Navigating Formal Wedding Attire? Here’s What to Wear
While much of modern clothing is much more casual than in the past, many people still like to dress up in fine attire when special occasions come. Weddings, for example, often employ a formal dress code, which can be a fantastic way to elevate the event. However, many guests struggle when it comes to deciding what to wear in terms of formal attire for the wedding.
It can certainly be tricky, as a wedding guest, to comprehend the fine ins and outs of a wedding dress code. But this formal wedding guide will help. Below, you’ll find all you need to know about deciphering wedding invites, figuring out dress codes, and selecting the most appropriate wedding guest attire, helping you look and feel your best for any big day.
Introduction: Why Dress Codes Matter at Weddings
Dress codes are fundamental elements of special occasions, especially weddings. Every wedding will have a dress code of some kind, and there are lots of options to choose from. Some may be more casual, while others demand much more formal attire. It’s up to the couple to decide on their desired dress code, and every wedding guest is expected to follow the code's rules.
Indeed, as noted by etiquette expert Lisa Grotts in Brides, “If the guests and couple are close friends, they will respect the dress code.” There are plenty of reasons for this. Firstly, it allows the happy couple to define the aesthetic and mood of their big day. Many people dream of their wedding day, after all, and have a specific visual in mind for the occasion.
In addition, dress codes help to provide some guidance for guests when it comes to knowing what kind of wedding attire to wear. Without a code, guests could turn up in clashing and contrasting outfits, with some in tuxedos and gowns and others in chinos, blazers, and blouses. This could lead to people feeling out of place, as well as creating an unusual aesthetic around the venue.
Another reason why dress codes are so important for weddings is to simply honor the occasion. A wedding is a celebration of two people’s love. For many, it’s the happiest day of their lives, and it’s also a significant occasion for those close to the bride and groom, like family and friends. Dressing up in nice clothing is a way to respect the status of such a big day.
The Wedding Invitation: Your First Clue
Before picking out any formal attire for a wedding, the first thing to do is have a thorough read of the wedding invitation. Invites are very valuable sources of information for guests. They can tell you so much about the type of wedding you’ll be attending, including the desired dress code, the date of the big day, and details of the wedding venue.
All of that is important and can be used when deciding on your outfit for the day. A common wedding invitation, for example, will clearly state the dress code, which could be formal, semi-formal, dressy casual, casual, black tie, and so on. You can use that to narrow your options and more easily decide on your wedding attire options.
The date and venue can also inform your choices. If the wedding is held in summer, for example, you’ll most likely want to opt for lighter fabrics in your formal attire and fewer layers so you can stay cool and fresh. For winter, meanwhile, heavier fabrics will work best. In terms of venue, a grand banquet hall will usually demand more formal attire than a barn or beach wedding, for instance.
The A to Z of Wedding Dress Codes
As stated earlier, there are many different varieties of wedding dress codes that you might see on your next invite. Understanding the basics of the various common wedding dress codes will be a big help when selecting your attire for future events. Here’s a brief rundown of common wedding codes that every guest needs to know.
As noted by Brides, white tie is the “most formal wedding attire possible.” This is the absolute peak of formality, with white-tie attire dating back to the wealthy nobles and aristocracy of the 18th century.
For this kind of event, the rules are very specific. Men need to wear elegant tailcoats, white dress shirts, a white bow tie, and a vest. Women, meanwhile, are required to wear very formal, elegant, floor-length gowns, complete with heels and fancy jewelry.
Black tie is the next level down from white tie. The two codes have some similarities, but also a couple of notable differences in terms of specific accessories and elements. But, despite not being quite as formal as white tie, black-tie attire is still very elegant and refined.
George Zimmer, the Generation Tux founder, explains, “A tuxedo is essential for black tie events; a black suit or mix-and-match suit pieces won't suffice." Men should wear tuxes with black bow ties, while women should opt for floor-length gowns.
Next, we have the formal dress code, which is quite a broad term that can cover black tie and white tie, too. In simple terms, if you see a formal code listed on an invite, expect to see guests wearing some of their finest outfits.
