Cracking the Code: What Do I Wear to the Wedding?

October 12, 2017 by Jessica Chen
wedding couple crowd
Photo by Tom The Photographer on Unsplash

What Do I Wear to the Wedding? As someone at an age where friends are starting to get married one by one, invitations have started rolling in through the mail and into my inbox. One aspect of the wedding season that used to stress me out was the eternal question: What do I wear?

With all the specialized terminology, invitations can feel like they’re written in code. What’s the difference between dressy casual and casual? How formal is semi-formal? How do I keep myself from committing a faux pas?

Luckily, I am here to help you crack the wedding dress code once and for all! Feel free to jump to the dress code that you need using the table of contents.

Women: Cracking the Code to Wedding Attire

Women: White Tie Weddings

women white tie weddings

White tie, the fanciest of dress codes, means that it’s time for ladies to pull out those floor-length evening gowns, usually in an understated color. A clear signal that you’re about to attend a glamorous event, dress for how you would if you were about to be photographed on the red carpet or at a gala. An easy way to add a sense of elegance to your look is to add the right pearl accessories.

Women: Black Tie Weddings

women black tie weddings

One tiny step down from white tie is black tie. Although you should still go for a formal gown, feel free to experiment with some brighter colors or different lengths. If you are confused over how much is too much, contact either the bride or someone in the bridal party to confirm. More often than not, the bride will probably appreciate you trying to make her special day perfect, so don’t be afraid to ask.

Women: Formal/Black Tie Optional Weddings

women formal black tie optional
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On wedding invitations, formal and black tie optional are often used interchangeably. These terms refer to an event where the guests are given the option to dress in black tie but are not explicitly bound to it. (Hence, the “optional” in “black tie optional”.) While you are still expected to dress nicely, you’ll have more freedom in your choices. For women, this means a long dress, a formal cocktail dress or dressy separates.

Women: Beach Formal Weddings

women beach formal weddings
Photo by Jeremy Wong on Unsplash

A beach wedding, while dreamy, demands a whole different set of expectations for what guests should wear. Beach weddings are still an elegant affair, but as every woman knows, you also have to dress for the locale. This means formal sundresses, either knee-length, tea-length or maxi-dresses, to account for the wind and sun. For shoes, flats or embellished sandals that won’t cause you to struggle through the sand are highly recommended. Depending on the wedding, you may also rock a stylish hat to keep the sun off your face.

Women: Cocktail/Semi-Formal/Dressy Casual Weddings

women Cocktail Semi-formal Dressy casual weddings
Photo by Nicklas Bajema on Unsplash

In terms of dress codes, cocktail, semi-formal or dressy casual are all around the same level of formality. When you see any of these terms on the invitations, you should leave floor-length dresses at home. Instead, a shorter dress is more appropriate, as well as a dressy top and long skirt or a sharp jumpsuit. For a day wedding, be sure to choose lighter, brighter colors. If you’re attending an evening wedding, go for darker, more subdued colors.

Women: Festive Attire Weddings

women festive weddings
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The word “festive” means colors! For outfits in this category, you should go for an ensemble similar to one in the cocktail category, but in a bright color. Don’t be afraid to pair your frock with bold accessories. Usually, weddings with festive dress codes want you to have some fun with what you wear, so go ahead and find something eye-popping to wear!

Women: Casual/Daytime Weddings

women casual daytime weddings
Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Casual and daytime are interchangeable when it comes to wedding dress codes. While these terms usually mean that you don’t need to go out to buy a whole new fancy outfit, you should go for something business casual, rather than clothes you wear when you’re lounging around your house. A sundress or a pretty blouse with a nice pair of pants or skirt coupled with flats will work wonders.

Men: Cracking the Code to Wedding Attire

Men: White Tie Weddings

men white tie weddings
Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

When the words “white tie” show up on the invitation, you know you’re going to a classy event. The fanciest of dress codes, men should be prepared to go full tuxedo. This is not one of those occasions when you can just put on your best dress shirt and a denim blazer and wing it. You’ll stick out like a sore thumb in the sea of people looking like they’re dressed to attend a state dinner.

Men: Black Tie Weddings

men black tie weddings
Photo by Jason Briscoe on Unsplash

With black tie, you know that the wedding will be a particularly dignified occasion. Traditionally, black tie means that men should be in tuxedos. However, nowadays, you might be able to get away with a conservative black suit, if you really are having trouble securing a tux. Pro tip: try to go for a black bowtie, instead of a straight tie for an added air of formality.

Men: Formal/Black Tie Optional Weddings

men Formal Black tie optional weddings

The next step down in wedding dress codes is formal, otherwise known as black tie optional. For men, this means that you have the option of wearing a tuxedo, but it’s not completely necessary. (Hence, the “optional” part of “ black tie optional”.) More often than not, men will wear dark suits with ties, if they do not want to go all out in a tux.

Men: Beach Formal Weddings

men Beach formal weddings
Photo by Kats Weil on Unsplash

For many, the words “beach formal” sound like an oxymoron. Going to the beach seems to call for informal clothing, but with the addition of “formal”, what you are expected to wear might not be clear. For weddings slapped with this label, men are usually expected to wear a summer suit with linen or khaki pants. For footwear, opt for sandals or other shoes that can navigate a sandy beach.

Men: Cocktail/Semi-Formal/Dressy Casual Weddings

men Cocktail Semi-formal Dressy casual weddings

If you see cocktail, semi-formal or dressy casual on the invitation, you should know that they all are on the same tier of formality. For men, a suit and tie are perfect for such a wedding. Depending on the time of day, the color of the suit can be adjusted. If the wedding is during the day, go for lighter shades. Correspondingly, if the wedding is in the evening, darker shades are more suitable.

Men: Festive Attire Weddings

men Festive attire weddings

Festive is a relatively new dress code to enter the wedding vernacular. Although festive is similar to cocktail in terms of how fancy you have to be, this term means that you should be prepared to incorporate some color into your getup. So, no more monochrome suits! Add a pop of color to your suit with a bright tie and be more playful with your attire than you otherwise would be when preparing to go to a wedding.

Men: Casual/Daytime Weddings

men Casual Daytime weddings

When you see the word “casual”, you may be tempted to wear just about anything. However, this is not the time to pull out jeans or your favorite pair of sneakers. Instead, a button-down shirt or polo would be the right amount of formality for one these weddings. Paired with either dress or khaki pants, you’ll look appropriately laidback.

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I hope this guide has been invaluable in helping you figure out what you should wear to your next wedding! Looking your best shouldn’t be such a headache, so next time you see a cryptic dress code, don’t fret and overthink it. Just refer back to this guide and you’ll be good to go!

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And, to add that special touch to your wedding attire, be sure to wear jewelry accessories that fit the bill. From pearl engagement and wedding rings to pearl earrings, necklaces and bracelets, these precious gems will make any wedding outfit look amazing.

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Jessica Chen
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Jessica Chen

Jessica Chen at WeddingDresses.com
Jessica Chen is a wedding enthusiast, writer and editor at WeddingDresses.com. A romantic at heart, she enjoys binge-watching The Mindy Project when she’s not pouring over fun ideas she can use for her own wedding someday. Jessica currently guest blogs for The Pearl Source.
Jessica Chen
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