Decoding Wedding Dress Codes: What To Wear To A Wedding As A Guest 

By  Emily Konatella

LAST UPDATED - December 11, 2023

Weddings are a joyous and festive occasion for the happy couple and their guests to celebrate together. However, these joyous occasions are also quite stressful–especially if you are unsure what to wear to a wedding. 

If you're losing sleep over which dress or tuxedo to pick for your friend's perfect day–fear not. Here, you'll learn what cocktail attire is appropriate for each type of wedding so you can focus on being present and supportive.

What To Wear To A Wedding As A Wedding Guest

"What should I wear?" is a common question when invited to a wedding. An important aspect of the wedding guest attire is the common wedding dress codes. The wedding attire can vary by time, venue, and formality, making it difficult for guests to choose what to wear to a wedding. As a wedding guest, you want to look your best and show respect for the occasion while also being comfortable and appropriate for the setting.

Wedding Guest Attire for Different Dress Codes

White Tie Attire

White Tie Attire

Image Source: Unsplash

White weddings and dress codes are reserved for the most formal kinds of weddings and are often associated with royalty or high society due to their upscale nature. Unlike black tie, white tie is the most formal dress code. If you are invited to such a formal wedding, consider your green light to dress to the nines.

Weddings with white tie codes typically begin after 6 pm. Women attending such events need to opt for formal evening looks. Think elegant floor-length gowns in rich, dark colors. Women often wear gloves, elegant jewelry, and sophisticated updo hairstyles.

Modesty is expected at white-tie weddings, which means full-length sleeves and necklines that leave much to the imagination will do well here. Accessorize with statement earrings, a daring clutch, or heels with intricate detailing.

For men, a white tie usually includes a black tailcoat. Pair it with a wing-collared white dress shirt, white waistcoat, and pleated black pants. Finished the look off with quality cufflinks and black patent shoes.

Black Tie Attire

Black Tie Attire

Image Source: Unsplash

The black-tie dress code for a wedding is not as formal as a white tie, but black-tie attire is more formal than the casual wedding dress code.

Women are expected to wear floor-length gowns, although cocktail dresses are also appropriate at a black-tie wedding. Accessories can include strappy sandals, understated jewelry, and natural-looking makeup.

Black tie weddings require men to wear classic black tuxedos, white dress shirts, and black bow ties are the way to go. Avoid flashy colors or accessories that would take the attention off of the bride and groom.

Black Tie Optional Attire

Black Tie Optional Attire

Image Source: Unsplash

"Black tie optional" is a dress code that gives guests a choice between wearing formal black tie attire or slightly less formal, yet still sophisticated, attire. The key difference between "black tie optional" and "semi-formal" dress codes lies in the formality level and the specific attire expectations.

Even though "black tie optional" provides some flexibility, it is still a formal dress code. It's always better to err on the side of dressing more formally rather than less to match the overall tone of the event.

Formal Attire

Formal Attire

Image Source: Pexels

A formal dress code at a wedding typically means that guests should dress in elegant and sophisticated attire. Unlike the black tie dress code, the formal wedding dress code is a more general dress code that allows for a range of formal options depending on the event and personal style.

For the formal wedding dress code, women can wear various formal options such as floor-length gowns, cocktail dresses, dressy pant suits, or even a "little black dress." Here, you can also mix and match separate pieces, such as a flowing formal skirt and an elegant top to match. A chic bracelet can add some sparkle to your look with a simple snap.

A suit and tie are suitable (pun intended) for a formal wedding dress code for men. Pair with a belt that matches the color of your dress shoes. Add a pocket square for added flair. You can even include a high-end watch to elevate this look. But remember, less is more–so choose your accessories wisely and sparingly. 

Cocktail Attire

Cocktail Attire

Image Source: Unsplash

If your wedding invite mentions a cocktail dress code, that's another word for semi-formal. Unlike formal wedding attire, the cocktail dress code leans towards a more relaxed and stylish aesthetic. In other words, the wedding guest attire should be dressed to impress–but don't overdo it.