Men’s formal attire consists of classy dark suits or tuxedos for a formal wedding. Formal wedding attire for women, meanwhile, is more focused on floor-length gowns, cocktail dresses, or even very fancy pantsuits, particularly if the code is a little more relaxed, or if the wedding is held at a cooler time of year.
Cocktail attire is one step down from formal but still a little fancier than semi-formal. Wedding planner Meredith Bartel explains cocktail attire in Parade as “the nicest thing you own, or, for those with a particularly lavish closet. Nice....but not too nice.”
It’s aimed to strike the balance between comfort and elegance. For a cocktail event, men can wear fancy suits and ties in a variety of textures, patterns, and shades. For women, the choice is even simpler: a fancy cocktail dress in whatever color or style you enjoy the most.
Semi-formal is one of the more confusing dress codes, and many guests are left with questions like “What is semi-formal attire for men?” when they see those words written on their invite. To put it simply, semi-formal is still quite elegant but more relaxed than formal. It’s in the gray area between casual and formal.
Semi-formal men's wedding attire, for instance, can consist of classy suits, waistcoats, vests, or even a blazer and a nice pair of slacks or even chinos. For women, a semi-formal outfit may consist of a pretty cocktail dress or a midi dress.
If the wedding invite doesn’t state a dress code, it may be safe to assume that semi-formal or dressy casual attire is expected. However, it’s still best to check with the bride and groom or consult with other guests to be sure.
At the lowest level of the wedding dress code spectrum, there’s the casual dress code. As the name suggests, at a casual wedding, guests are encouraged to dress in relatively casual and comfortable clothing. However, “casual” does not equate to simple tees and jeans.
Even for a casual dress code, there are still certain rules to follow, and guests need to look reasonably smart. That means no graphic tees, shorts, or old and worn-out casual items. Instead, men can opt for nice shirts, chinos, and blazers, while women can wear dresses, blouses, rompers, and so on in a myriad of colors.
The Quintessence of Formal Wedding Attire
Refinement. Elegance. Sophistication. Those are the cornerstones of the formal dress code. In other words, if you receive an invite to a formal wedding, you should aim to build an outfit that helps you look your very best. While seasons, venues, and so on can all affect your formal attire choices, you should keep in mind the final goal of looking very elegant and refined.
For men, a tuxedo or very nice suit is effectively the only option available to you for formal wedding attire. If the invite mentions black tie in any way, like “black-tie optional” or “black-tie preferred,” you should ideally pick out a tux. For standard formal events, a crisp and smart suit should be fine, but opt for dark colors and simple, classy accessories.
For women, formal wedding attire primarily consists of long gowns. You’ll want to find a dress that reaches right down to the floor to blend in perfectly with the code and match with the other guests, particularly at a black-tie wedding. However, depending on the time of year and the vibe of the occasion, you could opt for more relaxed options, such as a fine cocktail dress or a business-style pantsuit.
Men’s Guide to Formal Wedding Attire
Knowing what to wear to a wedding as a male guest isn’t always easy, especially if you haven’t had too much experience with attending formal events. However, the rules are relatively simple, and if in doubt, all you need to know is that a tuxedo or dark suit are the ideal go-to options, sure to help you blend in with everyone else. Here’s a full breakdown of each formal attire item for men.
Tuxedos and Suits
Regarding formal wedding attire for men, the base of every outfit should be a tuxedo or a suit. Tuxedos are a little more formal and fancier, perfect if the event specifies “black tie” somehow. If you don’t have a tux, consider renting one, or if you don’t want to wear a tux, stick with a dark suit instead.
Dress Shirts and Pants
Formal men's wear also demands a crisp dress shirt and a pair of dress pants. Wear black pants as a rule, unless you have a different color suit jacket. The shirt, meanwhile, should be white, as other shades are a little more in the semi-formal category than the formal one. Ensure that the shirt and pants fit neatly for both comfort and grace.
