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.
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!)
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.
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.
Less is more, in most cases with invitation wording, by the way!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!
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.
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
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!
Keep this one simple and straightforward. “White Tie Attire Required” or “White Tie Dress Code” is enough.
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:
Have fun with it and keep it on theme with your wedding plans and venue!
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.
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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