Beauty & Style

Every type of wedding guest attire, explained

Every type of wedding guest attire, explained

Deciphering wedding dress codes

Even if you’re well versed in wedding traditions, there’s a good chance that one bit of wedding etiquette gives you pause: exactly how to decipher wedding dress codes. After all, is it really a big deal if you wear black-tie clothing to a white-tie wedding? It’s all formal…but is ‘formal’ a different category altogether? And on a completely different note, how casual is casual? It’s enough to give anyone a headache, but don’t worry – this primer on proper wedding guest attire will tell you everything you need to know.

The first thing you should do to figure things out? Check your invitation. It will often tell you what type of wedding you’ll be attending. If not, or if the language is vague, check the couple’s website. While you can always fall back on classic dresses, some weddings do have strict dress codes that you’ll definitely want to follow.

What is the normal dress code for a wedding?

There isn’t one official dress code for every wedding, but you should always keep the following advice in mind when figuring out what to wear: “I want to look nice but not take away focus from the couple I’m celebrating,” says bridal stylist, Kennedy Bingham. That means sticking to styles and colours that aren’t too bold or too sexy – and certainly never wearing white.

Beyond that, if the invitation doesn’t specify a dress code, you should take into consideration the time of day the wedding is being held, along with the venue. “I think the later [in the day] the wedding is, the more formally it should be treated,” says Bingham. “A nice summer sundress might be fine for a breakfast wedding, but it would look out of place at a dinner party.” That line of thinking follows logically to the venue. For example, if a wedding is being held outdoors in a park or beach, you might want to opt for something a little more casual. While we’re on the subject, make sure you’re wearing comfortable wedding shoes that work for the setting.

What colours are not appropriate for a wedding?

The days of not being allowed to wear black to a wedding are over. In fact, bridal boutique manager, Ashley Grape, recommends wearing a classic little black dress (long or short) to black-tie weddings. However, unless specifically requested by the bride, there are a few colours that should never be worn by a wedding guest: white, cream, off-white, or ivory. You also shouldn’t wear a dress that looks even vaguely bridal. Other no-nos? Neon shades, bright red from head to toe, and anything overly sequined or bedazzled.

White tie

White-tie weddings are the most formal type of weddings, and they have a strict dress code. Partially due to their high costs, white-tie weddings tend to be observed by royal families and members of high society. The name is derived from the man’s tuxedo, which consists of a black tail coat (the back of the coat – that is, the ‘tails’ – hang below a man’s knees) worn over a white tuxedo shirt that has a pointed wing collar, a white pique waistcoat, white bow tie, matching black trousers, and either black patent leather opera pumps or black patent lace-up oxfords. The perfect accessories for a man’s white-tie tuxedo are cuff links and a good watch.

And women get to dress like princesses for the night. “Women can wear a grand ball gown with rich jewels,” states Deborah Van Cleve, owner of Van Cleve Bridal. Accessory options include full-length white gloves, jewelled clutches, and, if married, a tiara. “If you are lucky enough to be invited to one, don’t let the rules intimidate you,” says Van Cleve. “Dress for the occasion, and revel in the Britishness of it all.”

Most white-tie weddings are adult-only affairs. If a teen makes the guest list, the dress code is the same as it is for the adult guests.

Black tie

One step down from white-tie weddings, black-tie weddings also require that all male guests wear a tuxedo, but men have some sartorial options within that category. “While black tuxedos are a mainstay for men, there are also deep navy tuxedos and lush velvet jackets for the winter months,” says Linda Della Rocco, a tuxedo and custom suiting specialist, saying, “I think a fun colour could be fine for a black-tie wedding, as long as it adheres to the traditional tux cuts and elements.” If there’s any doubt, though, check with the couple.

For women, fancy dresses are the way to go for this type of wedding guest attire. If you have only one black-tie wedding to attend this season, invest in a sleekly tailored formal gown in a seasonal colour: jewel tones for fall and winter, and paler hues for spring and summer. “If it’s a summer full of weddings, try investing in one or two full-length skirts and coordinating tops,” suggests Grape. By mixing and matching formal separates, it will appear as if the guest has a closet full of gowns instead of four different pieces.

