Every Wedding Guest Dress Code, Explained

Two wedding guests in cocktail dresses holding coconut beverages

Photo by Katie Ruther

Have you ever received a wedding invitation that left you completely clueless about the wedding guest dress code? Between "black-tie optional" and "semi-formal," the language can be tricky to decipher.

"While many couples would like their guests to arrive in black-tie attire, the most common wedding dress code is formal attire," says Alicia Mae, CEO of the New Jersey-based wedding planning company ILÈ Events.

Meet the Expert

Alicia Mae is a New Jersey-based wedding planner and the CEO of ILÈ Events. She has planned over 50 successful weddings and events.

Formal attire may be the most common, but there are plenty of other dress codes that may appear on a wedding invitation. Formal, semi-formal, and casual are a bit more ambiguous than, say, black-tie, and it can be difficult for guests to settle on the level of formality they want to go for.

One of the best ways to decide what to wear is to do some research on the venue. "As a guest, I would first think of the wedding location as the background that sets the tone," says Mae. "A quick Google search of the venue can give you a feel of the wedding style, and the venue will have photos of past weddings that can inspire you."

If you're stressed out about style, we've got you covered with our handy guide. Here are the most common wedding guest dress codes explained so that you arrive appropriately—and stylishly—dressed to the celebration.

Wedding Dress Codes Decoded
Photo by  Jessica Olah/Brides

White-Tie

This is the most formal wedding attire possible (think: White House state dinners). Women should wear a formal floor-length evening gown, no exceptions. Pair your dress with jewelry, heels, and an elegant clutch. Men are required to wear a tuxedo with tails, a formal white shirt, white vest and bow tie, white or gray gloves, and formal footwear, such as derby shoes or oxfords.

Black-Tie

This is the next most formal wedding dress code and usually means the wedding is an evening event. Women should wear a formal floor-length gown that does not reveal the ankles at the hem of the dress, but if the wedding seems a bit less formal, a sophisticated cocktail dress may also be acceptable. Women may also wear elegant pantsuits. Men must wear a tuxedo. A black bow tie, black vest or cummerbund, and patent leather shoes are also suggested. For summer weddings, a white dinner jacket and black tuxedo trousers are also acceptable.

Formal or Black-Tie Optional

The wording here indicates something slightly less formal than black-tie is acceptable. So, a tuxedo isn't required, but the event is still formal enough for one to be appropriate. The choices are the same as with black-tie: a floor-length gown, a fancy cocktail dress, or a dressy pantsuit. As far as women are concerned, there's not much of a difference between black-tie attire and black-tie optional attire, although Mae says it's more acceptable to wear a dress that shows the ankles (which is not true of a black-tie dress code). Men have the option of wearing a tuxedo, or they can wear a formal dark suit, white shirt, and conservative tie.

Cocktail

A small step above semiformal though not as formal as black-tie optional or formal, cocktail attire is a popular dress code choice. It's a balance between elegant and comfortable, and typically is more formal than a day wedding but more casual than a night celebration. Instead of a floor-length dress, women should opt for a tea-length, knee-length, or midi dress. Men are required to wear a suit and tie, regardless of the wedding's setting. Remember to look classy and polished, but don't wear something overly embellished or fancy that you take away from the newlyweds.

Semi-formal or Dressy Casual

Part of dressing for a semiformal or dressy casual wedding is taking the time of the wedding into account. Wear darker, more formal colors for an evening wedding; opt for light colors and fabrics for a daytime event. Try a below-the-knee dress or a dressy skirt and top. An elegant pantsuit is also appropriate. Floor-length gowns, however, would be inappropriate. Pair with heels, nice wedges, or formal flats. If the ceremony is being held outdoors and you'll be walking across a lawn, avoid traditional heels that will likely get stuck in the grass. Men should wear a dress shirt and slacks, dark or light depending on the time of day, with the option to wear a tie. "Semiformal gives you flexibility on comfort, but be sure not to dress too casual," says Mae.

Festive

This dress code is relatively new and will leave many guests scratching their heads. Basically, guests are given the go-ahead to have fun and play with their look. Opt for cocktail-party attire featuring bolder colors and playful accessories. Women should wear a cocktail dress or party dress in a fun color, paired with playful accessories and heels or dressy flats. Men should sport a suit, jazzed up with a bright tie or creative pocket square.

