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Hack The Wedding Guest Dress Code With This Simple Guide | Northern Virginia Wedding Photographer

Wedding Tips

As a Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. wedding photographer, I get the chance to shoot weddings of all formalities. My region has beautiful venues serving weddings from casual to semi-formal to white tie. But I’ve also seen guests show up so confused by the wedding guest dress code. Even brides and grooms can feel lost on how to inform guests to dress for their special event. Until now!

I’m breaking down the wedding guest dress code, sharing what each level of formality is called and what it means. I’ll also be sharing pro tips to help brides, grooms, and their guests dress their best for your wedding, including clevel dress code wording for your wedding invitations. If you’re a guest of a wedding this year, you’re in luck! I also share a few favorite places to shop if you don’t know what to wear to a wedding as a guest female and nothing in your closet works for the assigned dress code.

Semi-Formal Wedding Guest Dress Code Explained

I’m starting here, because even for intimate micro-weddings and elopements, anything less than semi-formal is generally deemed inappropriate. If you have wedding guests, you likely want them to show up somewhat dressed up. So this is the lowest level I’ll explain.

Semi-formal (also called dressy casual) dress codes typically means day-formal or professional wear. It’s similar to business casual, but maybe a tad dressier (no jeans!)

Semi-formal dress code attire guide for wedding guests | Virginia wedding photographer

For Women:

In this dress code, wedding attire for women might include a cute, full-length jumpsuit or dress that hangs to the knee. Nothing too short or immodest! But no need to find a midi- or full-length gown for this event. Avoid heavy and flashy beading or embellishments. Heels can be appropriate if not too formal. Keep accessories simple and tasteful.

For Men:

Semi-formal wedding attire for men likely means you should wear khakis or slacks, with a nice button-down dress shirt or at least a polished polo depending on the venue. Ties are typically optional, but likely encouraged. Dress shoes are encouraged. Avoid black, as that usually leans more formal.

Semi-Formal Dress Code Is Best For:

  • Laid-back brides and grooms
  • More casual venues like backyards, farm/barns, small estates/gardens, beaches or low-key reception halls, nice restaurants with private dinner spaces
  • Weddings with guest lists of 50 or less

Where To Purchase Semi-Formal Dresses:

How To Word Semi-Formal Dress Code On Your Wedding Invitation:

  • “Semi-Formal Dress Code”
  • “Dressy Casual”
  • “Tie Optional”
  • “Enjoy a laid-back day with us by adhering to our dressy casual dress code!”

Less is more, in most cases with invitation wording, by the way!

Cocktail Wedding Guest Dress Code Explained

The cocktail dress code is one of the easiest to adhere to for most guests. Almost everyone has something in their closet that will work. This means you aren’t putting guests out by making them buy or rent something new for your event. It’s pretty lenient with hem lengths and menswear alike. The cocktail dress attire for weddings usually refers to a slightly more formal wear than your everyday office look. It leans more evening with more shine, texture, or embellishment.

For Women:

Cocktail wedding attire for women typically suggests short, but more formal dresses. Cocktail dresses usually play with different textures like satin or crepe, layers like ruching or wrap silhouettes, or even a bit more sparkle with beading to dress up an otherwise plain dress. A formal jumpsuit can also work well if you prefer the comfort of pants. Heels and strappy sandals are typically more appropriate than flats, unless fancy enough. Jewelry is usually more fine, and makeup/hairstyles are typically more “done up” than everyday wear.

For Men:

Cocktail wedding attire for men usually means a tie is appropriate, but play with suit colors, patterns and textures. Feel free to wear a checked dress shirt or mix-n-match colors of your pants vs. your blazer or suit jacket. If you would wear it to happy hour or a networking reception with the office, you’re probably in the right realm. No need for flashy accessories like pocket squares or velvet loafers in this category.