Leave your floor-length dress at home for this event and opt for knee-length, midi, or tea-length dresses with structured fabrics. Choose a statement clutch and open-toe heels to complete the look.

For a less formal look, men can wear a suit and tie in a casual style. Avoid trendy or over-the-top patterns, and opt for subdued color schemes. One or two statement accessories, such as a unique belt or pocket square, are enough.

Beach Formal

Beach Formal

Image Source: Unsplash

For wedding guest dress codes that call for a beach formal, guests are expected to wear semi-formal attire suitable for an outdoor beach wedding and setting. Unlike cocktail attire, formal beach attire is tailored to beach or destination events, focusing on lightweight and comfortable fabrics.

A mid-length sundress paired with elegant wedges and a sun hat is a safe go-to for the girls. When it comes to jewelry, opt for lightweight and delicate pieces. Remember to bring a pair of stylish sunglasses for a chic yet essential accessory. 

For men, the beach wedding formal code means you can leave the tie behind if you choose to wear a lightweight suit or opt for a simple collared shirt and dress pants or khakis. A straw hat like a Panama hat or a fedora can add some shade and style to any beach-formal look. Finish the look with dress shoes or sandals but avoid flip-flops.



Image Source: Unsplash

Think elegant and classic when you see the "semi-formal dress code" on your wedding invitation. Unlike formal attire, semi-formal attire is a step down in formality, allowing for slightly more flexibility and creativity in outfit choices.

For women, a little black dress will do well here paired with pearl earrings and strappy heels. Alternatively, you could opt for a knee-length dress in a high-quality fabric like silk or chiffon. Wraps and shawls make for functional accessories that will keep you warm when mingling with the other guests outside. 

For men, semi-formal attire usually involves a suit or dress pants paired with a dress shirt, a tie (optional), and dress shoes. A blazer or sport coat may also be appropriate, depending on the event.

Dressy Casual

Dressy Casual

Image Source: Unsplash

If the wedding invitation states the wedding is dressy casual, this means it is a step up from casual attire, striking a balance between a relaxed and sophisticated look.

Women's dressy casual attire can consist of tailored pants or skirts combined with a blouse, a stylish top, or a dress that is slightly more polished and refined. Dressy flats, heels, or stylish boots are common footwear choices.

For men, dressy casual typically includes well-fitted pants or chinos paired with a button-down shirt, a blazer or sport coat, and dress shoes or loafers. Ties are usually optional.

Casual Attire

Casual Attire

Image Source: Unsplash

Casual attire is the most relaxed and informal dress code, suitable for casual social settings or informal occasions.

For women, a skirt paired with a modest blouse will work just as well as a sundress. Complete either outfit with comfortable sandals or heels.

Khakis with a dress shirt is a suitable choice for the men heading to a wedding with a more casual wedding attire dress code. They can also opt for khaki pants and a vest or sports coat for a more put-together look of casual wedding attire.

Both men and women should avoid overly casual pieces such as t-shirts or leggings unless the bride and groom have asked for this attire. Do not confuse casual wedding attire with jeans and a t-shirt - these are never acceptable until the bride and groom expressly announce the nuptials in jeans. Swap your Levis for jeans and shorts. You are still part of an important ritual despite the fact that you are casual.

Dressing by Season

Keep the season in mind when choosing your wedding attire. 

Spring Wedding

Spring weddings often embrace light and airy aesthetics and softer color. Consider wearing pastel-colored dresses or suits, floral patterns, and lightweight fabrics for daytime weddings. For evening events, opt for slightly dressier attire, such as cocktail dresses or suits in vibrant colors.

Summer Wedding

Summer weddings also call for lightweight fabrics but vibrant colors. Lightweight fabrics like linen or cotton in bright or tropical colors work well for daytime weddings. For evening affairs, you can still opt for dresses or suits in bold colors but consider slightly more formal options such as flowy maxi dresses or lightweight suits.

