Wedding Dress Code Deciphered

January 26, 2017

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Alright.  You have sent in your RSVP, booked your accommodations, and now you are staring at the fine print on the invitation that states the dress code. 

White Tie, Black Tie, Black Tie Optional, Creative Black Tie, Cocktail Attire, Festive, Dress to Impress, Beach Attire, Garden Party Attire, the list goes one.  With so many options on dress codes its no wonder everyone is confused.  

As a planner, my biggest conundrum when guiding my couples through the process is “Do their guests know what is appropriate?” I am in conversation with my couples so I can ensure that they are clear on what they are expecting with their dress code.  Their guests, however, that is a completely different story.  We have all heard that pictures speak a thousand words. I have put together my own Pinterest boards for the types of clients I typically work with.  Please feel free to share and add these links to your wedding website. If you want your wedding to have a different feel or your guests have different expectations I encourage you to create your own. It will save at least a few people from wardrobe embarrassment at your event.

White Tie:

This is the most formal dress code you could have.  Think Charity Balls, Royal Events, Nobel Prize Award Ceremony, State Dinners, Debutante Balls, Academy Awards Ceremony, Mardi Gras Balls, and other high society functions.  

For Men:

  • Men should wear a tuxedo with tails, a crisp formal white shirt, white pique vest, and a white bow tie.  
  • Black formal shoes and white gloves for dancing. 
  • You should not wear a belt or show your waistband.  
  • Braces are required to keep your shirt tucked in and neat.
  • Wearing a watch is considered rude.  If you must know the time a pocket watch is more acceptable. 
  • The tailcoat should have peaked lapels.  Notched lapels are too informal for a white tie event.
  • The coattails should be proportionate, the collar high, the cuffs a little more exposed than usual to balance the high collar.
  • Accessories are encouraged.  Some may opt to wear a fresh boutonniere, a top hat, carry a cane, or switch out the buttons on their waist coast with either diamonds, mother of pearl, gold, or silver.  Never black. 

For Women:

  • Floor Length Formal Ball Gown.  The quality and style of the gown are imperative.  Opt for the highest quality material and tailoring you can afford. The gown should be structured with bare arms and an exposed décolletage.
  • Hair should be professionally styled into a classic updo.
  • Makeup should be glamorous and nails should be manicured.
  • Jewelry should consist of statement pieces but never gaudy
  • Opera length gloves are appropriate for dancing.  Wearing opera length gloves are mandatory should you wish to dance at any of the Mardi Gras balls hosted by the various Krewes in New Orleans. 

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Black Tie:

This dress code usually indicates that this is an evening event. There is a bit of gray area here for the women.  The men of course wear a tuxedo.  The women can either wear a long gown or a fancy cocktail dress. The best way to figure out what is most appropriate is to dress the way you expect the host to.  If you are attending a high-end wedding then you should wear a gown. If this is a work event that calls for black tie, it’s more appropriate to wear a cocktail dress with statement jewelry.

For Men:

  • Black Tuxedo jacket with matching trousers, formal white shirt, and a black bow tie.
  • Shirt Studs and cuff links
  • Again since you do not show your waistband while wearing formal attire, you must wear either a cummerbund or a vest. 
  • If you opt for the warmer weather cummerbund it must be worn at the natural waist with the pleats facing up.  You want the pleats to “catch the crumbs.” 
  • Wearing braces is optional but recommended.  This will ensure your shirt stays tucked in and neat. 
  • Do not wear gloves 
  • If it is summer, wearing a white dinner jacket is perfectly acceptable. 

For Women:

  • Floor-length gown.  Traditionally it is suggested that darker colors are worn.  In modern times, and of course depending on the style of your event, wearing color is a fine choice. 
  • For some black tie events, a very fancy cocktail length gown is acceptable. 
  • Your hair should be professionally done
  • Makeup should be elevated to the style of event
  • Nails should be manicured
  • Jewelry should complement your dress and enhance your look

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Black Tie Optional:

Let’s make things even more tricky.   Black Tie Optional is, in fact, one of the most common dress codes of my couples.  For the men, it is acceptable to wear a tuxedo and the women to wear either a long gown or a nice cocktail dress.   I usually don’t recommend my men to wear a full tuxedo to a black-tie optional event.   Wearing a dinner jacket, or a very nice suit is more appropriate.  I do like black-tie optional because it leads to a little more creative intervention. 

For the Men:

  • Tuxedo is acceptable but ask around.  You don’t want to be the only bloke in a full tux while everyone else is in dinner jackets.
  • A nice dinner jacket and trousers complete with a bow tie.
  • Dark Suit with a white shirt.  For Black Tie optional the suit must be dark and sharp.  You should wear a crisp white shirt and a conservative tie.  Think sleek. 
  • Leather dress shoes and dark dress socks
  • Should you wear a suit, a matching belt is necessary. 

For The Women:

  • Floor-length gown.  You can be more relaxed with the structure, style, and color of your gown.
  • Fancy cocktail dress.  Should you wear a shorter dress keep in mind this is still a formal event.  The structure, material, and tailoring needs to be in line with the caliber of the wedding. 
  • Dressy Separates are acceptable here.  Some women opt for a ballgown skirt and a cropped shirt, or a very nice pants suit. 
  • Hair should be styled or professionally blown out. 
  • Makeup should be elevated to the style of event.
  • Nails should be manicured
  • Jewelry should complement your dress and enhance your look

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Black Tie Creative:

If we have ever been to an event together you know this is my favorite.  This is where you dress to the nines, but the structure, the color, the texture, are all in line of a great time.  This would be what you might see at the Met Gala.  Avante Garde, colorful, interesting, statement pieces.  These are all words to describe the Creative Black Tie dress code.  This may not be very common at weddings, but you should always be ready.  Being creative with your wardrobe choice is encouraged as long as it stays in line with the expectations of evening wear.