Cocktail Dress Code Is Best For:

  • Simple but classy weddings
  • Socialite brides and grooms
  • Classic but not over-the-top venues like casual country clubs, hotels, mid-tier beach resorts, trendy art galleries, etc.
  • Weddings with 50-75 guests (not a hard and fast rule)

Where To Purchase Cocktail Dresses:

How To Word Cocktail Dress Code On Your Wedding Invitation:

  • “Cocktail Attire”
  • “Daytime Formal”
  • “Suits & Party Dresses”
  • “Dressy Attire Requested”

Formal Or Black Tie Optional Wedding Guest Dress Code Explained

Most of my weddings are at least within this dress code, if not further up the hierarchy into black tie. Formal dress codes are not necessarily black tie-level, but can sometimes be listed as “black tie optional.” But this level of dress code will begin to lean more toward evening appropriate attire.

Black tie optional dress code attire guide for wedding guests | Virginia wedding photographer

For Women:

Formal dress code attire for women can include dresses knee length or longer. Typically women will wear midi- or full-length gowns. But the dresses are not as fancy or modest as black tie attire. Jumpsuits are appropriate as long as they match the formality. If you’re in doubt, wear a dress. You can easily play with different fabrics, patterns and colors, as long as you don’t bring too much attention to yourself. Bright colors are common, but avoid flashy colors like neons, red, and of course white. Dress up a bit more with nicer jewelry and hairstyles, and be sure to apply tasteful amounts of makeup to match the occasion. Shoes are typically open toe heels or closed toe with embellishments.

For Men:

Formal wedding attire for men typically means a jacket and tie are required. Bowties can be worn, but are not required like they are for black tie weddings. Playful spins on black tie can be taken by wearing suits of different colors, playful bowtie patterns, or mixing in pocket squares to the ensemble. You’ll usually see a healthy mix of tuxes and nice suits, so go with whichever feels more your style.

Formal Dress Code Is Best For:

  • Traditional, elegant weddings
  • Brides and Grooms who appreciate classic, sophisticated details
  • Weddings that take place in cityscape venues, high-end hotels, museums/art galleries, classy country clubs, beachside resorts, large estates/gardens
  • Weddings with 75-150 guests

Where To Purchase Formal Dresses:

  • Lulus
  • Baltic Born
  • Anthropologie
  • Express
  • Rent the Runway
  • Nordstrom/Nordstrom Rack

How To Word Formal Dress Code On Your Wedding Invitation:

  • “Black tie optional”
  • “Formal dress code”
  • “Special occasion attire”
  • “Evening attire requested”

Black Tie Wedding Dress Code Explained

This is by far my favorite dress code as a Virginia wedding photographer! I love seeing how wedding guests dress up for these events. I am a sucker for the finer things, and there’s something romantic about a black tie affair. If you also look for any excuse to bust out a full-length gown or get your hair and makeup done, this dress code is for you. While it has generally stricter rules than the other dress codes, there are clever ways to help guests match your wedding vibes. More details below.

Black tie dress code attire guide for wedding guests | Virginia wedding photographer

For Women:

Black tie wedding guest attire for women is more expansive than for men. A full-length gown is generally expected. Modesty is also to be minded. But nowadays, colors and fabrics can be quite varied. You should avoid being too flashy that you risk taking attention away from the bride. But I’ve seen gorgeous satin, glittery, layered, and embellished gowns at black tie weddings. Keep personal belongings to a minimum by carrying a classy clutch or chain-hung handbag. If it’s a cooler wedding, now is the time to bust out your fancier evening coat or shoulder shawl and leaving the casual snow jackets at home. If this is a southern wedding, especially an outdoor one, fascinators may also be encouraged. Check with the bride or her family first though so you don’t inadvertently draw too much attention to yourself.

For Men:

Black tie is directed at men, mostly. It means a tuxedo and bowtie are most appropriate. If you do not own a bowtie and cummerbund, opt for a true-black tuxedo with a simple, black necktie. Consider accessorizing with a plain, white pocket square. Avoid distracting socks and patterns. If you’re unsure how strictly adhered the black tie dress code is, then feel free to ask the groom or family of the groom!