Fall Wedding

Fall weddings tend to have a cozy and romantic atmosphere. Opt for richer colors and thick fabrics like velvet, satin, or tweed. For daytime events, choose dresses or suits in warm autumn hues, while for evening weddings, you can opt for slightly more formal attire.

Winter Wedding

Winter weddings often have an elegant and sophisticated ambiance. Consider wearing darker colors, luxurious fabrics like velvet or silk, and adding layers for warmth. For daytime weddings, choose dressy coats or jackets to complement your outfit, while for evening events, opt for formal attire like cocktail dresses, dark suits, or tuxedos.

Dressing by Venue

Picking out the perfect attire for a beach wedding can also depend on the venue. After all, beach weddings require many different tastes than ballroom weddings.

Outdoor/Garden Wedding

Outdoor or garden weddings often call for stylish and practical attire. A garden wedding is a great event for light and breathable fabric, pastel dresses, and wedge heels. For men, you can go for dress pants or chinos with a button-down shirt, and depending on the formality, they can choose between a light color blazer or a more relaxed linen jacket.

Country Club Wedding

A wedding at a country club is a fun place to whip out more classic colors like burgundy or navy. Women can be more sophisticated with knee-length dresses and classic open-toe heels. Men can wear a suit or dress pants paired with a button-down shirt and a blazer, and dress shoes complete the look.

Formal Ballroom Wedding

Formal ballroom weddings often require more traditional and elegant attire. Usually, it requires a white tie, black tie, or formal dress code. Women should consider formal evening gowns, cocktail dresses, or dressy separates paired with heels. Accessories like statement jewelry can add an extra touch of sophistication. Men should opt for a tuxedo or a dark-colored suit paired with a formal dress shirt, tie, and dress shoes.

Beach Wedding or Beach Destination Wedding

Beach weddings are typically more casual and have a relaxed vibe. For women, choose light and airy dresses or maxi dresses in breathable fabrics like cotton or chiffon. Flat sandals or wedges are suitable footwear options. Men can wear linen or lightweight suits or choose dress pants paired with a casual button-down shirt. Loafers or sandals can be appropriate for beach settings.

Where Is The Wedding?

The hotel will show you the most important attire for weddings. The clothes may appear casual if it is a barn or a yard. The dress you'll be wearing at church should be okay. However, a formal/semi-formal wedding dress code will ensure safe and sanitary conditions for a wedding at an elegant hotel. Check the invitations for hints on dress codes.

Dressing By Time of Day

The time a wedding takes place can make all the difference regarding what kind of outfit you choose. 

Day time wedding

Daytime weddings generally have a more relaxed and casual dress code. For women, opt for chic and comfortable attire, such as sundresses, floral prints, or elegant jumpsuits. Flat or low-heeled shoes are often suitable. Men can go for dress pants or chinos paired with a button-down shirt or a casual blazer. Ties are optional, and loafers or dress shoes work well for footwear.

Afternoon Wedding

Afternoon weddings strike a balance between casual and formal attire. Women can choose cocktail dresses, elegant skirts, or pantsuits paired with stylish heels or wedges. Light jewelry and accessories complement the outfit. Men should consider wearing dress pants or chinos with a dress shirt, blazer, and tie. Dress shoes complete the ensemble.

Evening Wedding

Evening weddings tend to have a more formal dress code. For women, opt for elegant evening gowns, sophisticated cocktail dresses, or dressy separates. High heels or dressy sandals work well. Men should wear suits or tuxedos with formal dress shirts, ties, and dress shoes. Pocket squares and cufflinks can add a touch of elegance.

Accessorizing Wedding Guest Attire 

Accessories can help elevate your outfit and tie everything together. Men can add a bow tie, pocket square, or cufflinks to their outfits, while women can choose from a range of jewelry, shoes, and handbags. Nonetheless, it's important to achieve a well-balanced look and not go overboard with the accessories. Remember, the spotlight should be on the bride and groom, not your outfit.

Jewelry: Choose jewelry that complements your outfit and adds a touch of sparkle or elegance. This could include statement earrings, a delicate necklace, or a stack of bracelets. Consider the neckline and style of your dress when selecting jewelry.