Casual

This indicates the wedding will likely be held outdoors or on the beach, meaning the event will be much more laid-back, especially when it comes to attire. With that said, jeans, shorts, and tank tops are probably not appropriate unless they're specifically noted as acceptable. A summer sundress is appropriate (just make sure the fabric isn't overly formal). Wedges or dressy sandals are the perfect footwear for a casual wedding, but sandals and sneakers are not. Wear dress pants or khaki pants with a collared shirt. You can add a tie or sports jacket if you'd like, but it's not required. If it's chilly, feel free to add a sweater, as well. Steer clear of any t-shirts or tennis shoes.

Tropical or Destination

Tropical weddings are usually humid and hot affairs, and you have to dress accordingly. Remember, always err on the dressier side of caution. If you're not sure if what you're planning to wear is dressy enough, it's probably not. Upgrade it a notch and you're certain to be just fine. As with a casual wedding, look for cotton sundresses and nice sandals or wedges. If the wedding is being held outside and the weather is blazing, consider topping the look off with a sunhat.

Guayabera shirts almost always count as appropriate wedding attire in the tropics. Known more commonly as "Mexican wedding shirts," these short-sleeved, button-down shirts usually have decorative square pockets, and often have embroidery. They're available in a huge variety of colors and styles. Most designer labels also have their own version of the guayabera if you're looking for something a little fancier.

Although linen shirts and pants are also appropriate for a tropical wedding, be cautious in selecting them when you're traveling. Linen usually wrinkles easily, and there may not be a dry cleaner to press it back out in a more remote destination.

Concept Style/Themed

Some couples are host concept or themed weddings, and they request that their guests follow the theme with their attire. For example, some couples ask for their guests to all wear one color, says Mae. This is especially popular in the instance of an "all-white formal" dress code. It's a stylistic choice that helps the couple create their desired aesthetic. "Another option is inspired looks, like Gatsby or Roc Nation Brunch," says Mae. Guests can look for inspiration from films or celebrities, depending on the theme.

Come As You Are

According to Mae, some couples ask their guests not to fuss about their attire and show up how they see fit and are comfortable. This attire can work for a casual wedding on the beach, she says. This may be confusing to some guests, so take into account what the couple normally wears, the location of their wedding, and the time of day it's taking place to help you decide. "An essential tip is to know yourself as a guest," says Mae. "As the saying goes, 'If you look great, you feel great!' Make sure you’re confident in your attire to not feel under- or overdressed."

How Not to Dress for a Wedding

There are a few rules that apply to all dress codes across the board. Whether you're wearing casual or black-tie attire, avoid all of the following faux pas.

Wearing White

Pick any other color to wear to the wedding. "It’s still frowned upon for guests to wear any white/cream/ivory variation to a wedding unless specifically requested by the couple. As the trend remains for the bride’s gown to be white/ivory, this color remains for the bride, and now even the groom sometimes!" says Mae.

Wearing white will have heads turning in your direction for all of the wrong reasons. Plus, it will most likely upset the bride, who won't want to feel anything but pleased by her guests throughout the night. The only exception, of course, is if the couple has specifically asked all the guests to wear white—in which case, respect their request and find yourself a white outfit.

Picking a Dress That Looks Like the Bridesmaid Dress

If you can get a heads up on the style and color of the dress the bridesmaids will be wearing, try to avoid wearing anything similar. If not, you may have to spend the night explaining to everyone that you're not a bridesmaid and you didn't mean to dress like one.

Underdressing

Whether or not the dress code is black-tie, try not to underdress for the wedding. Unless it was stated that wearing jeans is okay, try to at least wear clothes that you would feel comfortable wearing to a formal office party.

Mae offers a bit of advice if you're not sure how casual to go. "How does the couple show up to other events? Are they very fashionable and chic, or are they usually super casual?" she recommends asking yourself. "Based on that knowledge, it should help you gauge which way on the leeway scale to sway more to."

Dressing for the Club

It's a party, so you might be tempted to dress like you're heading out to a nightclub, but remember for a wedding, you should keep it classy. You'll be surrounded by someone else's family and friends, so keep it appropriate.

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