Black Tie Dress Code Is Best For:

  • Traditional, elegant, sophisticated weddings with fine details
  • Brides and grooms who enjoy the occasional fancy date night or love to dress up
  • Weddings that take place at venues like mansions/estates, vibrant gardens, historic or high-end hotels, large and well-known museums, high-end resorts, ballrooms, exclusive country clubs, etc.
  • Weddings with guest lists of 100+

Where To Purchase Black Tie Appropriate Dresses:

  • Lulus (be selective, not all dresses here are appropriate)
  • David’s Bridal
  • Nordstrom
  • Rent the Runway
  • Baltic Born (be selective)
  • Windsor
  • ASTR the Label
  • ASOS
  • Reformation
  • Dillard’s
  • Macy’s (formal wear section)

How To Word Black Tie Dress Code On Your Wedding Invite:

  • The simplest is sometimes the best, “Black Tie” or “Black Tie Attire Requested/Required”
  • “Evening Formal”
  • “Tuxedos & Evening Gowns Requested”

White Tie Wedding Guest Dress Code Explained

The most formal of all the dress codes — the white tie. This is a strict and rare dress code. But if done well, it can make for a beautiful wedding night. It is very traditional and old-school luxury. Let’s dive into the do’s and don’ts.

White tie dress code attire guide for wedding guests | Virginia wedding photographer

For Women:

Now’s the time to rent or buy that ballgown you’ve been eye-ing. Full, layered skirts are encouraged, and floor-length is required. Play with tulle, ruffles, or satin, but avoid cheap fabrics like chiffon. Lace should be done only if tasteful and not too bridal looking. Wear the finest jewelry you can find; diamonds and pearls are commonplace at these events. Gloves may also be worn, but make sure to research etiquette for when to wear and when to remove. You’re going to feel like you’re in the middle of a Downton Abbey or The Crown episode in not time, but embrace it! Or draw inspiration from Met Gala and Oscars red carpet looks (All the Blake Lively statue of liberty vibes!!)

Here are some resources about glove and white tie etiquette to get you started | Here | Here | Here

For Men:

A white bow tie is absolutely expected. There is little to no leniency in this dress code. You may also need to find or rent an evening waistcoat and tailcoat. Be sure to do your research and talk to those close to the groom to understand the extent to which they’re following this dress code. Start here for more info!

White Tie Dress Code Is Best For:

  • Weddings with highly exclusive guest list or elaborate planning and detail (usually budgets of $100k+)
  • Brides and Grooms with celebrity, noble, politician, or well-known immediate family members
  • Weddings taking place in venues like castles, elaborate ballrooms, exclusive country clubs, very high-end hotels/estates, historic cathedrals
  • Weddings with 175+ guest list

How To Word White Tie Dress Code On Your Wedding Invite:

Keep this one simple and straightforward. “White Tie Attire Required” or “White Tie Dress Code” is enough.

Wedding Invitation Wording Samples To Request Unique Guest Attire Dress Codes

Now what if you want to break from tradition? I am loving the trend right now where couples ask their guests to wear more specific styles and colors. If you want to break from the above traditional dress codes, all power to you! Here are some fun dress code wording samples that have produced amazing guest attire results for a curated look at weddings:

  • Formal; Spring pastels encouraged!
  • Black Tie, with pink requested
  • Kentucky Derby Formal (fascinators and ascots encouraged!)
  • All-black formal attire requested
  • Your Best Garden Party / Southern Soiree Attire Requested
  • Tropical Formal

Have fun with it and keep it on theme with your wedding plans and venue!

What To NEVER Wear To A Wedding As A Guest

No matter what the dress code, there is usually an understanding of what to never wear to a wedding unless specifically requested or verbally approved by the Bride and Groom.

  • NEVER wear white. This includes outfits with white as a main color in the pattern. If you can squint or look at it from a distance and it appears white or off-white, choose something different.
  • NEVER wear jeans, shorts, sneakers, or flip flops. These outfits are generally unacceptable and too casual for the couple’s special day.
  • NEVER wear anything that might upstage the bride. This includes loud colors or too many embellishments, or even accessories that a bride might wear (tiaras, veils, etc.)
  • Avoid wearing the same color as the bridal party, especially if the dress could be mistaken as a bridesmaid dress. If you’re not a bridesmaid, don’t dress like one.

Was this helpful? There’s lots more wedding planning advice where that came from. As a Virginia wedding photographer, I’ve gained a lot of experience and learned tricks to help brides plan their dream wedding day. Here are some posts to read next:

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