Wedding Dress Codes 101

An aerial shot of a bride and groom dancing in the middle of a ballroom with their wedding guests watching.

When you receive an invitation to a wedding and it reads “beach formal” or “black tie,” you may initially not be sure what to wear to such an occasion. At the same time, as a bride-to-be, you may have a good idea what you want the collective of guests to look like at your wedding, but you may not know what dress code would help you achieve that. Never fear! Here’s a breakdown, in order of formality level, of the common wedding dress codes.

White Tie

If you are invited to or are hosting a white tie wedding, expect everyone to be in a tuxedo with long tails (the fanciest of them all), or a full length, formal fabric ball gown with closed toe high heels. Not everyone sticks with exactly this recipe, but white tie is basically a red carpet party for the nicest outfits you can find.

Black Tie

Slightly less glitzy than white tie, black tie is some form of tuxedo and ball gown. You might be able to get away with a very nice tea length gown, but generally you are better off going a little too formal with black tie than a little too informal. Black tie is the most typical of the “formal” wedding dress codes. If you really aren’t sure what to wear to a black tie wedding, talk to some other people who are also attending about your options, but plan for it to be some sort of a ball gown for a woman and a tuxedo for a man.

Semi-Formal

A couple in semi-formal attire dancing at a wedding.

This is where a lot of American weddings tend to fall these days. Under semi-formal attire, men can wear a nice suit and women can wear shorter dresses that may fall under the “cocktail” category. At a semi-formal event, you’ll probably see both men wearing ties and some without. This kind of in-between dress code can result in some people being over- or underdressed. As a crowd, everyone will look polished.

Cocktail Attire

Imagine a slightly eased-up semi-formal event, and you’ve arrived at cocktail attire. Slacks and a dress shirt are fine for men, and dresses of nearly any fabric are fine for women as long as they aren’t too loud, tight, or short. There’s generally more room for self-expression within the cocktail attire category. You still aren’t showing up in jeans or a sweater, but your most fun version of “business casual” is probably in the ballpark.

Beach Formal

A bride and groom at their wedding on a beach with guests wearing beach formal attire.

Slightly outside of the typical scale of dress codes, beach formal includes different fabrics such as linen and breezy, breathable sundress fabric, and bright colors or pastels. These looks aren’t really more formal or less formal, but it’s just not that typical to see bright formal prints or less formal fabrics outside of a beach or outdoor wedding. Beach formal is a nice way to say that your guests should dress up, but in a comfy way for the experience outside.

Casual

This is still not a jeans occasion, no matter what “casual” means to you. It’s great to take your cocktail attire down a notch for a casual wedding: wear a gauzy fabric or a fun jumpsuit as a woman, and feel free to choose a polo or a button-down shirt if you’re a guy. Shoes can sometimes be what distinguishes casual from cocktail; a dress that looks classy with a pair of pumps may be fun and pretty with your favorite flats at a casual wedding.

General Dress Code Tips

If you worry that the outfit you’ve picked out for a wedding is on the edge between two levels of formality, focus your accessories on bringing you back into the middle: statement jewelry can be a way to “dress it down” and show a little creativity, while nice heels tend to always dress things up a little. If you know that there will be extremes of weather, make sure you come up with a plan for staying cool or warm; the general rule is to not dress in anything too tight or short even if it will be warm, so work towards coverage in the summer but breathable, light fabrics.

One of the biggest rules of thumb is to not wear white (bride’s privilege only!) and to not draw a lot of attention to yourself with your outfit. By fitting in with the dress code, you’re respecting the bride and groom’s wish that their party be a formal (or not-so-formal) affair, but the goal isn’t to be the person everyone is talking about the next day.

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