Every formal wedding guest also needs to know what type of footwear to wear to a formal wedding. Dress shoes are the primary option. However, leather loafers, fancy lace-ups, or classy oxfords are all you need to finish off your ensemble. Whichever dress shoes you pick should be black or very dark, and polished to a nice shine.
Last but not least, a man’s formal outfit can be finished with a selection of accessories. The right accessories will depend on the specifics of the desired code and the kind of outfit you’re wearing. Uncertain about whether to go for a bow tie or necktie? For a black-tie occasion, a black bow tie is essential. If you’re wearing a suit, a necktie could be used, as well as suspenders and cufflinks.
Women’s Elegance: The Formal Wedding Attire Edition
At a formal event, women can wear some of the finest gowns and dresses. It’s typically expected that female guests should attend in floor-length gowns. These gowns are the most elegant option and can be considered the female equivalent of a tuxedo. So, when worried about underdressing, women should wear a floor-length gown to keep things simple.
However, other options are available. You might consider a knee-length cocktail dress or a fancy formal dress, as long as it’s very elegant, refined, and fits well with the formal wedding attire of your fellow guests. Opt for a maxi dress over a midi dress whenever possible, but choose lighter fabrics and shorter dresses for the likes of summer beach and destination weddings.
Regarding footwear, heels are the most common option, though certain varieties of pumps and sandals can also work. And when it comes to accessories, lighter and subtler pieces tend to be preferred over anything too flashy or fancy. A simple silver necklace or pair of delicate gold earrings are possible options.
The Flexibility of Semi-Formal and Casual Wedding Attire
Of course, not every wedding is formal. Some brides and grooms opt for a less formal dress code or even welcome casual attire. This is particularly common for a beach wedding or destination wedding, where the mood is more relaxed, and guests are invited to put on more comfortable clothes, less formal than a black-tie affair.
Casual wedding dresses for men and women can include the likes of chinos, shirts in various colors, dresses in various lengths and patterns, floral blouses, and so on. But be warned – casual dress should not include the most casual items like simple tees and shorts (unless the invitation explicitly states it’s a very casual affair). At a semi-formal event, too, it’s important to remember to stay elegant and refined without going into full formal territory.
Pitfalls to Avoid: Common Mistakes in Wedding Attire
Even with wedding dress codes explained to them, many people can still easily make mistakes when picking out an outfit. Here’s a quick list of common mistakes and how to avoid them.
- Underdressing: Even if the dress code is casual or semi-formal, it’s important to remember that it’s still a wedding. It’s a big, special occasion and should be treated as such, with appropriate attire that looks smart, clean, and well-fitting.
- Overdressing: At the same time, you don’t want to dress up too fancy for someone’s wedding and look out of place. Read through the invite and check what is acceptable to wear with the bride and groom if you want to avoid any fashion faux pas.
- A bad fit: One of the big don’ts for men’s wedding guest attire is to wear something that doesn’t fit quite right. The fit is what makes the outfit complete, so you have to make sure your suit, shirt, and pants all fit just right to produce the best impression. Whether you're going for a modern or slim fit, you need to learn the best way to get fitted.
- Upstaging the bride and groom: You also don’t want to wear anything that will take attention from the happy couple. Women should never wear a white dress, for example, unless specifically asked, and men should avoid any colors or fabrics that are too flashy.
Conclusion: The Ultimate Checklist for Wedding Attire Success
So, if you’ve been wondering what to wear as a formal wedding outfit, this guide has hopefully cleared up some of the specifics. Understanding the dress code is crucial when picking out wedding attire, and while the formal code can be a little confusing, it has clear rules that are quite easy to follow, once you know them.
To finish off, here’s a quick checklist to follow to help you pick out the right wedding guest dress for future events:
- Always check the invite first to see what you must wear, according to the couple’s demands.
- Consider the venue, season, and time to wear the most appropriate outfit for the occasion.
- Decide on the base elements of your outfit, like a suit, tuxedo, or gown.
- Add additional elements, like accessories and footwear, to finish off your wedding ceremony look.