From black-tie to casual, we break down what each wedding dress code means.
Shortly after you RSVP to attend a wedding, you'll likely start thinking about what to wear. While most wedding invitations include the preferred wedding dress code, it might be hard to decipher exactly what the to-be-weds envision when it comes to the attire. Plus, with the rise of creative wedding guest attire suggestions (like "whimsical garden party" or "tropical formal") amid the wedding boom, you might be stumped when it comes to interpreting what they mean. And while more wedding dress code clues can often be found on the couple's wedding website, choosing what to wear isn't always easy—but that's where we come in.
To help you find the best wedding guest outfit, we're breaking down exactly what wedding attire wording means. We tapped industry experts to define the most common wedding dress codes, from black-tie to cocktail and casual wedding attire. In this fashion cheat sheet, you'll also find tried-and-true styling hacks that'll help you decode the invitation if you're not sure what certain terms look like. Brush up on the basics of wedding dress codes below, and use this guide to find an outfit that's perfect for celebrating the couple on their big day.
In this article:
- White-Tie Attire
- Black-Tie Attire
- Black-Tie Optional Attire
- Formal Attire
- Cocktail Attire
- Beach Formal Attire
- Semi-Formal or Dressy Casual Attire
- Daytime or Casual Attire
White-tie wedding attire is the most formal of all dress codes. Also called full dress, white tie attire is often reserved for elegant events like state dinners, royal banquets and very formal weddings. While white-tie weddings aren't as common today, it is important to dress appropriately if you're invited to one. White-tie wedding attire for men includes a long and dark tuxedo tailcoat with fabric extensions that reach to the back of the knee. A white piqué button-down shirt should be worn under a white vest with a bow tie and a cummerbund. Pants should match the color and fabric of the jacket, and white-tie trousers often include a satin or grosgrain stripe along the outer seams.
As for women, a formal dress is a must for this attire suggestion. An evening gown with a full-length A-line or sheath silhouette is appropriate, though you could also consider a floor-length ball gown depending on the formality of the venue. If you are attending a white-tie wedding, this is your chance to accessorize with glittering jewels, sleek dress shoes and elbow-length white silk gloves.
Following white-tie, black-tie is the next most formal wedding dress code. Black-tie weddings often take place later in the day, and they require formal outfits. "Traditionally, black-tie weddings happen after 5:30 or 6:00 pm," explains Virginia-based wedding style expert Monte Durham. "Black-tie means just that: Expect to see tuxedos with black bow ties, a simple long black tie or even a long string tie. Formal gowns are also expected, and they should touch the ground or the top of the shoes." It's important to note that black-tie wedding attire is one of the stricter dress codes with little room for interpretation. "Black-tie requires a tuxedo—not a black suit, and definitely not suit separates," explains Jian DeLeon, Men's Fashion & Editorial Director at Nordstrom. "You don't have to wear full tails and cummerbund, but today there are plenty of great formal options at any budget."
Attending a wedding with a black-tie dress code is a great opportunity to dress up your outfit with accessories too. "Cufflinks on French cuffs are a great way to enhance any tuxedo," explains Andrew Roberts, CEO of luxury formalwear brand Del Toro. And, for women, you can't go wrong with pieces that sparkle to your outfit, "Refined jewelry like pearls or diamonds are the best options to dress up an evening gown," explains Ranu Coleman, CMO of wedding fashion brand Azazie.
Black-Tie Optional Attire
If your wedding invitation says "black-tie optional" for the dress code, you might be confused as to whether or not you actually need to wear a black-tie wedding outfit. Think of black-tie optional guest attire as a fusion between black-tie and formal fashion. You can wear a tuxedo or a floor-length evening gown if you want, but a dark suit with dress pants and nice loafers would be acceptable too. Similarly, a midi or knee-length cocktail dress would also be appropriate instead of a floor-length gown.
The time of day the event is taking place can also be a helpful indicator of what the wedding dress code means. Evening weddings often indicate a more formal wedding style. In that case, you might consider an outfit that feels a little more upscale. Or, for a black-tie optional wedding in the early afternoon, it's perfectly appropriate to trade the tuxedo or evening gown for something on the less-formal end of the black-tie spectrum.
One of the most popular wedding dress codes is formal attire. And, while you might see this wedding attire wording on a lot of invitations that land in your mailbox, that doesn't make it any easier to decide what to wear to a formal wedding. "A formal wedding dress code is slightly less formal than a black-tie event, and in general it tends to have fewer specifications," says Coleman. "Women can get away with a nicer cocktail dress and, for men, tuxedos are not required."
So, with less guidance, what should you wear for a formal dress code? Durham, who also appears on TLC's Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta, encourages guests to start with the basics. "A formal wedding might include a jacket and tie or a traditional suit," he suggests. "An elegant dress or a nice pantsuit would also be appropriate."
