Wedding wardrobes have forever been a major point of stress for brides and grooms, but it seems like only recently that guests, too, have been dragged into the fray, with invitations gently demanding dress codes for weddings in categories of increasing granularity (or not). It’s time to button things up, once and for all, with an exhaustive compendium of all things wedding-wear. Couples, study this before writing out your invites—oh, and feel free to link this to the 25th guest who Gchats you frantically asking if the dress they wore to their sister-in-law’s daughter’s bat mitzvah is OK to wear to your wedding.
And guests, here’s everything you need to know about deciphering a dress code for a wedding so you never show up to a barn wedding in a satin gown again.
No Dress CodeIf there’s no dress code for a wedding specified, that means “typical wedding attire,” which, to the non-wedding-obsessed (what’s that like?), is probably a mystifying phrase. But really, it’s not that hard. Step one? Don’t overthink. This isn’t meant to be mean, but, how you look isn’t super important to most couples of honor—especially if they haven’t even outlined a dress code. They’ll care more about how they look, and how their wedding party looks. That means wear what makes you feel cute, fancier than usual, comfy, and not crazy. And don’t wear white. Literally so simple. Respond well to boundaries? OK: Ladies should wear dresses but not gowns. Or fancy pants (they’re a thing), or even a maxi skirt and a silk cami, or even a fancy jumpsuit (!!!). You don’t need sky-high heels. Guys should wear suits, but not tuxedos. Or nice pants and a shirt and tie, or even a vest and shirt and tie. Nice shoes are a must—the sneakers-with-suit thing is over.
CocktailHere is where the rules come in, and here is when it actually matters to the marrying couple what you wear. Why does it matter? Probably because they want a cohesive, glam look in the crowd shots of their wedding photos. You’re likely going to get a top shelf open bar, so quit asking questions and get dressed! Women should wear short (“cocktail-length”) party dresses—think luxe fabrics, embellishments and finishes. Your trusty LBD would likely work just fine (and if you don’t have one, this is a great time to invest!) with the proper accessorizing. Heels would be a good choice here, but you could probably sneak in a pair of very nice flats if you really had to. Also, consider a clutch—nothing kills a cocktail look like your ginormous, world-weary leather carry-all. For men, a dark suit is non-negotiable. And a tie or bowtie. Remember what I said about sneakers.
Black TieFor the black tie wedding dress code, think like you’re going to the Oscars, except you don’t have to do all the hard work of acting in a movie, plus, fewer speeches! (Hopefully.) It’s time to really lean into the formal look when it comes to this dress code for a wedding. Women should wear full-on gowns, and tasteful ones at that—I said Oscars, not VMAs. But you don’t have to panic if you don’t have a grand to invest in a gown, because you can now rent them. Men must wear full tuxedos, which can also be rented! It can be tempting to try and skirt the rules of a Black Tie wedding, since the dress code can be costly and intimidating, but you would probably regret doing so, because it would be very obvious if you were the one person who underdressed (unlike at a less formal wedding, where underdressing blends in more easily). Instead, explore all your options—rent, borrow something from a friend, shop thrift or consignment, whatever! You’ll be amazed at how cheaply you can look like a million bucks these days.
Photo: Amy E Photography
Black Tie OptionalLiterally so confusing, I know. But here it is: Black Tie Optional is basically everything Black Tie is, but with the disclaimer that men without tuxedos can wear super-nice suits and still, like, show up. Which means women without fancy gowns can still show up, too, but should be careful to wear very nice cocktail dresses (think: tasteful length, elegant cuts, rich fabrics and colors) so they don’t look out of place among the people who opted in to tuxedos and gowns. Got it? Here’s another way to look at it: If an invitation says “Black Tie,” the couple is like, “Wear a tuxedo or a gown even if you have to cash in your 401K to do so.” If the dress code for a wedding says, “Black Tie Optional,” the couple is like, “Wear a tuxedo or a gown but if you reaaallyyy can’t we guess you can still come but look as nice as you can and if you wear a beige linen suit so help us.”
Camp/Beach/Barn/Mountain Formal WeddingMaybe you consider yourself a wedding outfit aficionado. Then you get invited to a four-day affair at a summer camp with no electricity or running water and suddenly your go-to nude stillettos and bodycon dress combo doesn’t seem so de rigeur. Alas, the wedding attire rules do tweak a bit when you’re attending an event in ~nature~. Some pointers: At a beach wedding, a flat sandal and flowy maxi dress for ladies is the most obvious choice, but some billowy palazzo pants and a chic top would be cool too! Men, this is finally the place where you can wear that beige linen suit you’ve been asking about all this time. For a barn wedding dress code, don’t hesitate to veer slightly less formal than your typical wedding uniform—cottons fit in well here! Oh, and, ladies—stilettos sink into grass, so consider a wedge or flat. Accessorize liberally with bug spray and forget phone at home because it won’t work anyway.
Photo: Olli Studio