Decode The Dress Code: What To Wear To A Wedding

Too short? Too tight? Too white? Too black? No matter the dress code, here's what to wear to a wedding.

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Wondering what to wear to a wedding? You’re not alone. After all, who doesn’t love a wedding dress code? Well, a lot of people. And others? Oh, they want some direction! At least a little bit. No one wants to show up in a full-length gown when everyone else is in sundresses. Unfortunately, wedding dress codes have sort of gone out of style. When was the last time you got an invite with crystal clear directives? More likely it said something like “BBQ chic” or “casual cocktail attire.” What does that even mean? “The codes of black tie are alive and well,” explains Kelsey Motes-Conners, founder and owner of Field: A Wedding Design Studio in Montana. “But outside of the clear requirements of black tie attire, and especially outdoors, guests’ attire can really vary in formality and style. Some couples are insistent on their wedding feeling comfortable and so encourage their guests to wear sensible shoes or warm layers, taking an almost reverse approach to attire recommendations.” Motes-Conners continues:

And although rule of thumb is to not out-dress the couple, it seems that guests’ attire has more to do with the guest than the wedding—by which I mean what the guest feels is appropriate. I’ve seen grandmas in tracksuits and grandmas in fringed flapper dresses and grandmas in floor-length gowns; uncles in white tie and uncles in denim with imposing belt buckles; friends in all manner of sundresses, wool fedoras, sequin bodycons, polished wingtips, tennis shoes. But I think the default is very much cocktail attire.

What does this mean for you, the lovely guest? No need to panic! We’re here to relieve all your anxiety as you decide what to wear to a wedding.

What to Wear to a Wedding: the Ground Rules

It’s hard to go totally wrong figuring out what to wear to a wedding, but it is possible. Here are a few choices that are a clear no:

  • Don’t wear white. Or white with flowers. Or white with stripes. Or white with teeny tiny polka dots. Leave the white to the bride. If you have to ask if it’s too white, it is.
  • Be cautious about wearing black. It’s not a funeral, and you don’t want your friend to think you think it is. That said, black is no longer totally unacceptable, especially at big-city weddings. If it’s the wedding of a close friend, check in with her to see if she has an opinion one way or another.
  • Don’t wear denim. Like, anywhere on your outfit. No jeans, no jean jackets, no cool skirts. Save it for the Friday night rehearsal dinner or the brunch.
  • Don’t dress like you’re going to the club. You know what we mean: Make sure your booty isn’t showing and your breasts are (basically) covered. Make sure nothing is ripped. If you wouldn’t wear it in front of Grandpa, save it for another time.
  • Don’t make it about you. Look your best! But don’t turn the spotlight on you. Crazy hat? Pass. Neon jumpsuit? Skip it. Let your friend have her day by not grabbing the spotlight from her.
  • Don’t wear something with stains. This means getting your clothes to the dry cleaner a few weeks before the event. There’s nothing worse than pulling out your fave outfit and realizing there’s wine on it from the last wedding you attended.

What to Wear to a Wedding With a Dress Code

What to Wear to a White Tie Wedding

The fanciest, most formal of all weddings. Think: floor-length, black (yes, black!), classy. Nothing too crazy (not the time to wear a club-appropriate bandage dress). You can even wear gloves! Men: wear a white tie.

  • This floor-length number ($388) with a sweetheart neckline and fitted bodice from Reformation will make you feel like a queen—and an eco-queen at that. Reformation uses the most eco-friendly, efficient technology possible.
  • This cap-sleeved gown from Adrianna Papell ($299) will have you shimmering on the dance floor (just stay away from the white, so you don’t upstage the bride).
  • The Symphony Dress ($440) from Anthropologie’s BHLDN is deco-inspired and incredibly chic.
  • Lulu’s Scallop Lace Mermaid Gown ($88) is a sleek option when you’d prefer to let your makeup do the talking (and it’s easy on the wallet!).

When in doubt: Go with a single color and make it as fancy as possible.

Shop White Tie Wedding Style:

What to Wear to a Black Tie Wedding

This is the second most formal option, so you’re still safe with a floor-length look, à la white tie. If you don’t want a frock that goes to the floor, you can do a cocktail dress—as long as it’s very formal and goes to your knee or beyond.