Handbags and Clutches: Opt for a stylish handbag or clutch that complements your outfit and is appropriately sized for the occasion. Choose a design and color that complements your attire and can hold your essentials for the event.

Shoes: Your choice of footwear can make a statement or add a pop of color to your outfit. Opt for comfortable yet stylish shoes that complement the style and formality of your attire.

Hats and Fascinators: Hats or fascinators can be a stylish addition to certain weddings, especially those with a formal or British-inspired theme. Choose a design that complements your outfit, and consider the size and style best suits the occasion.

Belts and Sashes: If your outfit allows it, consider adding a belt or sash to define your waist or add a contrasting element. This can help accentuate your figure and add a touch of elegance or visual interest to your ensemble.

Scarves or Wraps: For cooler weather or outdoor weddings, accessorize with a stylish scarf or wrap that complements your outfit. Choose a fabric and design that adds warmth and complements the color palette of your attire.

Neckties or Bowties: Choose a necktie or bowtie that complements your suit or outfit. Consider the color and pattern to coordinate with your shirt and jacket. Opt for silk or satin materials for a polished look.

Pocket Squares: Adding a pocket square to your suit jacket can instantly elevate your look. Choose a pocket square that complements or contrasts with your tie, shirt, or suit color. Experiment with different folds for added style.

Cufflinks: Cufflinks are an excellent accessory for formal or semi-formal weddings. Select cufflinks that match your personal style and add a touch of sophistication to your shirt cuffs. Consider matching them with your tie or other accessories.

Watches: A well-chosen watch can be a stylish and functional accessory. Opt for a classic timepiece that complements your outfit and adds a touch of sophistication. Consider the formality of the wedding and select a watch that suits the occasion.

What To Wear To A Wedding Based On Culture

What to wear to a wedding can vary based on different cultural traditions and customs. It's crucial to respect and honor a culture's wedding traditions. Ask the wedding party or a local for advice on what the wedding guest attire should look like. Here are some tips to help you pick what to wear:

Indian weddings: For Indian weddings, women often wear traditional attire like a saree, lehenga, or salwar kameez. These outfits are often adorned with intricate designs, embroidery, and vibrant colors. Men often wear a sherwani, kurta pajama, or a suit with a Nehru collar.

Chinese weddings: While red is the most auspicious color in Chinese culture, it is typically reserved for the bride. Avoid wearing white, as it is associated with mourning. Instead, opt for vibrant and festive colors like pink, purple, gold, or other rich tones. Women can opt for an elegant and stylish cocktail dress or a floor-length gown, and men can opt for a well-fitted suit in a dark or neutral color, such as black, navy, or gray. A traditional Tang suit is also an appropriate option, especially if you want to embrace Chinese culture.

Middle Eastern weddings: Traditional Middle Eastern wedding attire for men includes a thobe, dishdasha, or a formal suit paired with a keffiyeh or headpiece, depending on the cultural traditions. Middle Eastern women often wear elegant, modest dresses or gowns that cover the shoulders and extend to the floor. These dresses can be adorned with intricate embroidery and beading.

Jewish weddings: In many Jewish weddings, men are given a kippah (yarmulke) to wear during the ceremony and reception. Consider bringing your own or opt for a well-tailored suit if one is not provided. For women, choose a modest, sophisticated dress or gown that covers the shoulders and falls below the knees.

African weddings: Depending on the region and specific cultural tradition, guests may wear traditional African clothing such as a dashiki or kaftan. It may include traditional garments like a dashiki, boubou, or a tailored suit in African print fabric for men. Women may wear traditional garments like a kaftan, boubou, or a stylish dress made from African print fabric. These outfits can be accessorized with headwraps, jewelry, and colorful accessories.

About the author

Emily is a fashion consultant, designer and creative director with more than 15 years experience creating, designing and developing clothing & jewelry. From managing pageant shows to turning concepts into actual designs, she has experience with almost all fabric types and jewelry designs and is in touch with the latest fashion trends.