If you're confused about what's appropriate when it comes to formal wedding attire, you can never be too overdressed. When in doubt, a dark, well-tailored suit or a floor-length dress are safe choices. But, if you're feeling adventurous, you can experiment with trendy jumpsuits or a suit with a colorful jacket or bold accessories. As you're choosing what to wear to a formal wedding, remember that erring on the side of caution with a more formal look is always a safe choice.
When it comes to cocktail wedding attire, guests have more flexibility with hemlines, colors and patterns. "The phrase 'cocktail' comes from the 1950s," Durham explains. "This style requires a formal dress with a shorter hemline. It might also be accented with jewelry or a nicer pair of shoes—embellishment is key for a cocktail dress code."
Since cocktail wedding attire is slightly less formal than black-tie and black-tie optional, tuxes and floor-length gowns are not required. (However, you can always opt for longer skirts or formal jackets if you'd like, which are popular choices for winter wedding attire). When it comes to deciding what to wear to a cocktail wedding, a suit and tie with a crisp black or white shirt with dress pants is a no-fail choice. You can also wear a short formal dress or an elegant jumpsuit with jewelry.
Beach Formal Attire
Fashion rules tend to be a bit more lenient for beach weddings. Whether you'll be heading to the tropics for a destination celebration or a classic summer wedding, it's important to prepare for the elements when deciding what to wear to a beach wedding. "If you're going to a wedding on the beach, opt for a linen dress shirt and slacks with a blazer, or a sundress with a straw hat or bag since that fits the aesthetic," explains Durham.
As with most outdoor weddings, consider your shoe choice wisely. You might want to swap stiletto heels for wedges or thick sandals, especially if you'll be walking on sand. And for nuptials that'll take place in warmer climates, shorter skirts and light, airy fabrics like linen and cotton will help you stay cool while keeping in line with the preferred wedding dress code.
Semi-Formal Attire or Dressy Casual Attire
Semi-formal wedding attire may seem like one of the tricker dress codes to nail. And, since cocktail and semi-formal wedding attire can sometimes be used interchangeably, you might feel confused when it's time to pick an outfit. "Semi-formal falls in the grey area between casual and formal," says Coleman. "However, cocktail attire tends to be a little more dressy than semi-formal." So, what do you wear to a semi-formal wedding? "Some ideas include a midi dress, a chic jumpsuit or a wrap dress," Coleman continues. "For cocktail attire, stick to a structured dress or a sleek black dress—you can never go wrong with an LBD."
Embellishments and additional features on an outfit can also help differentiate cocktail attire from semi-formal wedding attire. "A dress for a semi-formal wedding might not include any sort of beading or statement accessories," says Durham. "A suit and tie are also appropriate."
In recent years, the phrase "dressy casual" has risen in popularity for wedding dress codes. Think of dressy casual wedding attire wording as a spin on business casual. Dressy casual wedding attire is most closely related to semi-formal attire, and should be interpreted appropriately. Depending on the time of the event, choose an outfit that falls in between formal and casual. It's encouraged to wear darker, more formal hues for an evening fete, while light colors and fabrics would be appropriate for a daytime wedding.
Daytime Attire or Casual Attire
You might be tempted to think that a casual dress code means anything goes—but that's not necessarily the case. Casual wedding attire is the most relaxed out of all the dress code wording examples on this list, but it's important to remember that a wedding is still a formal event, after all, so there are some rules to keep in mind. "With the rise of backyard weddings, casual dress codes are common," Durham says. "But it's important to remember that you are attending a wedding, after all, and this kind of event requires a certain kind of outfit."
When you're choosing what to wear to a casual wedding as a guest, use business casual outfit ideas as a guide. "You can never go wrong with a navy blazer, a blue button-down shirt or khaki pants," Durham adds. "This will take you a long way. The minute you put on a tie and a pocket square, you will look fully dressed. Similarly, you can always opt for a dress with a nice neckline and simple accessories. Consider swapping sandals for a pump heel to dress it up more." Adds Coleman: "For women, I recommend wearing a sundress, a high/low dress or a jumpsuit."
A casual wedding dress code also comes with more flexibility in terms of experimenting with trendy colors, patterns and fabrics. So, if you're feeling up for it, you can opt for a wedding guest outfit that you wouldn't normally wear. "Semi-formal and casual occasions come with a little more freedom in what you wear," explains DeLeon. "Avoid pinstripes in favor of a solid color or a less business-oriented pattern like glen plaid, houndstooth, or windowpane. And, while a classic navy or dark charcoal gray suit will suffice, consider switching up the shirt and tie for a floral camp shirt or knit polo instead." Even with more flexibility, though, Durham notes that there are a few wedding dress code rules to abide by. "Shorts, running gear and tennis shoes should be off-limits for a casual wedding."
