Weddings are supposed to be fun: open bar, old friends, awkward toasts—what’s not to love? But the big “What to wear?” conundrum throws a wrench in things.
“I find most guests want to be told what to wear with detail, rather than a vague or unclear dress code,” says Jove Meyer, owner and creative director at Jove Meyer Events. “The more info the better, I say. I encourage couples to list what they have in mind for men, women and gender non-binary people. Set the expectations and guests will appreciate it.”
These days, as formal and casual dress codes increasingly blur, the room for interpretation can result in many an unwanted fashion faux pas. So couples are going more casual: “I’m finding couples are having less formal, less stuffy weddings so the dress codes are matching that,” Meyer says. “I’m seeing very few black tie and more semi-formal or cocktail style. Most couples want their guests to be comfortable and in an outfit they can move in and dance in!”
Still, there’s nothing worse than showing up the most dressed-up person in the room or—dear God—the least dressed-up. And single- or two-word dress codes don’t often clarify things.
What to do?
You could, of course, ask your friend for clarification during what is no doubt the most stressful time of their lives (not ideal) OR you could also just keep reading. Below we offer a thorough and accessible guide to wedding dress codes (simple rules, not manifestos). You’re welcome.
Congratulations! You must have a really fancy friend or be really rich—or both. That means you’re likely going to spend the night eating great food and drinking top-shelf booze. Perhaps you’ll be seated next to a celebrity or head of state? Who knows! However, in exchange, you have been given the most formal of dress codes to work with. This requires not just a tuxedo, but a tuxedo with tails—meaning the jacket will extend further down in the back, reaching to about the knee. Also required is a starched white shirt with a standing wingtip collar (see photo, below), a white vest, white bow-tie, and French cuff sleeves (which means you’ll also need cufflinks). In addition, you should have formal shoes such as brogues or wingtips, preferably in glossy patent leather. White gloves are optional. While it’s not required, per se, a clean-shaven face is ideal. Should you wear your expensive watch, too? That is a hugely contentious issue that we will not discuss here but suffice it to say we would rather err on the side of caution and leave the watch at home.
Less formal than white tie, black tie is what most people wear at fancy events—like the Oscars. The classic version is a black tuxedo (jacket and trousers but no tails), a white tuxedo shirt (with the pleating down the front), a black bow-tie, and black patent-leather shoes. Highly recommended but not necessarily required are either a black vest or cummerbund. In the last few years, some stylish stars have taken liberties with this look wearing tuxes in dark velvet fabrics, shades of navy or midnight blue, with shawl collar jackets, or even white dinner jackets. If you want to experiment, it’s probably best to run it by the hosts. Black tie suggests that the marrying couple is traditional and has some specific ideas in mind when it comes to their guests’ attire. Plus, you can always hide a dash of color in the sock department.
Black Tie Optional
Here’s where you can take your formalwear and give it a stylish spin. Also known as “Formal,” Black Tie Optional means that tuxedos are not required, but they are certainly welcome. If you opt not to wear one, it would be appropriate to wear a suit in a dark color like charcoal gray, navy blue, or, preferably, black. A white dress shirt and tie—a bow tie or straight tie is fine—are highly recommended. If you have a few friends attending the wedding, take a casual poll to see what some of the other guys are wearing, to see where on the spectrum you will lie—just so you know what you’re walking into. It’s best to stay classic here, so we’d recommend a pair of black lace-up oxfords—cap toe is good and you could wear versions in patent leather or “regular” leather.
Illustration by Dorothy Cury
Creative Black Tie (a.k.a. “Festive” or “Hollywood”)
Fashion-forward dudes, this look’s for you. “For a guy, it means ‘have fun,’” the etiquette expert Suzanne Pollack told Martha Stewart Weddings. In some social circles it’s also communicated as “Hollywood black tie.” More precisely: If you have a colorful or patterned blazer or flashy-chic cufflinks, now’s the time to bring them out. This could also mean unusually colored suits, like dark greens or burgundy, though we’d advise against khaki and light cotton suits. Or, for a more subtle injection, consider wearing a red cummerbund or vest. Here you could also have fun with accessories, such as tie bars, pocket squares, fun cufflinks, and flashy shoes like velvet smoking slippers or flashier brogues.
Cocktail (a.k.a. Semi-Formal)
We’re getting more casual as we work our way down the list and you may have to look at the time and location of the wedding for additional clues on how best to dress. While a suit is still recommended, and wearing a tie is probably best, it would almost certainly not raise eyebrows if you strolled in sans neckwear. If it’s a daytime wedding, during the summer, and/or outside you could even opt for lighter tones like dove gray or a paler shade of blue. If it’s in a church or reception hall and in the evening, you’d be safer going with something darker and probably bringing that tie along, just in case. For shoes, brown lace-ups of any kind works—as long as they look good with your outfit, naturally.
Illustration by Dorothy Cury
Unless you’re on a beach in tropical weather, we’d suggest sticking with a suit, though it could be a lightweight khaki cotton one or even linen or seersucker. A white shirt is ideal, but tie is not required and, to be honest, probably not even expected. Heck, you could even maybe (check first!) pair your suit with a T-shirt, which is an increasingly cool look that young actors are experimenting with on red carpets over in Hollywood. You could even wear sneakers here, as long as they’re minimalist and chic, not your Adidas jogging kicks. Casual is very open to interpretation so if you have any burning questions, perhaps it’s best to check with the hosts or the planner to see what they’re expecting.