Wedding Dress Etiquette

A bride holding a bouquet and walking down a sunlit staircase.

Even couples who are planning on ditching most of the old-fashioned wedding traditions—like the bouquet toss, not seeing each other before the ceremony, or the “to have and to hold” vows—are still likely to get their wedding fashion cues from generations of weddings where the bride wears a white gown and the groom wears some sort of tuxedo or suit. Still, even if a bride is certain that she wants a white wedding dress, there are many options to consider for her big day, which can be overwhelming when you walk into a bridal shop for the first time.

Though a bride certainly has the right to wear whatever dress she wants on her wedding day (or to not wear a dress at all and opt for something like a pantsuit), if she is planning on sticking with tradition then it’s a good idea to brush up on what the etiquette is for time of day and venue dress codes. Feeling lost on what wedding dress would best fit your ceremony and reception? Here are some wedding dress etiquette rules to keep in mind as you start shopping.

First, Determine Who Is Paying and Stick to a Budget

A young woman trying on a wedding dress in a shop with two friends.

Before you even explore what level of formality you need in your wedding gown, you should first determine who is going to pay for it and what budget is appropriate. Traditionally, the bride’s family will pay for the wedding dress, but today many couples are footing the bill for their own weddings. Whether your parents are completely paying for the dress or you’re splitting the cost, you should set a budget and do your best not to go beyond it.

Are You Having a Daytime or Evening Wedding Ceremony?

A bride at her morning wedding wearing a short veil and more casual dress.

When it comes to wedding dress etiquette, timing is everything. Traditionally, if your wedding is held before 6 p.m., your wedding is considered to be a daytime ceremony. Daytime ceremonies are typically less formal than a wedding that starts after 6 p.m., which are considered to be an evening ceremony.

With daytime ceremonies, the rules on what a bride “should” wear are more relaxed. It wouldn’t be uncommon to see a bride wearing a shorter, more casual dress with a birdcage veil (or no veil at all) at a breakfast or brunch-time wedding, but that doesn’t mean that they are prohibited from wearing a ballgown dress with a cathedral veil. On the flip side, if you’re sticking with the traditional wedding dress etiquette and your wedding is held in the evening, your dress is expected to be more formal than a daytime ceremony—meaning a long gown and full veil.

The Type of Venue Also Comes into Play

A bride wearing a breezy dress on the dock of an ocean venue.

Just as the time of day has an affect on what kind of wedding dress you’ll choose, so does the type of venue. If, for example, you are getting married in an upscale ballroom, your dress should match the level of formality in that particular venue. But if you’re planning on a tropical destination wedding, you wouldn’t expect a bride to be dragging a gown with a long train down the sandy aisle. Choosing your venue before you purchase your wedding dress will go a long way in giving you some context clues as to the style and design of the piece.

Make Accommodations for Houses of Worship

A bride getting married in a church and wearing a long-sleeved lace dress.

If you plan on getting married in a house of worship, you should definitely check if there are any restrictions on certain dress features. Many places of worship require brides to have their shoulders covered (and definitely not have any plunging necklines or exposed backs), so you’ll need to be prepared with a shawl or coverup if necessary. You should also keep in mind any rules regarding covering of the hair for the ceremony and procure any necessary accessories for the occasion.

Definitions of Casual, Semi-Formal and Formal Wedding Dresses

Even when taking the above considerations into account, it can be difficult to narrow down your dress options. To help you out (and to find something appropriate for the venue, time of day, and overall vibe of your wedding), here are definitions of casual, semi-formal, and formal gowns that you can keep in the back of your mind when shopping.

Casual: A casual dress for a bride can take on many different looks, but separating casual from semi-formal and formal usually comes down to fabric and length. Casual dresses are typically shorter (think tea-length or even knee-length) and can come in a variety of fabrics including cotton, polyester, or any other fabric commonly seen in a regular department or clothing store.

Semi-Formal: The distinction between semi-formal and formal is completely subjective, but semi-formal gowns typically don’t require the wearing of a long veil. Semi-formal gowns are usually long or floor-length and come in a variety of silhouettes such as A-line, mermaid, and sheath. They can include some beading or lace, but nothing too over-the-top.

Formal: A formal wedding gown is always floor-length and is usually accompanied by a long veil. Formal gowns typically come in fabrics like silk, organza, or satin, and will involve some sort of intricate lace or beading details.

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