Whether planning or attending a wedding—or any wedding-related event for that matter—deciding what to wear and when can get confusing. Of course, if you’re in charge, the dress code can be whatever you want. If you’re a guest, there’s hopefully a dress code note on the invitation. Either way, it can still be helpful to refer to a guide for extra confidence.
Dress codes are important for many reasons. They not only set the mood for the event, but they also help attendees narrow down their wardrobe choices. Whenever possible, it’s always a good idea to tell guests about the venue as well. (Someone who was planning on wearing heels might change their mind if they know the party will take place outside.)
There can be a multitude of pre-wedding events, but the key ones are the engagement party, groom/bridal shower, bachelor and bachelorette party, and the rehearsal dinner. Of these, the rehearsal dinner is generally the most formal, while the rest tend to be more relaxed.
Dress Codes 101
While there are many creative dress codes, there are a few commonly used terms you should know. Most wedding and pre-wedding invitations will be somewhere between casual and cocktail. However, feel free to be as fancy as you’d like.
Casual and Smart Casual
While the word casual may make you think of t-shirts and flip-flops, it’s not a good idea to look too relaxed. Unless specified otherwise, a casual dress code to a pre-wedding event should be read as smart casual. You can probably get away with a nice pair of jeans, as long as your overall look feels polished.
Beach, Garden, or Resort
Just like the casual dress code, it should be read slightly more formally than it seems. Smart casual is a good default. You might not go to the beach in a full face of glam makeup, but you shouldn’t look like you just rolled out of bed on this occasion.
Men can go in anything from a collared button down with slacks to a casual suit. No tie is required. Women can opt for a summer dress or a casual cocktail ensemble. You can also choose a neat day outfit and dress it up with a few accessories or hair and makeup.
Cocktail or Semi-Formal
As the name suggests, this is the time to wear a cocktail dress and take it up a notch. Opt for something above smart casual, but not over the top. A suit and tie is acceptable for men, but not necessary. You can wear a suit without a tie, or simply take off your jacket.
Black Tie and Black Tie Optional
A black-tie event is undoubtedly a fancy one. Imagine a black tuxedo or dinner suit for men and a formal dress for women. Formal dresses don’t have to be long but they should be of modest length. Men should not forget their bow tie.
A black tie-optional event still adheres to a formal dress code. You are still expected to dress as best as you can and are encouraged to do so. However, certain details are allowed to be more relaxed. For example, men don’t need a black suit—a dark one will do. A tie can also substitute for a bow tie. Women should dress one level above a cocktail event, but can be as formal as they’d like.
Wedding Event Dressing Do’s and Don’ts
No matter which pre-wedding event you are attending, there are a few rules that you should try to abide by. Dress codes, official or unofficial, are all about respect. However, dressing correctly will also help you feel more comfortable in a social situation.
Although it is not yet the wedding itself, it is unwise to wear white to any wedding-related occasion. That color is reserved for the bride, and it is not uncommon for the bride to wear white on other pre-wedding events.
Some people would also suggest shying away from anything too bright or flashy, as it might seem attention-seeking and inappropriate.
If the invitation does not specify a dress code, just ask the bride or groom what you should wear or what they’re planning to wear.
When in doubt, it’s always better to put more effort into your look than not. You can always take off a necklace, red lipstick, or tie, but it’s unlikely you’ll find a spare accessory once at the event.
Regardless, always keep in mind the venue and time of day. Evening events tend to be more formal than day events. If the venue is a beach, you probably don’t want to show up in a cocktail dress and stilettos.
Guide to Pre-Wedding Event Dressing
If you’ve hosted or attended a wedding event before, you might be unsure what to ask from guests or what to wear yourself. Here is what you can expect from the four major pre-wedding gatherings.
This is a relatively casual celebration of a couple taking the next step in their relationship. Generally, an engagement party is either hosted at home or at a restaurant. Dress codes can be quite casual if the theme is a backyard BBQ, or they can be cocktail if held at an upscale venue. As a default, smart casual and polished can do no harm.
Bachelor and Bachelorette Party
This is the one event that has no rules. It’s all about having fun. Unless it’s a surprise soirée, the dress code is largely determined by the venue. If you’re going to a nightclub, then club wear is a must. If it’s a spa, then feel free to relax a bit.
However, you’ve likely seen some creative takes for this occasion. Some groups opt for matching outfits or added accessories like tiaras and sashes for the bride. Generally speaking, you can be as crazy as you want to be, but do make sure that everyone is on the same page.
A shower is a rather casual gathering, but it is still a party. Be comfortable, but not too comfortable. Think wine tasting or brunch when pondering outfits. Something smart casual will work just fine.
One of the last events in pre-wedding preparation is the rehearsal dinner. Because it’s meant to be a practice for the big day, the theme and dress code should remotely match the wedding itself. If you attended the engagement party, the rehearsal dinner dress code should lie somewhere between that and the wedding itself.
Use the cocktail dress code as a go-to, but also consider what you would otherwise wear to the wedding itself. If the other events had semi-formal settings, dress just a hint better.