Ultimately, what matters most is that you feel confident in whatever outfit you choose to wear. As long as your attire abides by the preferred wedding dress code, you'll look (and feel) your best as you celebrate the happy couple.
How do you say dress code on a wedding invitation? ›
- Black tie (tuxedos and formal gowns)
- Formal, black tie optional (suit and tie and dresses)
- Semi-formal (suit and tie and cocktail dresses)
- Cocktail attire (suits and party dresses)
- Beach or garden party attire (summer suits and summer dresses)
The easiest way to get your point across is to include your desired dress code on the bottom of the invite or on a separate details card. "Black tie," "cocktail attire" or "dress casual" are all acceptable templates. (And trust us, your guests will appreciate the heads-up).How do you ask guests to wear a certain color? ›
First, get the wording right. Your wedding guests will be looking for your dress code—but might not love being told exactly what to wear. Thus, you should be careful with your phrasing. Alongside your attire, try something along the lines of, "Please indulge us by dressing in white, if you don't mind."What are the levels of dress code? ›
Classifications are divided into formal wear (full dress), semi-formal wear (half dress), and informal wear (undress). Anything below this level is referred to as casual wear, although sometimes in combinations such as "smart casual" or "business casual" in order to indicate higher expectation than none at all.What color should a guest wear to a wedding? ›
You may choose to wear any color except black or white. The guest's goal should be to blend in with the surroundings and let the bride shine. As her guest, you should avoid attire that could be considered informal or in bad taste. Pastels, jewel tones and earth tones are excellent choices, as are most primary colors.What should a female guest wear to a wedding? ›
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.Should you tell your wedding guests what color to wear? ›
If you decide you want to go a step further and suggest that your guests dress in your wedding colors to avoid clashing in photographs, make sure you mention it in advance so guests can purchase outfits if necessary.What are the four types of dress codes? ›
Decode the Dress Codes
If you ask someone what the dress code at their office is, they'll generally give you one of four dress codes: business professional, business casual, smart casual or casual.
While it's not uncommon these days to see dress codes like “barnyard chic” or “beach formal” (both actual dress codes to weddings I have been invited to), the most common dress codes are the following: Casual. Smart Casual. Business Casual.What should you not wear to a wedding? ›
- White. One of the most obvious mistakes at a wedding is to match the bride. ...
- A Black Tuxedo. ...
- Anything Too Revealing. ...
- Denim or Jeans. ...
- Low-Cut Outfits. ...
- Sheer Material. ...
- All Black. ...
- Flip Flops.
Do you have to put dress code on wedding invitation? ›
The general rule for dress code basically says not to include a dress code on your main invite. Your guests should be able to assume the level of formally based on the venue and time of day of your event.What does dress to impress mean for a wedding? ›
What Does Dress To Impress Mean? The saying “dress to impress” suggests that women wear dresses: cocktail dresses, floor-length gowns, formal dresses, party dresses, black tie dresses, black tie optional dresses and more! Essentially, any dress that would make your besties ask you for the deets.How do you tell guests to wear all black? ›
If you're asking guests to wear black to your wedding, the best way to do it is to be specific about what you would like them to wear. You can send out invitations with a black-and-white dress code, or even better, include a link to a specific black dress or tuxedo that you would like them to wear.Is it OK to wear the same color as the wedding party? ›
Lizzie Post, host of the podcast Awesome Etiquette from the Emily Post Institute, says that no guest should ever feel embarrassed if they happen to wear the same color as the bridesmaids, but they can ask in advance what the colors will be if they're concerned about it.Can you wear red to a wedding? ›
“Tradition dictates guests avoid wearing red out of fear that it could take attention away from the happy couple,” explains Hurwitz. “Visually, it's quite bold. In a photo, your eye is immediately drawn to the color, especially if it's next to neutrals like white, black, gray, or beige.”What colors can you not wear to a wedding? ›
- Any shade of white. OK, this is probably pretty obvious, but you really can't wear white to a wedding. ...
- Gold (and other metallics) ...
- Light pastels. ...
- Neon. ...
- The colour the bridesmaids are wearing.
- Neon and Neon. Neon Cyan and Neon Pink Combination. ...
- Dark and Dark. Burgundy Red and Dark Swamp Combination. ...
- Cool and Warm. Asparagus Green and Burning Sand Combination. ...
- Vibrating Color Combinations.
Wearing White to a Wedding: How to Do It (If You Dare)
As mentioned above, white-based prints are widely acceptable. If you're nervous about them, try to choose a bold or colorful all-over print, like this pretty pink floral design, to distract from the white base.
