Wedding Guest Attire Guidelines

What to Wear to a Wedding

When your next wedding invitation arrives, guests typically get all the details of who, when, and where – but the specifics of the other “w”s–namely, what to wear, are sometimes left for guests to interpret between the lines. Dress For The Wedding’s editor is here to help with theses wedding guest attire guidelines.

The essential rules of what to wear to a wedding that your mother, grandmother, or Emily Post may have passed along to you are still applicable, but with each year these rules all seem to be a bit more open to individual taste and expression. The standard rules such as: don’t wear white or off white , don’t wear anything too short or revealing, don’t look unkempt or wrinkled, all still apply.  But even after those general guidelines, there can still be many gray areas.

It is a sign of respect for the couple and the event to get dressed up for a wedding, and your attire should always be respectful, conservative, and appropriate. But keep in mind, the rules of etiquette were designed to help one feel more at ease and comfortable in all social situations. So simply remember your cheerful presence at the wedding is what counts here, and you’re likely to have a good time no matter what you decide to wear.

While this type of dressing sounds the most relaxed, it can also be the most open-ended, and, therefore, sometimes the most mystifying! The venue may help you better determine the level of formality –or lack thereof.  Usually this casual style is reserved for a morning or daytime wedding in an informal venue.

For Women:  A skirt or dressy pants with a pretty top, and a casual dress would certainly be appropriate here.

For Men: A nice collared or button down shirt in a short or long sleeve, or a nice polo, with dress pants, or casual, but neat, khaki pants.  No jacket or tie is required, but one or the other would be fine to wear. After all, it’s easy enough to take it off if you feel overdressed.

For the Feet: Heeled or structured sandals (no flip-flops) for footwear are fine, or a low heel is recommended for women and a casual shoe like a loafer or similar style would be nice for men. Sneakers or sneaker-like shoes should be avoided unless you know you’ll be participating in something athletic or on rough ground at this event.

What not to wear:  jeans, tank tops, t-shirts, stretchy pants, cargo shorts, flip-flops and athletic clothing would still be a poor choice, unless specifically approved.

It is almost always better to err slightly on the side of being overdressed, so dress as you would for meeting with clients in a business casual setting. And, if you accidentally go dressed too casually, as long as you have a smile on and your best manners, you’ll probably be just fine.  Find a casual wedding look, and check out The Wedding Guest Boutique

Favorite Casual Styles:


This style of wedding sounds soothing, Zen-like, and peaceful at first, but can be very intimidating to dress for.  Again, let the venue, weather, season and time of day be your guide. Are you headed to the local State Beach at sunset for an informal exchange of vows, or are you going to be at a four-star hotel’s private beach club, with elegant cabanas and white-gloved waiters surrounding you?

If it’s the former, wearing approximately the same thing as a casual wedding should be fine.

Women can also wear a beachy look with a linen or cotton shirt and nice pants, or a pretty, light, flowy skirt, tunic dress, or casual sundress.

Men can wear a festive linen shirt, a cotton short-sleeved shirt or button down, or a tasteful tropical printed shirt. I’d pair this with dress pants in linen, cotton, or twill, or – if you have the knees, socks, and courage for it– Bermuda shorts.

If it’s the more formal venue, women can wear a sundress, a casual maxi dress, or beachy-but-elegant skirt and top, and make the look a little bit dressier with some dazzling accessories.

At a more formal beach affair, men’s shirts should be of an elegant linen, or crisp cotton. A summer suit or sport coat in a madras or seersucker or linen would fit well here. A tie is not required, but some of the lovely preppy or beachy print ties would certainly look wonderful, just be sure to wear them with a shirt with a full length sleeve.

Because of the sand, you’ll want to wear flat shoes with some grip in case there’s a slippery rock step or two for you to navigate. Or, be prepared to swap out your heels for some flip flops, and then change back if you find yourself on solid ground again.

As a rule, bathing attire should not be worn, even under an ensemble, unless specifically requested. This probably goes without saying, but you never know what some guests might associate with the beach! Find a beach look, or check out The Wedding Guest Boutique

Dressy Casual

This designation is bit of an oxymoron, but a little bit telling as well, because if you carry this contradiction in to your dressing style, you might just be ok.

For instance,  a cotton dress in a formal cut or a satin dress made in a casual style would also be fine. Overall, I take this dressing designation to mean more festive, elegant attire; but casual fabrics like cotton or knits are acceptable here if the overall style of dress is correct.  The time of day and venue again will be a good guide here. If it’s daytime, then a sundress would be fine. If it’s evening, then wear cocktail-esque attire in darker, richer colors, and fabrics like silk or satin in a casual length and cut. Find a Dressy Casual look or check out The Wedding Guest Dress Boutique

Semi-Formal

This style label brings me back to 8th grade, or a high school homecoming dance, but the style of dress gives me less anxiety than those dances did! In my view, semi-formal dress is an evening style of dress with formal fabrics like a satin, chiffon, silk, and a bit of beading. A rich fabric like velvet or velveteen in the winter months would also be very nice.

