that the wedding venue can offer clues on how to interpret the dress code. "A grand ballroom sets a different tone than a modern, industrial loft or garden party," she says. Do your research beforehand, and if all else fails, don't be afraid to reach out to the host for clarification.

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