The stakes can feel high as you attend a wedding and try to strike a balance between looking your best, dressing appropriately and being comfortable enough to last the whole day (and night).
If the invitation had a dress code printed delicately across it, you may currently be in the throes of uncertainty trying to decipher what it means. Does anyone else’s heart start pounding at the mere sight of the words ‘smart casual’? Or perhaps the happy couple haven’t specified a wedding dress code and you’re in complete fashion no-man’s land?
Fear not. Our fashion editor Alessandra Frame has created a practical guide to wedding guest dressing, including a breakdown of the most common dress codes you’re likely to encounter and some easy-to-follow dos and don’ts.
Dress Codes Explained
Also known as ‘full evening dress’, ‘tails’ or ‘dress suit’, this is the most formal dress code of all. For men this involves a single-breasted black tailcoat with a white waistcoat and white hand-tied bow tie. Top hats, white gloves and dress canes are optional. There is one slight leniency for a ‘white wedding’: you can wear a normal tuxedo jacket as opposed to tails if you really want to, unless the couple getting married are titled.
Women should wear a full-length evening gown. It is traditional, but not essential, to show decolletage. This is also the time to bring out your most precious jewellery, including tiaras (but these should be worn by married women only). Long evening gloves are optional.
The second most formal dress code, black tie is far more common than white tie and typically reserved for evening weddings. Men should wear a midnight blue or black dinner jacket (called a ‘tuxedo’ in America), a dress shirt and a bow tie.
Women should wear an evening dress or skirt, ideally long. However, contrary to popular belief, this is not essential. Evening trousers may also be worn. All colours are acceptable, but, of course, never white!
For women, you can wear a formal dress of any length, a trouser suit or dressy separates. For men, a dark suit, white shirt and conservative tie is appropriate. Men can also opt to wear black tie when the formal dress code is specified if they wish.
Very formal daytime weddings may require a morning suit dress code. For example, a royal wedding would require such attire. Men should wear a morning coat, waistcoat and grey or grey-and-black striped trousers. A grey or black top hat may be carried.
Women should wear a formal daytime dress, day-appropriate shoes and jewellery (think wedge heels and pearls). Hats are commonplace but not essential. Natalie Salmon, Tech Contributor at The Wedding Edition and Digital Editor at Hello! Fashion (pictured below right) says: ‘A veiled headband or fascinator is the easiest way to add instant polish to any outfit. I love any opportunity to wear one – and it’s a good option for those of us who may still be a bit hat shy.’
For men a suit and tie will suffice. For women it would be advisable to dress on the smarter side. This dress code is not quite as formal as black tie, but it certainly sits well above cocktail on the formality scale. Think a mid to maxi length dress, smart trouser suit or jumpsuit and let your fabric choice be dictated by whether the event is taking place during the day or in the evening.
Guests can have fun with a cocktail dress code as it isn’t overtly formal and rules-driven. Traditionally, women were restricted to dresses that were knee-length. However, nowadays anything that wouldn’t be regarded as a long evening dress may be considered cocktail appropriate. Mid length is certainly acceptable.
For men – you’re generally required to wear a suit and tie. However, you can be a little freer with the colours and patterns of your shirt, tie or pocket square.
This is often regarded as the most dreaded of dress codes due to its ambiguity and the vast range in perceptions of the definition of ‘smart’ and ‘casual’. We recommend giving both words equal weight when tailoring your look. For men, that means leaning into juxtaposing elements – such as a suit worn with a T-shirt or casual trousers worn with a shirt and jacket.
For women, anything from a crisp sundress to a jacket, trousers and heels would be appropriate. Let yourself be guided by the location and wedding venue when crafting your look.
What if there is no dress code or the couple have invented one?
Perhaps the happy couple haven’t specified a dress code. In this case it is perfectly appropriate to contact the hosts and ask for a bit of clarification on the level of formality they’re expecting or any other relevant information that can help you decide what to wear. Just be sure to do this well ahead of time – don’t be that person who texts the bride on the morning of the wedding!
The location and venue will also provide big clues as to what’s going to be appropriate on the day. Is the ceremony taking place in a church in the English countryside? Or is it going to be run by a shaman on the beach in Ibiza at sunset?
Today it is also commonplace for the bride and groom to specify more creative dress codes, especially if you’re attending a destination wedding with multiple events. Think descriptions such as ‘club tropicana’, ‘la dolce vita’ and ‘birds of paradise’. When this occurs, there will often be an accompanying mood board to assist and more of a laissez-faire attitude towards traditional etiquette. So at least you can leave your fears about committing a faux pas at the door.
Dos and don’ts:
- Don’t under any circumstances, wear white unless specifically instructed to on the invitation. We would also steer clear of anything too close to white either; creams and pale silvers are falling into risky territory, and why add the extra stress of possibly offending anyone on the day?
- Don’t show too much skin. Tiny mini skirts, #freethenipple and sheer dresses may be all the rage on social media but let’s try not to give the bride’s grandmother a heart attack on the big day.
- Do make an effort. It’s rude to turn up looking like you don’t care. Plan your outfit in advance and make sure everything you wear is clean, ironed and polished.
- Do play it safe. If you’re questioning whether or not your outfit is appropriate, there’s probably a reason – go for a different look.
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