Generally, the dress length would be cocktail length—in other words, just above, or at the knee; or a little longer. A tea length, or a longer, ankle-skimming hemline–like a maxi slip dress would also be fine, as long as it is not an overly formal silhouette or material–save those dresses for the fully formal wedding invites you receive! Find a Semi-Formal look or check out The Wedding Guest Dress Boutique

Favorite Semi Formal Styles

This one is such a mind game sometimes! Assume that the father-of-the-bride and the groomsmen will be definitely be wearing tuxedoes.

For the women, a dressy cocktail dress, or a full length formal dress is appropriate here.  You can see more details below in Black Tie required.

If you or your date is James Bond, George Clooney, or some other an elegant man who owns his own tuxedo  and has it at the ready and a person who particularly enjoys bringing these accouterments out for these occasions–by all means wear black tie. However,  there will be probably many other men in a dark suit and dark tie or bow tie and these gentlemen will look just as elegant and appropriate as the dapper tuxedo folks. Find a Black Tie Optional look or Buy a Dressy Casual Dress in The Boutique

Formal

Formal, to me, is nearly the same as black tie optional, but I also think this implies slightly less pressure for the men to wear a tuxedo.  A dark navy or black suit, and crisp white shirt, with a dark, or neutral tie is appropriate here. Look at Formal Styling ideas or find a formal dress in The Boutique

Women should wear an elegant cocktail dress or full length dress, and elegant or dramatic accessories are encouraged.

Black Tie

This one clears up any ambiguity for the men. In this case, a tuxedo in a dark color is in order with a vest, or cummerbund and appropriate black tie.

Women should wear a full length gown, but some types of mid-calf ,cocktail, or tiered skirt length might be appropriate if the material, cut, or embellishment is highly formal. To be truly correct, full-length is the standard. Find a Black Tie Look or check out The Wedding Guest Dress Boutique

Favorite Formal Looks

White Tie

This is the most formal type of wedding, so you should adhere to the rules on this one. I had to consult Emily Post again on this, since these types of weddings are rare in my life.

Women should wear a floor-length, formal evening gown in a fairly neutral or dark color. (No coral cocktail length dresses here!)

Men should wear a tailcoat with white vest, white shirt, and tie with white gloves (gray is an acceptable choice as well), and fine black shoes without laces.  Find a White Tie Look or check out The Boutique

Cultural Dress

If the wedding party will be wearing some sort of cultural dress that is not your own culture–for instance, kilts or saris (although you may not see these not at the same wedding!) you could wear something that might be a bit of homage to that, as long as you are sure you are not mocking or upstaging the wedding party’s style.

For instance, if you know the groomsmen will be wearing kilts, perhaps wearing a tie with a bit of plaid is a way to join in, without upstaging the attire of wedding party. If you were attending an Indian wedding, but not specifically asked to wear a sari, perhaps wearing some Indian-inspired jewelry or a rich-jewel tone dress would be a nice way to be festive, again without detracting from the bridesmaids’ rich saris.

If your own religion or heritage states that you wear a certain type of dress to an occasion,  as long as you’re sure it’s in keeping with the event and won’t cause offense or detract from the bride, then I’m sure most couples would welcome this expression of respect and festivity.  I’m eager to hear first-hand stories on cultural dress, so if anyone has experience here, please let me know.

Getting More Information on What to Wear if the Invitation is Vague

If the invitation is vague, more information on what to wear can also be gleaned from the wedding party, since they likely know what they are wearing months in advance.

I think it’s nice not to request this information directly from the bride or groom unless you are already on daily or weekly speaking terms with either of them. The bride and groom have so much going on already, and one of the roles of the wedding party is to support and attend to other details –like assisting guests with questions.

If you know and trust the guidance of a member of the wedding party, go that route if you can. Showers, bachelorette parties, and the email threads that surround them or a quick Facebook message are good avenues for getting in touch with the bridal party. Talking to them will also help to ensure you pick a dress that is complimentary to the wedding theme, but not the same exact dress as the wedding party – which is easy to do with many guests and bridesmaids shopping at stores like J. Crew, The Limited, and Ann Taylor.

If you are a total stranger to the couple (perhaps a date of a friend of the betrothed) who has no contact with anyone before the wedding, then you might call the venue if it is a hotel or restaurant and see what type of dress is appropriate, with the caveat that you never know who might be guiding you there, and how rushed they may be when talking to you.

Another idea is to bring a few easily-packed accessories that will either dress up or dress down your core outfit, and you can adjust the day of once you find out how everyone else is dressed.

Again, no matter how you are dressed, be sure to enjoy yourself and follow my Good Guest Wedding Tips to make the most out of your wedding attending experience!

Editor’s credits: The foundations of this article were written a bit from what has been ingrained in me, along with my own gleanings from weddings I’ve attended, with a few checks at EmilyPost.com and Martha Stewart Weddings.com , to make sure my information is mostly in alignment with their always wise advice. Those articles can be found linked in the preceding paragraph, if you prefer a time-tested approach.
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