– Ask a Real Bride – How To Decode the Wedding Dress Code

Week after week, our inbox is filled with questions regarding what to wear to weddings. While black tie, formal, and semiformal have always been common dress codes, some couples are getting more unique and specific, in effect requesting that their guests’ attire become an extension of the wedding theme.

Photo Credit: Ashley Sawtelle

So what’s a guest to wear? We surveyed over one hundred real couples and wedding guests to get their wardrobe recommendations, and we hope their advice helps you decode the dress code for your next event!

How to Determine the Dress Code

wedding invitation
The invitation contains important dress code cues!
Photo Credit: Jessica Pendley Photography

Sometimes, finding the dress code is as easy as checking your invitation, insert card, or the couple’s wedding website. But most couples we surveyed (67%) did not specify a dress code for their weddings.

So how do you determine what to wear to a dress code-free wedding? That’s the question we posed to our followers:

Dress Code multiple choice

While all of the options above are valid clues as to what to wear, the most popular answer was “A,” the formality of the invitation. If the invite you receive features calligraphy, formal language like, “the honor of your presence,” and has details like an inner envelope, wax seal, or letterpress, all are clues that you should dress formally.

Conversely, if the invitation uses language like, “Will and Kate are Getting Hitched,” and features a silly photo of the couple, you’re most likely in for a more casual, laid-back affair.

Details like venue and  time of day are also important indicators for your wardrobe: a morning wedding on the beach vs. an evening wedding at a hotel ballroom by nature call for very different attire.

If you still find yourself confused as to what to wear despite the clues found in the invitation and details of the day, reach out to a member of the wedding party or another close friend for a clothing recommendation.

Two people you should not ask: the bride or groom, who may feel slighted by any confusion on your part, and who have many other wedding day concerns!

Decoding Formal vs. Semi-Formal

Let’s assume that there’s no guessing involved, and the couple has chosen to specify a dress code. Two of the most common dress codes you’re likely to see are formal and semiformal. What’s the difference? We asked wedding guests to share how they interpret the distinction:

“Formal = full length. Semi-formal = below the knee.” –Megan P.

“Formal, to me, means a floor-length gown”–Katie A.

“Dress length is the biggest for me. And I feel like darker colors are more formal.” –Heather G.

“Long dress vs. short, and the dress material too” –Amber R.

“[For men] A darker suit” –Julie V.

“Formal = tux, semi = suit and tie.” –Grace T.

Cracking the code: the difference between formal and semiformal for women comes down to hemlines, fabric, and color. For formal, go for floor length, dressier materials (silk, chiffon, sequins), and (maybe) darker. Men should wear a jacket and dark tie, or a tuxedo, to a formal wedding. Semi formal means you can wear a shorter dress in a lighter fabric, and men may opt for a lighter colored suit and bright tie.

I love this perspective from my cousin-in-law, Anna (who is always impeccably dressed):

“Either way, I make sure to overdress! Can’t go wrong!” –Anna R.

Decoding Black Tie and Black Tie Optional

black tie wedding

Personally, I’ve only attended a handful black tie weddings, but as rare as they are in some circles, chances are you will receive an invitation to one: 71% of our respondents say they’ve been invited to a black tie wedding. And while I love dressing up, I found myself wondering: does everyone else share my enthusiasm?

black tie dress code for wedding

It turns out that 29% of them weren’t as excited as I was. Why? Because not everyone owns a tux or wants to own or rent a tux. Keep this statistic in mind if you’re considering a black tie wedding. Will your guests see it as an opportunity to dress up, or as a burden? You know your crowd–do most own tuxes and enjoy getting fancy? If so, go for it! If not, reconsider making tuxes mandatory.

Many couples try to find a middle ground by saying, “black tie optional.” Technically, black tie is always an option for a formal wedding, so the terms “black tie optional” and “formal” are synonymous. However, “black tie optional” continues to be a common dress code. So what’s a guy to wear if he doesn’t have a tux? Here are our respondents’ ideas for a black tie optional wedding:

“Dark suit, dark shoes, tie” –Megan P.

“A black suit, or maybe one of those fancy pattern jacquard suits! I love those!” –Amanda S.

“We went to a black tie optional wedding and since [my husband] didn’t have a tux or really want to rent one, he wore his three piece suit to be a little more dressy and it seemed most guys were in the same!” –Tiffany P.

Cracking the code: If you have a tux or want to buy or rent one, this is your chance! If you’d rather not, go with a dark colored suit, tie, and shoes. The most important aspect of a man’s ensemble: a good fit and classic colors.

Decoding Unique Themes

Over the years, we’ve noticed an uptick in “unique” dress codes, where couples ask their guests to dress according to their theme. Here are a few recent examples we’ve seen, along with ideas we received from our followers about what they would wear (and in some cases, their opinions of being asked to dress thematically):

What would you wear to a “Country Chic” wedding?

What would you wear to a “Country Chic” wedding?
While some love guests will say, “yeehaw” to a unique dress code, others would rather give them the “boot.”
Photo Credit: Don Mears Photography

“Cowboy boots, dress, and possibly a jean jacket” –Katie B.