The Men:

  • A classic Tux is totally acceptable.
  • A colorful tuxedo 
  • Fancy suits
  • Colorful tie.  Both bow ties and neckties are fine.
  • Bright colorful shirts
  • A little ankle swagger will add some interest
  • Shoes.  The sky is the limit. 
  • Accessories are encouraged

The Women:

  • A formal floor-length gown or dressy cocktail dress
  • Furs, feathers, lace, embroidery, embellishments are all encouraged.
  • Interesting design and avant-garde structure
  • Hair should be complementary to your overall look
  • Makeup should be done, nails manicured
  • Head and hairpieces are a great addition
  • Shoes.  The sky is the limit. 
  • Accessories are encouraged


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Cocktail Attire:

Cocktail Attire should be easy.  However finding something that isn’t too casual, isn’t too fancy, and doesn’t look like you are going to the club is a little tough.  With cocktail attire, it’s important to pay attention to the material of the dress. Cotton and gauzy materials are too casual so opt for something that is more structured and party-ready.

The Men:

  • A Suit and tie
  • A modern suit, perfectly tailored, and no tie
  • Should you forgo a tie accessorize with a pocket square, scarf, lapel pin, etc. 
  • Nice watch, belt, and shoes
  • Depending on the style of the wedding a colorful or patterned shirt is acceptable.    

The Women:

  • A short, but not too short dress
  • The dress should be ready to party. Anything too traditional or basic might look like you are ready for the office. 
  • A little black dress with fun jewelry is always a classic
  • Hair should be polished 
  • Makeup Should be done
  • Nails should be manicured

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Beach Wedding:

This is probably the most abused dress code.  People sometimes forget that although it’s on a beach, that it is still a wedding and that a certain level of formality needs to be followed.  Consider the time of the wedding.  Is this a daytime event, or will it be leading into the night?  If you are having to walk on an uneven boardwalk, sand, or climb stairs, consider your shoes. Clothing should be breathable, light, and flowy.  You do not want sweat rings, or clothes that are clingy when it is hot out.  If you will be sitting outside don’t forget sunnies, sunscreen, and a bottle of water.  Your hosts should have this available for the guests, but not everyone remembers or has me as their planner. 

For the Men: 

  • Suit Up. You might think you can get away with khakis and a polo, or a simple button-down and some slacks. Don’t do it.  It’s a wedding. Your effort won’t go unnoticed. 
  • A lightweight suit, a little pop of color, maybe a light-colored shoe and you are done.
  • DO NOT, I repeat DO NOT wear shorts.  Unless you are a child, or the invitation specifically says to wear shorts you need to wear pants. 
  • You don’t, however, have to wear a tie.  Leave the top button or two undone and enjoy the ocean air. 
  • If the ceremony and reception are held in a resort or on a yacht you will need to put that tie back on. 
  • Slip-on shoes, sandals, boat shoes, and no socks are all acceptable footwear.  
  • Leather flip flops might be an option if the event is very casual.  If you have any doubt leave these with your shorts until after the wedding is over. 

For the Women:

  • A maxi dress is always a great choice at beach weddings.  They are lightweight, dressy, and if the wind blows you are covered. 
  • Shorter dresses, of course, are always a great option as well as they have less material and are typically in tune with the laid back feel of a beach wedding. Just be cautious of the material.  You don’t want to look like you are going to the club, or catch a gust of wind and show everyone your cheekies. 
  • Be conscious of your shoes.  Wedges and flats are the preferred shoe choice if you are walking in the sand, or boarding a yacht. 
  • You may want to bring a hair clip or forgo lip gloss. 
  • Makeup should be simple and easy
  • If the wedding is leading into the night I might advise you to bring a wrap to ward off the chill

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Day Time Wedding:

Here we are again with a more casual dress code and a traditionally formal event.  Do a quick search of the venue where the wedding will be and use its formality as a guideline  Dressing for a country club is much different than dressing for a barn wedding. 

The Men:

  • Again, I’m a huge advocate of wearing a suit.  If a suit is too formal for this event a jacket or blazer would be a good option.
  • If you do wear a suit blue, gray, or tan are great daytime colors. 
  • If you arrive at the wedding and no one else is wearing a jacket feel free to take it off.  
  • A button-down shirt and slacks are appropriate. 
  • Do not wear a polo. Polo shirts are always too casual for a wedding. 
  • Do not wear jeans of any kind and do not wear shorts. 
  • Wear closed-toed casual shoes.
  • Socks or no socks are fine depending on your outfit. 

The Women:

  • A sundress is a great option. It will keep you cool, but still dressed appropriately 
  • A skirt or slacks with a dressy top would be acceptable as well
  • If the event will be outside keep in mind your shoes.  Wedges and flats will keep you from sinking into the grass. 
  • Hair and makeup should be polished.
  • Nails should be done.

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When all is said and done just remember that you are at a wedding.  You are there supporting and celebrating some friends or loved ones.  Do not wear white, do not wear something that could possibly overshadow the couple, and just keep it classy.  There are ways to be trendy and add personality to your ensemble without being inappropriate. 

If you have any more questions about the dress code or if you are you looking for a wedding planner please reach out. I would love to chat.

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