Dress Code Download:

By Kristen Castillo

January 19, 2018 5 min read

Received a wedding invitation and unsure about what to wear? You're not the only one. It's challenging to decipher the wedding dress code these days.

White tie, black tie, beach formal, dressy casual? What do all the terms mean and do they mean the same thing to everyone?

"The dress code is all dependent on the couple and their personalities and also on where the wedding/reception is being held: under a tent, on a farm, golf course, hotel, castle, etc.," says photographer Alice Bil, of studioEPIC photography, who has attended and covered more than 300 weddings as both a guest and a photographer.

She says couples should specify the dress code on the invitation and guests should follow the protocol.

"When in doubt, you may want to consider asking for more information," say sister designers Valerie and Stephanie Chin of Val Stefani, reminding guests not to directly ask the bride or groom, who are busy. Instead ask a member of the wedding party or a family member, since those individuals likely know the wedding style.

Here's what you need to know:

*White Tie

This style is the most formal.

"Whip out your best stuff ... purchase or rent it for the evening," says Bil, explaining guests should dress like they're meeting the president or the queen. "This is going to be a big event."

Men should wear formal tuxedos, dress shoes and even gloves. Women are expected to wear floor-length gowns, and nothing too revealing. Consider getting professional hair and makeup.

White-tie events are typically held at government buildings, mansions and hotels.

*Black Tie

Treat black tie like a red-carpet event.

"Pretend you are going to the Oscars or opera," says Bil, who calls this her favorite wedding style.

Guys should wear tuxedos. Women should dress up in gowns, which can be eye-catching and designer styles.

"As a guest invited to a black-tie wedding, you should opt for a formal gown in a neutral color," say the Chins. "You can also wear a chic cocktail dress or a long evening gown."

Still not sure what to wear? "When in doubt, picture what would look appropriate next to a tuxedo," they say.

Black-tie weddings are often held at large venues including high-end hotels and art galleries.

*Black-Tie Optional or Formal

"Pretend you are going to your prom again," says Bil, who says that formal is the most popular wedding dress code. It's often seen at weddings held at banquet halls and hotels.

Women wear dresses, including shorter styles, if desired. Men don tuxes or dark suits and dress shoes.

*Semi-Formal

This style has a slightly laid-back vibe.

"The important part, again, is not to aim too informal," say the Chins. "And this means jeans, no matter how nice, are simply a no."

Ties are optional for guys. Ladies typically wear dresses.

"Clothes can be comfortable, but still presentable," says Bil, who generally sees this style at smaller venues such as restaurant receptions, bars and golf courses.

With semi-formal, the time of the wedding dictates what to wear.

"If the ceremony and reception are later in the evening then wear darker formal hues for an evening affair," say the Chins, who note a daytime wedding calls for vibrant colors and light-weight fabrics.

*Dress Casual

This style is seen at outdoor venues, as well as afternoon weddings.

Guests can wear jeans if they want, but dress them up with nice blazers and sharp shoes.

Still keep Bil's advice in mind: "Dress as if you are going to meet the parents or go on a nice date," she says. "You still want to look nice."

*Casual

"Anything goes, as long as you are comfortable, but obviously presentable," says Bil, who explains with this dress code, even shorts are OK as long as they're clean. Still it's smart to study the wedding's environment when deciding how to dress.

Casual attire is typically suited for outdoor weddings, including boat weddings and tented affairs on a private property.

*Beach Formal

Just because a wedding is at the beach doesn't necessarily mean it's casual.

Dress up but remember the party involves "sun, sand and water," say the Chins, who suggest women wear dressy sundresses with shoes that are beach-ready, such as dressy flat sandals or espadrilles. Men should wear lightweight suits; ties are optional. No flip-flops!

Kristen Castillo is a three-time Emmy Award-winning journalist. An editor and writer for wedding magazines, she's written hundreds of wedding articles, as well as an e-book, "Weddings on a Dime."

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