The A B C’s of Wedding Dress Code Terminology

With the holidays fast approaching and gatherings seeming more likely this year, you’re probably beginning to think about your holiday outfits. I know I am–dressy-casual for Thanksgiving, cocktail for Christmas eve, casual for Christmas Day, and all-out glam for New Years! Similarly, the outfits your wedding guests wear play a role in your wedding aesthetic. Rather than leaving it up to chance, it’s a good idea to guide your guests in choosing appropriate outfits for your wedding by assigning a dress code. You may already have a decent idea about dress options from weddings you’ve attended: black-tie, semi-formal, casual, and so on. The time of day you choose for your wedding will also dictate the level of dress formality. But the real question is what do these categories actually mean. Let’s dive into the A B C’s of wedding dress code terminology to help you choose the right attire for your wedding guests.

White-Tie Wedding Dress Code

The white-tie wedding dress code is the most formal attire required for a wedding. It is the type of attire you’d see at an elaborate event, such as a state dinner, award ceremony, or gala. However, it is also what you’d see at an extremely formal wedding.

What to Wear to a White-Tie Wedding

Men: Tuxedo with tails, white shirt, vest, and bow tie. For additional accessories, consider formal footwear.

Women: Formal, floor-length evening gown in luxe fabrics such as lame, velvet, and taffeta. For additional accessories, wear jewelry and heels.

Black-Tie Wedding Dress Code

The black-tie wedding dress code is more commonly requested for a fancy evening wedding. It still requires guests to wear formal attire, and additional accessories are optional. 

What to Wear to a Black-Tie Wedding

Men: A tuxedo paired with a bow tie and/or vest. If desired, men may wear a white dinner jacket with their black tuxedo trousers for a black-tie summer wedding.

Women: A formal floor-length dress or gown or an elegant, floor-length pantsuit is appropriate for a black-tie wedding. Note that floor-length is required.

Formal (Black-Tie Optional) Wedding Dress Code

A formal wedding, where black-tie is optional, offers guests an opportunity to choose how fancy they’d like to dress, knowing a range of outfit options are appropriate.

What to Wear to a Formal Wedding (Black-Tie Optional)

Men: Whereas men must wear a tuxedo to a white-tie or black-tie event, doing so is optional for a formal wedding. A dark-colored suit with a tie is also acceptable.

Women: Similar to white-tie and black-tie events, women have the option of wearing a long dress, formal cocktail dress, or dressy pantsuit. However, whereas ankles should never show at a white-tie or black-tie event, it is more acceptable to wear a shorter-length dress at a formal wedding.

Cocktail Wedding Dress Code

Cocktail attire is a typical wedding dress code choice because it offers a balance between formality and comfort. Perfect for an afternoon wedding and evening reception, the cocktail wedding dress code indicates a semi-formal-to-formal event.

What to Wear to a Cocktail Wedding

Men: A suit and tie of any color is appropriate attire for men attending a wedding with a cocktail wedding dress code.

Women: Dress of various lengths, including tea-length, knee-length, or mid-length, is appropriate attire. Stay away from highly embellished dresses that may take away from the newlyweds’ outfits of choice.

Semi-Formal (Dressy Casual) Wedding Dress Code

Semi-formal attire varies depending on the time of day at which the wedding takes place. For example, an evening wedding requires darker colors, whereas a daytime event welcomes lighter colors. While a semi-formal wedding dress code offers guests more flexibility in what to wear, appropriate etiquette is to err on the side of dressy over casual.

What to Wear to a Semi-Formal Wedding

Men: A suit and dress shirt with or without a tie are appropriate for a semi-formal wedding. Fabric and color choices vary depending on the day and time of the event.

Women: Formal, floor-length gowns are not an acceptable option for a semi-formal wedding. Instead, opt for a longer sundress or a dress that falls just above the knee. You can wear heels or flats depending on the venue location and your comfort level.

Casual Wedding Dress Code

One person’s casual is another person’s dressy, so this category can get tricky depending on your personal style. However, unless otherwise stated, it doesn’t mean guests should wear jeans and a tank top to the wedding.

What to Wear to a Casual Wedding

Men: Dress pants with a button-down shirt or khaki pants with a collared shirt and no tie make a great choice for men attending a casual wedding. While you may add a sweater or sports jacket should the weather require, casual attire such as tennis shoes or an everyday t-shirt is never appropriate.

Women: A sundress or dressy romper paired with wedges or polished sandals is acceptable attire for a casual wedding. Consider the venue and time of day to find the right jacket or sweater to keep you warm.

Other Wedding Dress Code Terminology for Specific Events

While the above categories are the most common, other types of weddings require specific attire, such as a destination wedding, themed wedding, or a come-as-you-are event.

Tropical or Destination Wedding Attire

Tropical destination weddings typically take place on the beach. Because of this, it is essential to consider the climate of the destination. For example, is there high humidity? Is the wedding taking place on the beach where wind may be an issue? In general, cotton or linen fabrics work well for destination wedding attire for both men and women. For a more casual destination wedding, men may opt to wear a tropical-patterned short-sleeved, button-down shirt. However, just as with any wedding dress code, consider the venue and time of day to ensure the attire is appropriate.

Themed Style Wedding Attire

For a themed wedding, first and foremost, attire should match the theme appropriately. Often done to enhance the aesthetics of the wedding, a couple may ask guests to wear a particular color or color scheme or choose attire that meets a specific concept, such as a white party or Gatsby-style wedding.

Fusion or Multi-Cultural Wedding Attire

Choosing what to wear to an Indian, Chinese, East African, fusion, or other cultural wedding celebration is an important task, but it doesn’t have to be stressful. It’s a great opportunity to immerse yourself in a different culture for a day (or three!). Bright, festive color is always in style, although nearly always, red, black, or white are not appropriate. Since traditional cultural dress is not always a requirement, alternative western outfits such as black tie or formal dress may also be appropriate. Just be sure to check with the couple first and consider the venue and time of day.

Come As You Are Wedding Attire

Some couples don’t want to worry guests over what to wear so they don’t require a wedding dress code. However, this likely makes it more stressful for guests to choose their attire. Without clear guidelines for what to wear, guests must guess and hope they don’t stand out. If you don’t want to worry your guests about wedding attire, consider a casual wedding dress code that still offers flexibility with guidelines to help guests more easily choose their clothing.

Share Examples of Your Wedding Dress Code with Guests

Being from England, I’m pretty partial to our traditional “coat and tails” for the gents and hats or fascinators for the ladies. But that’s just me! Now that you know the wedding dress code terminology, you can confidently share this information with your guests. For example, once you choose the appropriate dress code for your wedding, include this information on your invitations and wedding website. To further help your guests, include visual examples of the types of outfits that fall under your category. Your guests will appreciate knowing what they are expected to wear and feel comfortable and confident they will fit the tone of your wedding when they attend. For more wedding planning tips and expert advice, read more from the HauteFêtes wedding blog.

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