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.
• Heidi Kallett is CEO of The Dandelion Patch, a luxury stationery and invitation boutique in the DC-metropolitan area.
• Caitlin Wechtaluk is the owner and designer of Caitlin Creative Works invitations and event branding in Rockville, Maryland.
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," Mae says. "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 for the celebration.
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.
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.
A small step above semi-formal, though not as formal as black-tie optional or black-tie, cocktail attire is a popular dress code choice. It's a balance between elegant and comfortable and typically 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 semi-formal or dressy casual wedding is taking the time of the wedding into account. Wear darker, more formal colors for an evening wedding,and 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," Mae says.
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.
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.
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, Mae says. 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," Mae says. 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," Mae says. "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."
Wedding Invitation Attire Wording Best Practices
More and more brides are skipping dress codes on their invitations. We understand if you don't want to add the already-vague "Festive Attire" to the invite, but if you want to avoid guests bothering you with closet questions, you might want to consider paying more attention to what goes on that invitation. If you're worried about how to get the dress code across without spelling it out, there are subtle hints you can include. "Guests can better understand how to dress based on the wording, font choices, and colors a bride selects," Kallett says. "Any reputable stationer can help guide you through the countless details that will honor your vision and the formality or informality of this important day."
Where to Include the Dress Code
"Invitations are one of the first things guests formally receive about your wedding, so it's the perfect opportunity to set the stage for the look and feel of the celebration you're planning," Wechtaluk says. "Use your invitations as an opportunity to communicate what to expect, from attire to the overall vibe you seek to create for your guests."
Formatting for dress codes
If you are set on a black-tie wedding, consider more customary phrasing on your invitation. "When hosting a formal affair, it's best to not stray from the traditional etiquette guidelines," Kallett says. "The request line should say something along the lines of 'request the honor of your presence' or 'request the pleasure of your company.' If an invitation is worded 'happily invite you to the best day ever,' it is usually an indication that the event is not formal."
Where to Place the Dress Code Information
"Simply put, a formal affair is after six o'clock and the words black tie or white tie are included on the reception card," Kallett says. If your wedding starts after six, expect guests to come a little more dressed up unless you say otherwise. If you're having an earlier wedding, guests may choose cocktail or garden attire as their go-to dress.
Where can I buy a wedding guest dress?
There is a range of options when it comes to purchasing a wedding guest dress or outfit, from department stores to online retailers. Top choices include Nordstrom, Macy's, Dillard's, and David's Bridal for more formal attire, or places like Anthropologie, Free People, ASOS, or even Amazon for less formal dress codes.
What should I wear to a wedding with no dress code?
If no dress code is indicated on the wedding invitation or by the couple, use context clues to decide what to wear, like the formality of the wedding invitation, the venue, the time of day of the wedding, the season, and the religion of the ceremony. When in doubt, a knee-length cocktail dress for a woman and a dark suit for a man will usually suffice.
What should I not wear to a wedding as a guest?
First and foremost: don't wear a white dress (unless the couple requests all-white attire as a stylistic choice). Further, avoid matching the colors worn by the bridal party, wearing anything that is too revealing, sexy, or flashy, or opting for clothes that are overly casual, like jeans and sneakers, even at a casual-attire wedding.