Wedding season is officially upon us, and with it come many time-honored traditions. The bouquet toss. The cake cutting. But before all that comes another, far more challenging tradition to navigate: figuring out what to wear in compliance with complicated wedding dress codes.
With couples thinking outside the box when it comes to their big day, wedding invitations are arriving adorned with a variety of increasingly creative dress codes. So if you’re stumped by a request for “vineyard formal,” “clambake casual,” or “burlap sack boogaloo,” your best bet is to simply ask the couple (or a well-informed member of the wedding party) for some guidance. But most of the time, wedding dress codes fall into one of the following categories.
1. The Invitation says: “White Tie”
This is the most formal of all wedding dress codes (think state dinners and the Oscars).
For the men: A tuxedo, a long black jacket with tails, a white pique vest, and a bow tie. Black, formal shoes and even white gloves for dancing are appropriate.
For the ladies: A formal, full-length ball gown in a neutral color like dark brown or black. Glamorous makeup and dramatic jewelry and hair are appropriate.
2. The Invitation Says: “Black Tie”
This is the next most formal wedding dress code, and usually means the wedding is an evening event.
For the men: A tuxedo. A black bow tie, black vest or cummerbund, and patent leather shoes are also suggested. For summer weddings, a white dinner jacket and black tuxedo trousers are also acceptable. (You might be able to get away with a conservative black suit as a substitute for the tux.)
For the ladies: You can go a bit dressier and wear a formal floor-length gown, or choose a short, dressy cocktail dress. (If you’re unsure about the appropriate dress length, the bride, wedding party, or friends should be able to answer your questions.)
3. The Invitation Says: “Formal” or “Black Tie Optional”
In a world where tuxes and evening gowns no longer hang in people’s closets as a matter of course, this contemporary dress code gives guests some leeway to get more or less fancy as they see fit.
For the men: For men, black tie optional means it’s not wrong to wear a tux, if you like—but if you’d be happier in a dark suit and tie, you won’t be underdressed.
For the ladies: Ditto for women, who can wear just about anything they’d sport to a black tie affair, within reason. (You’ll probably feel overdone in an elaborate sequined evening gown, but an embellished cocktail-length number is fine.) Just make sure you’re still dressed for evening; prints and most pastels will be out of place at a formal wedding.
4. The Invitation Says: “Semiformal” or “Dressy Casual”
Depending on the time of the event, you’ll want to dress somewhere between formal and casual. Wear darker, more formal hues for an evening fete; opt for light colors and fabrics for a daytime wedding.
For the men: A suit and tie, dark or light depending on the season and time of day.
For the ladies: A cocktail dress or a long, dressy skirt and top.
5. The Invitation Says: “Festive Attire”
Relatively new, this one can leave many guests scratching their heads. Basically, guests are given the go-ahead to have fun and play with their look. Opt for cocktail-party attire featuring bolder colors and playful accessories.
For the men: A suit and tie, jazzed up with a bright tie.
For the ladies: A cocktail dress or party dress in a fun color, paired with playful accessories.
6. The Invitation Says: “Casual”
The word “casual” on a wedding invite indicates a more laidback affair, but there’s still a difference between wedding casual and casual-casual. Unless specifically instructed otherwise, jeans are a no-no, as are sweatpants, sneakers, and workout-wear.
For the men: Men should wear a collared button-down or polo and chinos; a jacket isn’t required, but it’s a nice touch.
For the ladies: Women have a lot of leeway at a casual wedding, with options ranging from slacks and a blouse to a sun dress.