Picture this: You’ve just received an invitation for a wedding you can’t wait to attend. You’re on cloud nine, but then, staring at you, mocking you, is “smart casual.” Maybe it’s “fun dressy,” or “tropical formal.” Either way, you look at your wardrobe in a panic. What are you supposed to wear? After all, you don’t want to show up overdressed or underdressed, but you also don’t want to be out of step with the color palette. Allow us to help. In our easy wedding dress code guide, we’ll go from most to least formal, and walk you through how to decode a wedding dress code invitation.
This is the most formal wedding dress code, and the least ambiguous. Women must wear a full length ball gown with evening gloves and formal jewelry. Men must wear a tailcoat with a white shirt, waistcoat, and bow tie, along with mid-to high waisted black trousers and black formal shoes. These days, white tie events are fairly uncommon, and mostly used for state functions.
Black tie is the most formal dress code that is frequently used in weddings. As with white tie, there’s not much room for interpretation: men should be in a tuxedo, and women should be in a formal gown that touches either the ground or the top of the shoes. Think of an awards ceremony!
Black-Tie Optional and Formal
Formal is one of the most popular used wedding dress codes. Generally speaking, a formal dress code is below black tie but dressier than a casual wedding. That’s it! Women can go for a nicer cocktail dress, or can get creative with an upscale jumpsuit. Men don’t need a tux (you don’t want to be more formally dressed than your host!), but should be in a darker or more conservative suit. We’re also increasingly seeing the dress code of “black-tie optional”. As this suggests, black tie would be an option, but so would a formal suit for men and a nice midi dress or elegant pantsuit for women.
Cocktail and Semi-Formal
This is the most popular dress code for weddings today, and one with arguably the most room for interpretation and creativity. Cocktail attire emerged in the 1950s as a bridge between daytime and evening wear. Women should opt for a knee length or midi dress, and men should be in a suit, albeit with more room for different colors than a formal wedding. Depending on the wedding, cocktail attire can be a good time to get creative with bold colors and patterns, as well as fun jewelry and accessories. Some weddings will specifically have a dress code of “festive”, which should be taken as a go-ahead for snazzy colors, bright ties and pocket squares. Some people use the two dress codes interchangeably; for others, cocktail is a little bit more formal than semi-formal. As always, don’t be afraid to ask the host for clarification!
Casual weddings are frequently held outside, or at less formal venues like neighborhood restaurants or social halls. Just because it says casual on the invitation, however, doesn’t mean there aren’t rules. Typically, men should wear a button down shirt and slacks, and can wear a tie or a sport coat (wearing both risks being a little overdressed). Casual dresses like sundresses and jumpsuits are appropriate for women. Jeans, shorts, and sneakers should not be worn unless they’re specifically mentioned as acceptable.
Dress Code Guide General Rules
No matter your dress code, there are some general rules to keep in mind. While overdressing can be as bad as underdressing—you’d feel silly wearing a tux to a backyard wedding—if you have to choose, being a bit overdressed is better than being a bit underdressed, as long as you do it in a way that doesn’t show up the wedding couple. Also, be sure to pay attention to the time of the wedding- the later the time, the dressier things will tend to be. Even if the dress code on the invitation is the same, a wedding in the evening should have a darker and more conservative outfit than a wedding in the daytime. Lastly, if you’re at all confused, never be afraid to ask someone in the wedding party. It’s always better to ask than to show up with the wrong outfit.
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