The Ultimate Wedding Dress Code Guide

From “rustic attire” (dress like you’re going out into the forest to chop wood) to black tie (think of James Bond in “Skyfall”), there’s a broad spectrum of wedding dress codes, and they can be utterly perplexing for the first-time code-abider. Whether you’re a bride planning her big-day look or a guest staring at a wedding invitation in pure puzzlement trying to decide what to wear, it helps if you know a thing or two about the different wedding dress codes as you try to sort things out. Here are the most common dress codes and what they mean.

  • Casual —Casual dress codes are appropriate for more relaxed events, such as beach or backyard weddings. There are very few rules to abide by with this code, so wear what makes you feel the most comfortable. It should go without saying, but don’t show up in anything too casual — no gym clothes or sneakers, please!
    • Ladies: Everything from jeans and a T-shirt to a semi-formal dress and heels. Casual dresses are the perfect middle ground.
    • Gents: Everything from jeans and a T-shirt to khakis or slacks and a nice button-up. Skip the tie and jacket.
  • Dressy Casual —Also apropos for a more laid-back affair, the dressy casual dress code hints to guests that they don’t have to be fussy, but jeans are off-limits. This code means that you should aim to be both dressy and casual.
    • Ladies: A nice dress that errs on the casual side (no tulle or chiffon), such as a maxi dress or sundress, or slacks and a blouse with heels or dressy sandals.
    • Gents: Go for a collared, button-down shirt and slacks and leave your jacket and tie at home. This may also be a good excuse for more casual menswear staples, like linen pants in the summer.

  • Cocktail —As brides and grooms move further away from formality, they’re gravitating more towards casual and middle-ground codes, making cocktail attire one of the most popular options today. This code is dressy but not tuxedos and floor-length gowns dressy. When the invitation reads “cocktail chic attire,” it typically means that you should abide by a cocktail dress code.
    • Ladies: Dear cocktail dresses, it’s your time to shine! Ladies, when the invite says “cocktail,” it’s time to bust out your dressier knee- and calf-length numbers.
    • Gents: Suit up and sport your favorite necktie. Guys should wear a darker suit with a white or muted button-down and a tie.
  • Black Tie — Known as the second-most formal wedding dress code, black tie attire equals tuxes for the guys and full-length dresses for the ladies, but the rules can definitely be bent a bit more than they can with white tie.
    • Ladies: According to etiquette authority Emily Post, ladies can wear formal full-length gowns, dressier cocktail gowns or even dressy little black dresses when the invite says black tie.
    • Gents: The gold standard for men’s black-tie attire is, of course, the tuxedo. Couple it with a dressy black bowtie (no cotton, please) and either a tuxedo jacket or a cummerbund.
  • Black Tie Optional — If your invitation says “black tie optional” you should still dress formal, but you only need to sport the tux and the evening gown if you want to. A dressier black suit for guys and a short, formal dress for ladies is acceptable.
  • Creative Black Tie — For this code, you want to keep the fundamentals of black tie but add in something unique or whimsical, like a boa, a novelty tie or some funky accessories. It’s black tie with one caveat: Have fun with it!

  • White Tie — If you’ve been invited to a white tie affair, your wardrobe may take some maneuvering. This is the most formal dress code — think Met Gala or Royal Wedding — but it’s also the one that’s the most prescriptive. Follow the rules and you’ll be fine!
    • Ladies: A floor-length evening gown is required, while long gloves are optional. Be sure to remove your gloves while drinking cocktails, eating dinner and dancing.
    • Gents: Guys must wear a black dress coat or a tailcoat coupled with matching trousers with a single satin stripe on the side (two stripes in the UK). They should wear a white piqué wing-collared shirt, a white vest, a white bowtie and white gloves as well as shiny black shoes and dress socks.

  • Themes: If your invite diverts from the standard codes listed above or veers into themed territory — island, rustic, 1920s, festive, etc. — then feel free to flex your creative muscles when planning your look. Add in some whimsical or novel accessories that suit the theme of the evening.

Honing Your Look: Season and Locale

When you’re designing your dress code or your outfit to suit a certain dress code, be sure that you take into consideration other factors beyond the code listed on the invitation. You’ll also want to consider the following:

  • Season — Dressing for the season really comes down to choosing materials and colors that are appropriate for the time of year. In other words, don’t wear velvet in July or linen in December. In summer, stick to lighter-weight fabrics, like cotton, straw, linen, madras and seersucker, and wear heavier tweed, velvet and wool in the fall and winter. Of course, you should always consider the season when selecting colors, too.
  • Venue — The location of the wedding and reception may affect some of your outfit choices. If it’s in a church, you may not feel comfortable sporting something risqué, while if it’s at the local city park, you probably won’t want to wear evening attire.

Making the Code Clear

One word to the future bride and groom: Figuring out what to wear to a wedding can already be a mind-bending feat, and when you add in a special dress code, it can be downright maddening. If you have the room, be as explicit as possible. Although you probably won’t want to go into detail on the actual invitation, consider adding a paragraph or two of detail on your wedding website. Your guests will be forever grateful!

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