  • This gorgeous long chiffon gown from Jenny Yoo can be tied a variety of different ways to create different looks. Combine different tying methods and different statement jewelry pieces and you’ll be able to wear this versatile piece again and again throughout wedding season (and it’s under $300!).
  • This ethically made bright red showstopper ($323) from Monsoon is perfect for getting down on the dance floor.
  • This cutout back floral lace and chiffon dress ($178) is sexy in its simplicity. And at under $200, you can’t beat it.
  • Get on trend with the Winslow dress from Reformation ($268). It comes in six understated neutral hues, and the georgette fabric drapes like a dream.

When in doubt: Go floor length.

Shop Black Tie Wedding Style

What to Wear to a Black Tie–Optional Wedding

Do you want to chance being the fanciest person at the wedding? Then you can go floor length. Otherwise, a fancy knee-length option (think really snazzy cocktail attire) will work. That brings us to…

What to Wear to a Semi-Formal or Cocktail Wedding

Jumpsuits! Short, stylish dresses. Big jewelry. Heels.

  • Try this gorgeous lace Sheath Dress from Bardot ($129). All of Bardot’s dresses are fun and flirty, great for weddings and cocktail parties, and most importantly reasonably priced.  
  • This short shimmery Elin dress from Anthropologie’s BHLDN ($200) is fabulous.
  • Comfy and adorable, the Eliza J Flounce Sleeve Sheath Dress ($118) will be a great and versatile addition to your closet. Also: pockets! Could you ask for anything more?
  • Jumpsuits are killer for cocktail attire. Try this fun halter style from Julia Jordan ($158).

When in doubt: Bold lip, heels, and a fancy—but not extravagant—dress.

Shop Semi-Formal Wedding Style

What to Wear to a Casual Wedding

Casual usually means just that: casual. But remember, no jeans. Instead, think sundresses, jumpsuits, or a fabulous skirt/shirt combo.

  • This simple and versatile silk tee dress from Cuyana ($215) would look great with some wedges and a pendant necklace.
  • The Fig Dress from Reformation ($218) is lovely in lilac. Pair this breezy dress with a fun necklace and a block heel or wedge and you’re all set for a casual affair.
  • This fun, flirty lace midi dress from ASTR the Label ($89) is perfect for a wedding outdoors or on the beach.
  • The Daphne Wrap Dress from Plenty by Tracy Reese ($158) would fit in perfectly at a garden party in the green motif.

Shop Casual Wedding Style

What to Wear to a Wedding With No Dress Code

No dress code? No problem. If the invitation says nothing about what to wear, don’t panic. Just use this handy guide.

  • What to wear to a religious ceremony: Dress modestly and/or cover your shoulders. You don’t want to feel awkward in a church, mosque, or synagogue. If you’re determined to wear a strapless affair, cover yourself entirely with a shawl that you can then remove for the party. Choose a dress that goes to your knee.
  • What to wear to an outdoor wedding: Don’t wear heels. You’ll spend the entire evening sinking into the grass. Flats or chunky low heels are the way to go.
  • What to wear to a beach wedding: Bring a hat and sunglasses. Everyone will understand if you don’t want to be burned by the sun. Just don’t make it a baseball cap or one of those frayed numbers from the thrift store.
  • What to wear to a winter wedding: Bring a change of footwear. There’s no reason you should wear snowy boots the whole time! Most venues will have a place to leave boots (with your coat). Stick a pair of flats or heels in your bag.
  • What to wear to a summer wedding: Go one notch up from a sundress and choose bright colors. Outdoor summer weddings are often informal, but you don’t want to feel like you’re out for a beer.

At the end of the day, there’s no need to obsess about what to wear to a wedding. This is all about enjoying yourself and honoring your friends. The most important thing is to feel good in what you’ve chosen. So be you! And if you’re really fretting, remember: All eyes will surely be on the couple anyway!

Decode The Dress Code: What To Wear To A Wedding

Abigail Rasminsky
Abigail Rasminsky has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Cut, O: The Oprah Magazine, and Marie Claire, among other publications. She lives in Los Angeles with her family.