Formal Weddings: A Guest Survival Guide

The bride and groom's table at a fancy wedding

Have you been invited to attend a big, formal wedding but aren’t sure what to expect? No need to freak out about what to do at a formal wedding. Take a deep breath, as it doesn’t matter if this is your first formal wedding. Remember, it’s another opportunity for you to have fun no matter the formality. What to wear, time of year, which fork to use and for what dish? We’ll walk you through a few basics, so you can relax and then have a blast at possibly the best invite of the year. Lucky you!

Invitation and RSVP

The invitation is the best clue to specifics about the wedding formalities. First, what does it say about formality: black tie, white tie, beach formal, California formal, etc? Look up these terms online to get an overview of how to dress. Of course, it’s perfectly acceptable to contact the couple if you’re not certain about what to wear or any other unanswered questions. Also, if you have any food allergies, it’s fine to ask to speak with their caterer.

Do send the invitation back as soon as it’s convenient, as the couple have many things to organize for their big day. And if something does arise and you can’t attend, it’s important to tell the couple immediately, so they can save the expense by cancelling with vendors, caterers, and possibly change seating arrangements.

Man in a fancy beige suit for a formal wedding


First, white tie is the most formal, think royal occasion or formal event at the White House. For gentlemen, this would include long-tail black tuxedos, white bow tie, tuxedo white wing-tip shirt, button studs, white vest or waistcoat vest, black tuxedo pants, white or gray gloves, and black patent formal shoes. For the ladies, this would be full-length ball gowns or very formal nice material knee length dress, formal shoes, jewelry, glamorous makeup and hairstyle, and statement jewelry.

Black tie is very formal as well. For gentlemen, it would include a tuxedo, long black jacket with tails, cummerbund or black vest, formal white shirt, patent leather shoes, and the right accessories. For ladies, it’s long formal or cocktail dress, dressy evening separates or pant suits, your best little black dress with statement jewelry, fine makeup, and elegant hairstyle.

There’s also black tie for warm weather where gentlemen could possibly wear lighter material formal attire, jackets in off-white, ivory, cream, or winter white, and the rest of the accessories. Ladies retain the elegance of a classic evening dress, but also in lighter fabrics and colors, while still maintaining the rest of the formalities.

There’s many other formals, such as black tie creative, festive, cocktail, lounge, beach, and more. Again, if you’re uncertain, then do ask the couple for specifics. Also, ladies should wear heel protectors if this is an outdoor affair, as the ground and grass could ruin your best shoes.

A formal table setting for dinner


After the ceremony, many formal weddings might begin with a cocktail reception, which is a wonderful time to meet and greet.

When dining, if confused about what fork to use, remember it’s simply working from the outside in with your silverware (fork, knife, or spoon furthest from the plate. ie: salad fork furthest left, then dinner fork. Soup spoon, then beverage spoon. Salad knife, then dinner knife. Dessert spoon. Possibly more due to multiple courses.). Food’s generally served from the left and beverages are served from the right.

Table manners basics: I’ve heard that it’s polite to leave some food on the plate, but that’s simply not true. Only leave food if you’re full or ate enough. If the food’s not to your liking, then at least try a little of everything, and be silent if you don’t like it. While being served courses, scoop food away from you. Cut no more than a few bites at a time. It is inappropriate to request food other than what’s served by your host, so as mentioned earlier, you should let know in advance when you received the invitation.

Don’t point with your silverware. Hands, arms, and elbows off table, just like your mom said. Don’t talk with your mouth full and close your mouth while chewing. No slurping, burping, or blowing your nose at the table, and you can excuse yourself to visit the restroom to cough, sneeze, or blow nose to your delight. Cellphone on silent. No toothpicks at table. Apply additional makeup in restroom. Keep conversations light, pleasant, and don’t raise your voice.

Fancy wedding gifts on a table

Wedding Gifts

If you have a budget, then stick with it, as you do not have to spend as much as you think they’re spending on your dinner and good time. Do bring a gift, as customary, but don’t compare with what others’ might spend or buy. It’s really is about the thought that goes behind the gift and find something memorable. So, relax about this one.

The little faux pas: How to behave? You can get a lot of queues by observing the couple and their parents. For example, if they remove jackets, loosen ties, or remove shoes, feel free to do so. While there, don’t talk about how much money was spent on the event. Keep silent if you’re not happy with the service, food, or the room’s too cold. Don’t ask any celebrities for autographs, don’t take ton of selfies, and don’t make yourself the center of attention, and you’ll be fine. Remember, it’s all about the couple.

Final advice, if you’re nervous about attending this nice fancy affair, don’t be. A lot of it’s just common sense. So, let the good times roll and embarrassing one’s slide. You’ve dressed up, put your best foot forward, and everyone there really has the same doubts, feelings, ups and downs like you. If you don’t attend one of these lavish affairs too often, then just pinch yourself, smile, be happy, and make the most out of it. Enjoy the hors d’oeuvre and the fine champagne!

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