Yellow, pink, and green dresses are all great options to wear. Dresses with patterns and floral designs also work well for the spring season—just be sure you aren't wearing the same color as the bride's bridal party, and of course, stay away from white!How can a guest look classy at a wedding? ›
- #1: A dress is a safe go-to.
- #2: Avoid short hemlines.
- #3: Dress for the theme or vibe.
- #4: It's okay to wear black.
- #5: Always carry a small bag for your essentials.
- #6: Wear heels you can walk in ALL day.
Can you wear navy to a wedding? ›
Navy is a classic neutral that you can rely on for all dress codes and types of wedding attire. This shade pairs particularly well with evening celebrations as well as black tie, formal and semi-formal nuptials.Can you wear pink to a wedding as a guest? ›
While dark pinks and light reds are appropriate, blush and other shades of light pink have a chance of looking too similar to the bridesmaids, or getting washed out and looking white in photos. If you're set on wearing light pink, break up the color with patterns or vibrant accessories.Is black OK to wear to a wedding? ›
As a general rule, "wearing black is totally acceptable, as the hue is very versatile," Sabatino affirms. However, you should avoid wearing white unless you are told otherwise. That shade, she says, is reserved exclusively for the bride.How do you say cocktail attire on a wedding website? ›
We suggest that men wear a lightweight suit in any color and women wear a cocktail dress or a nice pantsuit." "We ask that you wear semi-formal attire such as a cocktail-length dress or dressy separates for women and a suit and tie for men. Please note that the venue does not permit blue jeans or sneakers."How do party dress codes communicate? ›
A simple post script works best for dress code guidance. If clothing comfort factors are not obvious from your venue or wedding date, it is best to include a post script to help guests understand what they are expected to wear.What is smart formal dress code? ›
Smart Dress Code
Smart means no shorts unless you're one of those guys who owns and knows how to wear a shorts suit at a day event. Smart means what it says. You don't necessarily need to wear a full suit with waistcoat, tie, and overcoat but it's probably a safe bet to wear a suit as a start.
To stay within the confines of “formal,” stick to the basic principles of black-tie dressing: elegant, long or mid-length dresses. This dress code is less conservative, so feel free to experiment with different silhouettes, textures and colors.What is a dressy casual wedding? ›
What does dressy casual mean? It's a way to describe an overall aesthetic that is basically not-all-the-way-formal-but-please-don't-wear-jean-shorts. Swann explains that dressy casual is typically requested for daytime weddings—and the earlier the event, the less formal the attire.What is smart casual for a wedding? ›
Smart casual: For the ladies, a summery midi/maxi dress or top and skirt combo are appropriate for a smart casual affair, with a more relaxed shoe style like wedges or even dressy flats. For the guys, a suit is definitely not required.What should a female guest wear to a wedding? ›
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.
What can I wear to a wedding without a dress code? ›
Your best bet is cocktail attire. Sure, you might be overdressed if it ends up being a more relaxed affair, but you'll fit right in at a cocktail attire party, and (with the right accessories) can easily dress up for something on the more formal side. Women should opt for a dress in a luxe fabric, such as silk.What is another way to say dress code? ›
|dress policy||rules on attire|
|acceptable attire||acceptable dress|
|dress requirements||standards on dress|
|specifications on dress||requirements on attire|
It means you're not restricted to black-tie, but says you gotta look good. It gives guests more leeway than "formal", and lets women dress up with "no rules. She should wear- A dressy dress, cocktail dress, full length dress, anything that says you made an extra effort to dress up.
Casual business attire is pretty ambiguous, but generally means slacks, khakis, or a skirt with a dress shirt, blouse or polo. Dresses and seasonal sport coats fall into this dress code as well.Can I wear a cocktail dress to a formal wedding? ›
Black Tie Optional (Formal)
According to Corry, men can wear a dark suit instead of a tuxedo and a conservative tie instead of a bow tie. For women, "a chic cocktail dress is perfect," says Corry. Dressy separates are okay, too.
Yellow, pink, and green dresses are all great options to wear. Dresses with patterns and floral designs also work well for the spring season—just be sure you aren't wearing the same color as the bride's bridal party, and of course, stay away from white!Can I wear a short dress to a formal wedding? ›
At many black-tie or formal weddings, a very short skirt is not acceptable. You can undoubtedly find formal dresses that are shorter than floor-length, but if it is far above the knee, the chances are good that you'll stand out, and not in a good way. Use your common sense when choosing your wedding attire.Can you wear a long dress to a semi formal wedding? ›
Try to avoid going too long or too short.
"Miniskirts and floor-length gowns are off limits," says Dupuis. Shopping for semi-formal dresses is all about finding that happy medium. "If you fancy wearing a maxi dress, just make sure the fabric isn't too dressy," the fashion expert says.