When it comes to choosing jewellery and accessories for tuxedos and gowns, follow the protocol for white-tie weddings. Men’s tuxedo shirts should have cuff links, and men’s jewellery should be minimal – a wedding band or signet ring and a watch. Women can try pearl jewellery for a daytime wedding, and semiprecious jewellery for an evening event. Skip the tiara for a black-tie wedding…unless you’re the bride.

Teens should follow the adult guests’ dress code. As for tweens and children, girls should opt for knee-length party dresses, and if the boys can tolerate it, tuxedos. If they’re wigglers, a boy’s formal suit is completely acceptable.


Confused as to how casual you should go when the wedding calls for casual attire? You’re not alone. “It’s one of the hardest [weddings] to dress for,” says Bingham. Still, leave the jeans at home, she says, no matter what. “[If it’s a] backyard wedding, I’d dress the way I would for a birthday brunch – a nice dress, possibly a maxi dress, and accessories. For guys, a suit with no tie, or khakis instead of dress pants.” Both men and women can accessorise with a hat, especially if it’s an outdoor wedding. Guys can try a straw boater, pork pie, or fedora, and women can opt for a casual fascinator or full-brimmed straw hat.

The dress code for teens would be the same as for any quasi-formal event: a button-down shirt and khakis for boys, and either a knee- or ankle-length dress for girls, or a pair of dressy trousers with a pretty top. For tweens and younger kids, unfussy birthday-style dresses, pants, and button-up shirts fit the bill.


Cocktail attire is the marriage (so to speak) of formal and casual wedding guest attire. Women can opt for a cocktail dress that hits at the knee or below, or a dressy beaded suit dress. One classic option for a cocktail wedding is the classic little black dress, paired with either a diamond or pearl necklace, and black pumps or black dressy heeled sandals. Men can wear a suit and tie.

For teens and children, girls can go with a classic party dress or dressy trousers and a shirt, while boys should wear a suit. These are good guidelines for children attending other types of formal events as well.


Formal and black-tie weddings are very similar. Sartorially speaking, a formal wedding is wedged in between cocktail and black tie. What to wear? For men, it’s a tuxedo or dark suit. If they’re feeling daring, and they’ve checked in with the bride, they may wear a brocade or print tuxedo. Women, on the other hand, have a plethora of dress choices that include full-length dresses, cocktail dresses and suits, beaded pantsuits, jumpsuits, or even gowns. Children should follow the dress code for a cocktail wedding – essentially, party dresses and suits.


OK, last one! Wedding guest attire for a semiformal wedding is less formal than a formal wedding…but dressier than a company dinner. Women can wear anything from a floor-length dress to a beaded cocktail suit. For men, a dark suit is the way to go. If a semiformal wedding is any time before cocktail hour (aka 5pm), women’s dresses should have less (if any) beaded embellishments. Footwear should suit the location, and jewellery can range from pearls to gold and semiprecious stones. Save the statement jewellery for night-time events.

If teens and children are invited to a semiformal wedding, they should follow the dress code for a cocktail wedding.

Quick tips when trying on your outfit

Now that you’ve found the perfect wedding guest attire for your event, you’re ready to go. Well, almost. When your delivery arrives, don’t just look in the mirror to see how it looks on you. Take it for a walk – as in, really walk around in it, and then bend, sit, raise your hands, and even dance a little. By moving around, you’ll see how the outfit moves when you do and, most important, how comfortable you are in it.

If you’re also buying new shoes for a wedding, make sure to break them in well before the event. After all, fabulous shoes don’t just look great – they feel great when you’re on your feet all day. And blisters are the last thing you want to deal with after (or, worse, during) a wedding.

And finally, because the weather can change over the course of a day, bring a lightweight wrap with you. Depending on the season and event, go with cashmere, wool, or silk. A fancy spring jacket can also work over certain ensembles for in-transit moments.

Written by PJ Gach. This article first appeared in Reader’s Digest. For more of what you love from the world’s best-loved magazine, here’s our best subscription offer.

Image: Getty Images