We received many, many suggestions for dresses, boots, and denim jackets. But a few guests warned that denim should only be worn above the waist:

“Still never jeans. I want to punch when I see people in jeans for showers too.” –Jordan C.

And we received more than a few negative comments about the “country chic” theme:

“I hope I never have to go to a country chic wedding” –Rachel P.

“Ugh…RSVP no!” –Amber L.

“Country chic is going to be a ‘no’ for me.” –Ashley R.

“Ugh I was just in a country-themed wedding and it’s not me at all!” –Melissa S.

I include the negative feedback as a warning to brides and grooms: specific dress codes can be a turn-off for guests who feel your dress code conflicts with their personal style. Something like “country chic” might be too narrow for your guests who prefer not to wear denim and boots!

What would you wear to a Garden Formal Wedding?

What would you wear to a Garden Formal Wedding?
I would wear whatever I was told to get an invite to this beautiful garden wedding!
Photo Credit: Megan Noll Photography

“Long dress but more casual material” –Cheryl S.

“Something in between a sundress and a cocktail dress. Or a floral maxi made of nicer fabric.” –Rachel P.

“Floral gown or something long and pastel colored” –Amanda S.

“Probably not floral at all, but pastel colors would be cute” –Melissa S.

“Midi floral dress with block heel” –Sami M.

I love the “garden formal” theme because it’s wide enough for multiple interpretations: guests can choose to wear their favorite colors or florals! A wedge or block heel is also a wise choice for outdoor weddings!

What would you wear to a Palm Beach Chic Wedding?

“Lilly Pulitzer maxi” –Katie A.

“Lilly Pulitzer” –Alyson R.

“Lilly!” –Melissa S.

“Lilly Pulitzer of course!” –Sami M.

Similar to “country chic,” “Palm Beach Chic” might be a little too narrow for guests: the majority of our answers were the brand Lilly Pulitzer! If your guests are Lilly lovers, then this could work for your wedding–and who knows, Lilly might use your wedding photos in an upcoming ad campaign!

Of course, Lilly doesn’t have a monopoly on Palm Beach style: pink and green are Florida’s signature colors. But again, some guests don’t like to dress like everyone else! Check out these two responses I received back-to-back:

“Floral gown with pinks and greens” –Amanda S.

“Something slightly less pink or green than everyone else” –Rachel P.

Just goes to show you that some guests would prefer to stand out, not dress like everyone else!

What would you wear to a wedding with this dress code: “Elegant attire; vineyard appropriate footwear recommended:”

“A fancy-looking but comfortable maxi with flat or low wedge sandals” –Rachel P.

“Red dress so when I spilled my wine I’d still fit right in!” –Grace T.

I love this dress code because in effect, the couple is helping guests plan an outfit that is both appropriate and comfortable for the setting. And I think “wine camouflage” might be my new go-to dress code!

What would you wear to a Mountain Formal Wedding?

What would you wear to a Mountain Formal Wedding?
How breathtaking is this view? In my opinion, let the view speak for itself: no need to throw in the word “mountain” to your dress code!
Photo Credit: Jordan Quinn Photography

Caption: How breathtaking is this view? In my opinion, let the view speak for itself: no need to throw in the word “mountain” to your dress code!

“Long dress with a fur shawl?” –Grace T.

“Who is getting invited to these weddings?” –Rachel P.

This dress code had our followers stumped! I think the lesson here for couples is that there’s no need to over specify the dress code. If you’re getting married in the mountains, wonderful! Let the gorgeous setting speak for itself–no need for your guests to incorporate “mountain” elements (whatever that would be) into their outfits.

The Bottom Line for Couples:

Do you need to specify a dress code? It’s up to you. If you’re concerned about your guests showing up underdressed, then it might be a good idea. But, your invitation and the details of the day (time, venue) should give guests all the information they need to make a wardrobe decision.

And when it comes to unique dress codes, keep in mind that your guests’ attire does not have to be an extension of your wedding theme. These specific dress code requirements can create a burden for your guests. Allow them to dress in a way that’s comfortable to them so they can enjoy your day without having to run out and buy cowboy boots or a tropical dress!

The Bottom Line for Guests:

No need to stress about the dress code! If the invitation or wedding website is leaving you stumped, ask someone in the wedding party or who is close to the bride and groom about what you should wear. When in doubt, overdress and be sure to put on the one thing that’s always in style and completes any outfit: a smile!

Looking for more ideas on how to be the perfect wedding guest? We’ve got you covered with this post on How to Be the Perfect Wedding Guest! Read on for tips on what to give, what to wear, and how to ensure that you stay on everyone’s A-List!

Part I: Dress Code Guidance From the Expert!

While this post is filled with real-life couples and guests’ ideas on what to wear, our resident etiquette expert Cheryl has the official dress code do’s and don’ts to follow as both a host and a guest! Hop over to her post for Part I of our Dress Code Series!

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