Decoding Wedding Dress Codes
AUTHOR: NATALIE BAY / CONTRIBUTOR: STEPHANIE GISONDI-LITTLE / CATEGORY: WEDDING ATTIRE
"I always recommend erring on the dressier side as a show of respect to the hosts." —Stephanie Gisondi-Little
Deciding how to dress for a wedding can feel daunting. Wedding attire customs are based on tradition, but in today’s modern and more casual world, there are more wedding dress codes than ever. Whether you’re wondering the difference between black-tie and a formal dress code, or you feel completely baffled because your invite says “festive attire,” we decode the most popular wedding dress codes. We also asked personal stylist Stephanie Gisondi-Little to share her style tips for what to wear to a wedding, so you can look and feel your best.
The most formal wedding dress code is white-tie. This dress code is saved for formal, elegant weddings where guests are expected to dress to the nines. White-tie wedding attire for women consists of floor-length ball gowns. Men should wear long-tail tuxedos along with a white bow tie, white vest, and a formal white shirt. Have fun at this elegant affair!
SGL: Gowns are the PERFECT place to wear a lower, more forgiving and comfortable shoe (think two inches, kitten heel or even pointed toe flat versus a stiletto) because for the most part, no one is going to see anything but the toe. That way you’ll be dancing all night while others are hobbling or taking off shoes altogether.
Black-tie weddings are the next most formal dress code. Women’s attire should include formal floor-length gowns or dressy cocktail dresses and men should wear tuxedos with a black bowtie.
SGL: I recommend pairing a gown with a clutch small enough to hold easily in one hand but big enough for your essentials; phone, lipstick, small mirror, business card, id, and a safety pin, just in case. (Pin one in every clutch and never think about it again until you need it!) A black one will go with almost any formal outfit.
"This goes for all genders when dressing for weddings; consider the season! Prioritize color palette and fabric when choosing your looks so you’ll feel comfortable and look appropriate."
Formal or Black-Tie Optional
If you get invited to a formal or black-tie optional wedding, expect the dress code to be formal but not quite as formal as black-tie. You have a little more freedom with this dress code and women typically wear the same attire as black-tie, but may have their ankles showing. Men’s attire should consist of formal dark suits or tuxedos.
SGL: When invitations offer dress code options (or worse, none at all) I always recommend erring on the dressier side as a show of respect to the hosts. In addition, it’s never a great experience to feel underdressed, particularly at a formal occasion with lots of photography.
"If you are accompanying someone, it’s always nice to coordinate within the same family of colors. For example, pink dress, pink patterned tie or pocket square. Date with silver or gold jewelry? Consider tonally matching cufflinks."
A Cocktail dress code allows for more flexibility than formal or black-tie optional—it’s still dressy but not too formal. For women, dresses can range from midi to mid-thigh length and dressy separates are acceptable. Men should wear a suit and tie.
SGL: Cocktail dresses offer the widest range of styles from which to choose to show up as YOURSELF. Be it a simple black sheath, a brightly-colored confection or anything in between, use this opportunity of cocktail attire to showcase your personality and demonstrate how you want to show up to honor the wedding party. Men, feel free to pop a pocket square in your suit pocket, or rock a bow tie. If you are accompanying someone, it’s always nice to coordinate within the same family of colors. For example, pink dress, pink patterned tie or pocket square. Date with silver or gold jewelry? Consider tonally matching cufflinks.
Semi-Formal or Dressy Casual
Semi-formal or Dressy Casual dress codes are less formal than cocktail attire but not casual. During daytime weddings, lighter colors are more appropriate and for evening weddings, darker colors should be worn. Women’s attire should consist of midi dresses, separates, or pantsuits which can be less structured than the attire of cocktail dress code. Men should wear slacks and a nice dress shirt.
SGL: This goes for all genders when dressing for weddings; consider the season! Diaphanous pastels don’t look right for snowy days or nights, and heavy dark velvet would look and feel out of place on a hot summer day. Prioritize color palette and fabric when choosing your looks so you’ll feel comfortable and look appropriate (and therefore have a better experience overall). Also, pack a pair of high heel guards for outdoor events!
Confused by the festive dress code? Go for a playful and festive look! Festive attire is similar to cocktail dress code but opt for fun colors. For both men and women, vibrant colors can be worn along with creative accessories (i.e., colorful ties, heels, or pocket squares).
SGL: Accessories tell a story whether modern and streamlined or vintage and ornate. Do try to keep to one metal tone overall when considering handbag hardware, jewelry, and shoes. Men, have fun with bright, printed bow ties, more non-traditional cufflinks, and patterned socks!
Casual dress code indicates that the wedding and attire is more relaxed. Even though this wedding is more laid-back, don’t show up in a tank and shorts unless the invite specifies that this is acceptable. Women should opt for a sundress, jumpsuit, or a high-low dress and men should opt for dress pants or khakis with a polo shirt or button-down. If it is cold, you can add a blazer or cardigan.
SGL: A casual dress code never means sloppy. We are more likely to wear our casual pieces more frequently, so be sure to triple check clothing for spots, tears, underarm stains. Wipe or polish shoes with visible scuffs and repair worn heels.
Tropical or destination weddings often have similar attire to casual weddings. However, expect for these weddings to be warm events and dress prepared for the heat! Women’s attire consists of sundresses (knee-length or tea-length) and men should wear linen pants/tops, khakis, or guayabera shirts. Don’t forget to wear sand-friendly shoes to the tropical event.
SGL: Prepare for the possibility of multiple temperatures in the course of a long event. Make sure your add-on layer compliments the rest of your outfit so it doesn’t look discordant or ‘slapped on’ for warmth. Also, make sure to bring a coordinated and fashionable hat and sunglasses to guard against sunburn and brightness!
Little Black Dresses
We also recommend making sure you have a little black dress in your wardrobe. LBD’s are often the perfect guest attire for weddings that can be dressed up or dressed down depending on the dress code of your special event. Check out our collection of little black dresses.
Now that we have decoded wedding dress codes, let’s talk money. Did you know that the average guest spends $81 on wedding attire? The majority of individuals buy brand new clothing for weddings. Instead of buying something new, check out Swap Society’s wedding attire options. There are pre-loved items for nearly every wedding dress code in the book! Why spend $81 or more on a dress when you can swap a dress in excellent condition for $4.99 plus points?
No matter the dress code, dress in attire that makes you feel confident! Rock secondhand gems and follow this dress code guide for your next wedding event.
About Stephanie Gisondi-Little
ComposedCo founder Stephanie Gisondi-Little is a ‘Fashion Therapist’, a personal stylist and wardrobe organizer. Her passion is demystifying ‘Fashion’ for all and cultivating awareness around the wellness and self-care of dress; how it affects our mood, productivity and more.
About the Author
Natalie Bay is currently a junior at the University of California, Berkeley studying Media Studies. She is from Los Angeles, CA and is passionate about sustainability and fashion. As a Swap Society marketing intern, Natalie has had the opportunity to learn more about sustainable fashion and advocate for climate action.